A Reviewers Notebook: Educating for Virtue

People who talk about educating for virtue are prone to be didactic and preachy. One distrusts them as being Holier Than Thou. Fortunately, Joseph Baldacchino in his Economics and the Moral Order (National Humanities Institute, 426 C Street NE, Washington, DC 20002, 43 pp., $4.00) and the contributors he has assembled for another book, Educating for Virtue (National Humanities Institute, 114 pp., $5.00) are wary of pitfalls.

Russell Kirk sets the tone in his introduction to the Baldacchino book and in the separate essay he has done for Educating for Virtue. He is humorous about it all. He is not an enemy of economics, but he doesn’t think economics is everything. We need a moral setting for a free market system. Kirk would call Ludwig von Mises a giant of free market theory, but he thinks Mises must be supplemented by a look at Wilhelm Roepke of Geneva. He tells the story of the Mises visit to Roepke after World War II. Roepke showed his visitor the garden plots that citizens of Geneva had planted as a food supplement both in the war and after. Mises shook his head. “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs,” he said. “But,” so Roepke replied, “perhaps a very efficient way of producing human happiness.”

Economic productivity is made for man, says Kirk. A free and prosperous economy is the by-product, so to speak, of a society influenced by sound moral principles and accustomed to good moral habits. The Ten Commandments are important, no matter what the individual may think about Biblical revelation. When societies cease to honor their forebears and engage in falsehoods and adultery, decadence sets in. One does not have to be preachy about that. The common sense attitude expressed by Willi Schlamm, who said he believed in the Ten Commandments and Mozart, is enough.

Some of the essays in Educating for Virtue tend to be ponderous with high level abstractions. I could do without hearing about epistemology, which always sends me to the dictionary. But two essays, Peter Stanlis’s “The Humanities in Secondary Education” and Solveig Eggerz’s “Permanence and the History Curriculum,” are blessedly concrete. So are the paragraphs on Secretary of Education William Bennett in Russell Kirk’s essay. Bennett, says Kirk, “is sufficiently bold to recommend that young people learn about traits of character by acquaintance with the literature of the Bible; he mentions ‘Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, Jonathan’s friendship with David, the Good Samaritan’s kindness toward a stranger . . . . ‘”

Peter Stanlis takes as “an archetypal model” the freshman survey of English literature taught at Middlebury College in Vermont during the 1940s. He thinks the Middlebury course could be adapted for limited high school use. The Middlebury survey began with selective essential literature from Beowulf through Thomas Hardy. There were three plays by Shakespeare, a history, a tragedy, and a comedy. For biography the Middlebury students read Boswell on Samuel Johnson. For fiction there was Fielding’s Joseph Andrews for the eighteenth century, Dicken’s Great Expectations for the nineteenth, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the twentieth.

Tales that Teach

Stanlis thinks that students who begin with imaginative literature in grade school, starting with Mother Goose and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, with a follow-up of Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables, are sufficiently well-prepared to handle more demanding literature in their junior year in high school. He suggests cross-fertilization courses in English and European history. The survey course in English literature should not be in literary history, but in literary criticism of assigned plays, poems, and fiction.

The exposure of students to the whole range of literature must contribute to virtue simply because the examples in stories make their own points. Lady Macbeth and her husband came to no good end.

The setting for the humanities must be history. Solveig Eggerz laments that history has not only lost its place in the schools but “has been cannibalized by social studies.” Since social studies can be anything an individual teacher might be interested in pushing (psychology, sociology, anthropology, or whatnot) there is no compulsion for students to learn about significant dates. They can and do emerge from school with no valuable frame of historical reference. “In the name of relevance,” Eggerz says, “students immerse themselves not in the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, or in the ideas that inspired the Renaissance, or in the build up to and the consequences of the French Revolution, but in energy education, gun-control education, urban studies. You name it. Social studies has got it—or can order it for you.”

One book in common use dismisses the Age of Exploration with a few perfunctory words about the use of the compass. “One can only lament,” says Eggerz, “The absence of . . . exciting stories on Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake . . . the Spanish Armada.”

Clearly, much needs to be done to bring education back to schooling.