All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1968

Moral Education and History

Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin

A prominent Protestant churchman, the Rev. Dr. Norman has recently been quoted as saying that “We are liv­ing in probably the most undis­ciplined age in history.”¹ Well, if this age is indeed liable to so seri­ous a charge, it should be of in­terest to know whether the past owed its differing condition to ac­cident or whether this may have been related to specific measures which it has taken. What, in this connection, have other ages done? I suggest that we direct our at­tention to a few examples of past practice.

First, what about primitive cul­tures? At adolescence boys are given “moral instruction, includ­ing tribal usage relating to obedi­ence, courage, truth, hospitality, sexual relationships, reticence, and perseverance.”2 — “Sometimes long periods of silence are im­posed upon novices in connection with the puberal ceremonies of most primitive peoples…. Aus­tralian boys go alone into the bush, and are required to main­tain silence for long periods. Afri­can lads are required to remain silent and immobile for long pe­riods. Such practices test a boy’s obedience and self-control, and render teachings associated with them especially impressive.”3

In Ancient Egypt

As to education in ancient Egypt, we are told that morals were its “central feature…. Civi­lization demanded the evolution and enrichment of moral life. To this end the Egyptians sought to train and instruct their young in the art of virtuous living. Their method of moral cultivation was a great advance beyond the simple training of primitive society, and yet it was similar in character. Their chief writings were a series of moral aphorisms and incidents, the distilled experience and wis­dom of the fathers, set down for the instruction of their sons. The boys learned this wisdom by copy­ing the ‘wisdom literature’ again and again as their daily lessons. It was literally ‘line upon line, pre­cept upon precept’; but these were learned by writing and not by memorizing them. — The sage old vizier, Ptah-hotep, in the twenty-seventh century B. C., wrote, ‘Pre­cious to a man is the virtue of his son, and good character is a thing remembered.’ This is said to be the first recorded use of the word character in literature. Some five centuries later in the Instruc­tions written for King Merikere, his father, who was the Pharaoh, referred to ‘God, who knoweth character.’ The Egyptian use of the word character signified ‘to shape, to form, or to build.’ It had in view especially the work of the potter, in molding clay on his wheel…. The literature of re­mote antiquity had a distinct pedagogical purpose. The first and deepest of all human interests, or, one might say, the first of all sci­ences, was the knowledge of how to live. Not how to secure food, but how to live with, and act toward, one’s fellows, that is, to live in human relations.”4

Hebrew Education

Of Hebrew education it has been said that it “is unlike any other whatsoever in that it made God the beginning. It began, therefore, by teaching the child the most general and universal, and not the particular. It began with the social, and not the individual; with the personal and ethical, and not with things. It began with the abstract and unseen, and not with the seen and the concrete; with obedience to law and reverence for God, and not in the acquisi­tion of the arts of reading and writing. Truth was deduced from this divine, original principle, and not learned by induction. Jewish education was spiritual, and therefore it stood in direct con­tradiction to the empirical and naturalistic systems of other peo­ples. The fact that it has outlasted every other system whatsoever makes it the most successful ed­ucational experiment ever staged in the history of civilization.”5

The Culture of India

In ancient India, a boy belong­ing to any one of the three upper of the four castes had to live with his parents until he had been in­vested with the holy thread and initiated into the sacred Gayatri-­Mantra. “But as soon as he got his initiation, at the age of eight or ten, he had to leave his father’s house and go to the house of his would-be teacher and live with him until he was twenty-five, when he would have become master of all the branches of learning. The life spent in the professor’s house is called the life of Brahmacharya. This was ex­actly the opposite of what we call a comfortable and luxurious life. However rich his parents might be, a new student would be treated equally with his compeers.”—”The celibate students of the classical days were trained to be hardy and robust and were not only learned in the lore of the day but were also sober and thoughtful. Brought up in the self-renouncing atmos­phere of the preceptor’s family, they were able to discharge the duties of the householder’s life (their life in their second twenty-five years) with strong other-regarding tendencies and with their passions and appetites sub­dued or moderated. Devotion to duty and spiritual exercises prac­tised long in the preceptor’s fam­ily made them loving, friendly, broad-minded, truthful and happy.”6

And of Greece

Of education in ancient Greece, we can catch a glimpse in the fol­lowing sentences from the Protag­oras of Plato (Jowett’s transla­tion): “Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and fa­ther and tutor are quarreling about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand them: he can not say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honorable, that is dishonorable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that. And if he obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows, like a piece of warped wood. At a later stage they send him to teachers, and enjoin them to see to his manners even more than to his reading and music; and the teachers do as they are desired. And when the boy has learned his letters and is beginning to under­stand what is written, as before he understood only what was spoken, they put into his hands the works of great poets, which he reads at school; in these are contained many admonitions, and many tales, and praises, and en­comia of ancient famous men, which he is required to learn by heart, in order that he may imi­tate or emulate them and desire to become like them. Then, again, the teachers of the lyre take similar care that their young disciple is temperate and gets into no mis­chief; and when they have taught him the use of the lyre, they in­troduce him to the poems of other excellent poets, who are the lyric poets; and these they set to music, and make their harmonies and rhythms quite familiar to the chil­dren, in order that they may learn to be more gentle, and harmonious, and rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm.”

