We All Wanna Change the World

For generations school children have recited that little spelling ditty, "the principal is your pal." But at a Manhattan grammar school, students recently learned that their principal is not their pal. School officials discovered that the principal of Public School 142, Antonio Bilbao, stole more than $11,000, which students had raised through bake sales and school plays. "It is . . . appalling," said school commissioner Edward Stancik, "that the principal would betray the trust of the children . . . for his own personal greed." More attention and research have been devoted to teaching moral education in our schools than at any other time in history, according to William Kilpatrick in Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong. Yet these efforts are failing—not only with kids but obviously with teachers and administrators as well. Why? Because schools are teaching the wrong kind of moral education. Instead of teaching students what constitutes good character, they're inviting children to discover their own values. In fact, the only time this type of curriculum is directive is when it involves trendy liberal causes like environmentalism, where kids are pressured to recycle, or feminism, where girls are told they're so oppressed that they need special holidays like "Take Your Daughter to Work Day." But what these educators don't understand is that virtue is not a matter of social causes. It's a matter of the soul, and that's where moral education must begin. This point was illustrated beautifully in a story told by Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor at Clark University in Massachusetts. Sommers published an article some time ago urging ethics teachers to focus as much on private virtue as they do on public ethics—to teach things like personal honesty, decency, and responsibility. One of Sommer's colleagues, an ethics professor, scoffed at her argument. "You're not going to have moral people," the colleague insisted, "until you have moral institutions." And she informed Sommers that in her own classroom, she planned to continue talking about social ethics issues such as women's rights, protecting the rain forest, and the corruption of big business in multinational corporations. But by the end of the semester, Sommer's colleague was singing a different tune. To her shock, more than half the students in her ethics course cheated on a take-home final exam. With a self-mocking smile, she told Sommers, "I'd like to borrow a copy of that article you wrote on ethics without virtue." This professor learned the hard way that we can deal with the moral malaise in American life only when we begin to cultivate personal virtue. It's easy to focus on social causes. As the Beatles sang, "We all want to change the world." But real change starts in our heart and soul—in the cultivation of personal character. Otherwise we end up with students who can glibly recite all the accepted liberal mantras on social causes—and then cheat on tests. Plato taught that the order in society depends on the order of the soul. In a day when even school principals can't seem to figure out right from wrong, it's time to bring Plato's dictum back to the classroom.


Chuck Colson



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