The Wisdom of the Chinese

In ancient China, we are told, “The most important thing [in respect to ‘rightness of relation­ship’], which all children were taught, was the relation between themselves and other people. There were Five Relationships (just as there were Five Virtues [kind­ness, good manners, knowledge, uprightness, and honor]) to which every man must be true. These were the relation between parent and child, between husband and wife, between ruler and subject, between older brother and younger brother and between friend and friend. If everyone were true to these five, then truly there would be no unhappiness in the world. If friends are faithful and help­ful to each other; if the elder brother protects and guides the younger, and if the younger brother respects and obeys the elder; if the subject is loyal to his ruler and the ruler’s first thought is to care for his people; if wife and husband live together in perfect harmony…; if the child honors and serves his parents and the parents cherish their child, where is there any room for evil doing? These five loyalties were to the Chinese what the Ten Commandments were to the Jews and the last one was the most important. For if the son truly honors his parents, he will do nothing wrong, since that would bring sorrow and shame upon them, but he will always do his best, in order to give them pride and joy in him. This command­ment has held the Chinese people together from Yao’s time [Yao was an ancient, legendary king] until this present century, and has had much to do with the amaz­ingly long life of their nation.”7

The details given are of great interest, but the unique and per­haps the most striking fact about education in China is — or rather has been until very recently — its relation to the government. Con­fucius (551-479 B.C.) was, as ev­eryone knows, the teacher par ex­cellence of his nation, the revered transmitter of the moral wisdom of his people accumulated through untold centuries. As early as the reign of Wu Ti (140-87 B.C.) ex­aminations based on Confucian classics were employed as the means of selecting state officials, and subsequently this system has been characteristic of China — at least from and including the Tang Dynasty — until the twentieth cen­tury. One of the Confucian clas­sics is the Analects. This book, then, among others, was the ob­ject of the closest possible study by youth aspiring to a post in the government. If, therefore, we wish to know the sort of ethics that in­evitably came to their attention, we have only to turn to its pages. From it I quote a number of pas­sages: all of them are (or contain) sayings of Confucius:

“A virtuous ruler is like the Pole-star, which keeps its place, while all the other stars do homage to it.” — “If a man can reform his own heart, what should hinder him from taking part in government? But if he cannot reform his own heart, what has he to do with re­forming others?” — “At home, a young man should show the quali­ties of a son; abroad, those of a younger brother. He should be cir­cumspect but truthful. He should have charity in his heart for all men, but associate only with the virtuous. After thus regulating his conduct, his surplus energy should be devoted to literary cul­ture.” — “The princely man never for a single instant quits the path of virtue; in times of storm and stress he remains in it as fast as ever.” — “The nobler sort of man is proficient in the knowledge of his duty; the inferior man is pro­ficient only in money-making.” —”The subdual of self, and rever­sion to the natural laws governing conduct — this is true goodness. If a man can for the space of one day subdue his selfishness and revert to natural laws, the whole world will call him good. True goodness springs from a man’s own heart.” —”Make conscientiousness and truth guiding principles, and thus pass on to the cultivation of duty to your neighbor. This is exalted virtue.”— [Confucius, being asked, “Is there any one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout one’s whole life?”] “Surely the maxim of charity is such: — Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you.” —”With coarse food to eat, water to drink, and the bended arm as a pillow, happiness may still exist. Wealth and rank unrighteously obtained seem to me as insubstan­tial as floating clouds.”8

Mexico Before the Spanish

From the Old World I now turn for a moment to the New, specifi­cally to Mexico, and to this at a comparatively early period. We are told that here, at the time of the Spanish conquest:

“From a very early age the training of the child was very strict…. With such strict train­ing it is not strange that the Spaniards were astonished at the high moral tone of the natives, and their reluctance to tell a lie. Unfortunately contact between the two civilizations soon led to a rapid moral degeneration of the native code.

“Boys of what might be termed the middle class… were handed over to special priests for educa­tion at about the age of six, or even earlier. They were lodged in special boys’ houses in an organi­zation which might be compared to a modern boarding school, save that the discipline in the Mexican schools was much stricter…. Ed­ucation included a very strict moral training…

“Another college existed for the education of the sons of the nobil­ity…. Here the education was even stricter, and the discipline more rigid…. During the whole period of the training, which va­ried from about six to eight years, the boys were under a very strict supervision. They slept in the col­lege building, and, apparently, sel­dom saw their parents….

“Girls of the nobility and mid­dle classes were prepared for mar­ried life by instruction in girls’ schools patterned after those of the boys. They entered these at about the age of five… Disci­pline, as among the boys, was very strict, and long periods of silence were imposed upon them. They were never allowed to leave the college precincts unless accom­panied by an old woman, who served as chaperon. This rule was not relaxed even when exercising in the school gardens. Should they meet anyone not connected with the school, they were forbidden to speak or even raise their eyes from the ground. — Punishment for infractions of these rules was severe…. Even daughters of the rulers were subjected to the same discipline.”

Early American Methods and the Christian Influence

I come now, very briefly, to the post-classical period in the Occi­dent — with special reference to America. “In the progress of west­ern education,” it has been said, “Christianity has been the su­preme influence. It is impossible to understand the institutions and culture of occidental civilization during the past two thousand years without this new ethical force.”¹º… “Our earliest Amer­ican Colleges were founded on the model of those of British universi­ties: and here, as there, their avowed design, at the time of their foundation, was not merely to raise up a class of learned men, but specifically to raise up a class of learned men for the Christian Ministry…. This was the system which time had honored at Oxford and Cambridge, and which time continued to honor on this con­tinent, with very slight modifica­tions, down nearly to the close of the eighteenth century.”11 “The old education,” said Irving Babbitt in 1924, referring to the early American college, “was, in inten­tion at least, a training for wis­dom and character.”¹²

So much for our American col­leges; now the schools. “The most prominent characteristic of all the early colonial schooling was the predominance of the religious pur­pose in instruction. One learned to read chiefly to be able to read the Catechism and the Bible, and to know the will of the Heavenly Fa­ther. There was scarcely any other purpose in the maintenance of ele­mentary schools.”¹³ Of Horace Mann (1796-1859) it has been said: “His twelve carefully writ­ten Reports on the condition of education in Massachusetts and elsewhere, with his intelligent dis­cussion of the aims and purposes of public education, occupy a com­manding place in the history of American education, while he will always be regarded as perhaps the greatest of the ‘founders’ of our American system of free public schools. No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, nonsectarian, and free, and that its aim should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the ad­vancement of sectarian ends.”” From this last quotation it ap­pears that though Mann was an outstanding agent in the trans­forming of American popular ed­ucation he meant to preserve ethical values among its aims. Again we encounter the crucial word character.

What, then, if anything, to re­turn to our starting point, have past ages done to bring about, or to maintain, a disciplined society? To judge from the examples I have adduced, two things are ob­vious. One is, emphatically, that they have done something. They have not been passive. They have not been “permissive” — if by be­ing permissive we mean allowing youth to grow up in uninhibited responsiveness to their native im­pulses and desires. The other thing is that they have subjected their children to a process, definite and in some cases severe, of moral edu­cation. In short, they would appear to have shared in no small degree the view I have seen curtly ex­pressed, more or less facetiously no doubt, to the effect that each new generation is a fresh invasion of barbarians. They have devel­oped systems of training all un­questionably aimed, whatever their specific nature, at producing disci­plined men and women, and if the societies they have created have all been, as Dr. Peale would appear to think probable, more disci­plined than ours, the inference is plain.

What Can We Do?

And we in mid-twentieth cen­tury America, what, if anything, are we doing to civilize our incom­ing barbarians?

By what is perhaps universal belief, the most effective agency for moral training is the home. What of the home in contemporary America? According to Dr. Peale, it lacks discipline, morality, spirit­uality, and even love. “Two gener­ations of parents who abandoned the old American home quality of discipline have caused our univer­sities to inherit neuroses, neglect, permissiveness, creating a student generation that thinks it can get what it yells for, even student power or control of the universi­ties themselves.”¹5 Whether or not completely subscribing to these views, probably most observers who reflect on the subject would agree that the American home, partly because of the increasing break-up of the family and con­sequent loosening of its ties, is functioning most inadequately as a moralizing force. Another poten­tial moralizing force, once no doubt secondary in importance only to the home, is the organized church. Here my own testimony must be mainly inference and surmise, but it would seem to me inevitable that with the widespread shift of emphasis in religion from its former task of purifying and ele­vating the individual soul to con­cern with social amelioration and the forwarding of humanitarian causes, its effect upon traditionally basic morals would be greatly di­minished; and I am unaware of contradictory evidence. Still an­other potentially major force for right conduct, a force vigorously operative, as we have seen, in co­lonial times, and no doubt still more or less operative at least as late as a century ago, is formal education — the schools and the colleges. What has become of that force today? My own impression is that apart from religious schools and colleges it is virtually non­existent.

The emerging contrast between what we are doing in America to­day in the way of moral education (or rather what we are not do­ing), and what, if the examples I have adduced may be considered reasonably representative, past ages have done, is tremendous —even, perhaps some will feel, star­tling. What in the way of positive action on our part does the con­trast suggest as desirable — even mandatory?

The Answer Comes Clear

The answer to this vital ques­tion is luminously clear — even, one might almost contend, logically inescapable — provided the follow­ing propositions are true: (1) that what purports to be history and what we read as such is sub­stantially authentic; (2) that my examples are in fact substantially representative; (3) that human nature, within the limits of re­corded history, has not significant­ly changed; and (4) that we in America today are seriously dis­satisfied with the moral condition of our culture.

As to the first of these proposi­tions there has been scepticism. One recalls the comment — how seriously made I do not know —that history is a lie agreed upon: un mensonge convene; and an out­standing American industrialist has been quoted as saying, com­prehensively, that “history is bunk.” Such scepticism, serious or otherwise, can, I think, be sum­marily dismissed.

Of the truth of the second prop­osition — that my examples are in fact substantially representative — I leave the reader to judge. The third proposition — that hu­man nature has not significantly changed since history was first written — is probably accepted by most people, though I dare say there are some, dazzled by the marvels of modern science and technology, who are firmly con­vinced that the world has lately begun anew and that mankind has been more or less transformed. It would not much surprise me to hear of a new book, amply sup­ported by laboratory statistics, en­titled Human Nature Today. In a recent number of Reader’s Digest (February, 1968) I see Eric Hof­fer quoted as observing: “The re­markable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves…. It is not love of self but hatred of self which is at the root of the troubles that afflict the world” — and all this despite the fact that genuine religion every­where has as a main objective the subdual and destruction of the ego! In the passage cited from Mr. Hof­fer he does not remark that he thinks human nature has changed, and if he does not think it has done so for, say, two thousand years, he is attributing to the Founder of Christianity an exer­cise in superfluity that is truly gigantic. The second command­ment, said Jesus to the tempting Pharisee, is like unto the first: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

There can perhaps be no plainer proof of the impotence of current criticism than the willingness of an author to expose himself to ridicule by an assertion diametri­cally opposed, beyond all question, to the moral experience of man­kind.

Of the truth of the fourth prop­osition — that we in America to­day are seriously dissatisfied with the moral condition of our culture — I leave the reader to judge.

To what, then, if all these prop­ositions may be accepted as cor­responding with the facts, does the argument plainly lead? It leads to the conclusion that an imperative requirement of our time is an all-out drive toward intensifying the moralizing activities of the home, the church, and all other relevant social agencies, and the establish­ment, at all levels, of a definite plan of moral education, wherever it does not now exist, in our edu­cational institutions. To ignore this requirement, in view of the world outlook of the moment, and especially of the consequent urgent demand for political and other leaders trained, not merely tech­nically, but pre-eminently for wis­dom and character, might seem to reasonably prudent minds to verge on madness.



1 U. S. News & World Report, March 4, 1968.

2 W. D. Humbly, Origins of Education Among Primitive Peoples, 1926, cited in The History and Philosophy of Educa­tion Ancient and Medieval, by Frederick Eby and Charles Flinn Arrowood, 1940, p. 15.

3 Eby and Arrowood, op. cit., p. 17.

4 Ibid., pp. 87f.

5 Ibid., p. 157.

6 The two quoted passages are from For Thinkers on Education (Mylapore, Madras, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1948)—the first, here slightly edited, from Book One. p. 3; the second from the anony­mous Introduction. p. xi.

7 Elizabeth Seeger, The Pageant of Chinese History, 1962, p. 45.

8 From The Sayings of Confucius, by Lionel Giles.

9 J. Eric Thompson, Mexico Before Cortez (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 19331, Chapter II: “The Cycle of Life.” Omissions from the quoted pas­sages include details of harsh disciplinary punishments.

10 Eby and Arrowood, op cit., p. 578.

11 F. A. P. Barnard, 1872, as cited in Public Education in the United States, by Ellwood P. Cubberley, 1947 edition, pp. 33f.

12 Democracy and Leadership, p. 303.

13 Ellwood P. Cubberley, op. cit., p. 41.

14 Ibid., p. 226.                        

15 For source, see footnote 1 above.

  • Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.