William Kilpatrick is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His books include Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press), What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Press), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad.
Is stealing wrong? That is the title of a recent article by Dennis Prager for FrontPage.
According to Prager, many people in our society—particularly those on the left—no longer have a problem with stealing. He cites several examples, including the closing of numerous Walgreens stores in San Francisco because authorities no longer prosecute shoplifters.
He might have added that many people no longer have a problem with lying, cheating, and adultery. Of course, these moral failures have always been with us, but in the past most people considered them to be just that—moral failures. Very few would have come to the defense of lying, stealing, or infidelity.
Why are things different now? Prager lists four reasons for the decline in moral standards. All four are important, but the factor he puts first on the list—moral relativism—deserves special attention.
Moral relativism is the belief that there are no objective standards of morality. Moral relativists claim that morality is relative to the culture one is born into, or to one’s social situation, or even to one’s subjective feelings. In short, “what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me.”
Historians link the rise of relativism over the last century and a half to many factors: wars, revolutions, even Einstein’s theory of relativity. But one of the main reasons for the success of the relativist view is that much of what schools have been teaching about right and wrong over the last sixty years is based on relativist assumptions.
Take Values Clarification—a program that became immensely popular in American schools starting in the early 70’s. Many parents incorrectly assumed that the program was designed to teach the traditional values that helped children developed into good citizens and good people.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of passing-on time-tested values to youngsters, Values Clarification was designed, according to its developers to make students “aware of their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs…their own value systems.”
In short, Values Clarification was relativistic from the outset. It assumed that morality was relative to each individual. Society? Parents? Tradition? Religion? To hell with all that. Each child has to make up his own mind about values because values are little more than subjective feelings. A value, in other words, is not what you ought to do, but what you like to do. This is evident in strategy number three: “Values Voting.” The exercise starts with the teacher asking innocuous questions such as “How many of you like to go on long walks?” “How many enjoy going on a picnic?” “How many like yogurt?” But before long, the innocuous questions give way to leading questions: “How many of you approve of premarital sex for boys? For girls?” “How many think we ought to legalize abortion?” “How many would approve of marriage between homosexuals being sanctioned by priest, minister, or rabbi?”
In 1972 when the Values Clarification Handbook first appeared, it’s likely that legalized abortion and homosexual marriage were not issues of great concern for junior high students. But the program ensured that these issues would soon be at the front of young minds. However, they were not to be thought of as profoundly consequential societal issues. The exercises were designed to give students the impression that all values are a matter of personal taste—such as having a preference for yogurt over ice cream.
Values Clarification was an outgrowth of humanistic psychology’s emphasis on self-esteem. Almost all of life’s problems, the experts assured us, could be traced to a lack of self-love. Ever eager to jump on the newest passing bandwagon, many schools made “boosting self-esteem” their number one priority, with the result that learning math, science, and history soon took a back seat to learning to love oneself.
But self-love is close-kin to narcissism, and narcissists tend to have a highly subjective sense of morality. On the assumption that “I’m a wonderful person,” they go on to conclude that “everything I do must be wonderful” too. However, feeling good about oneself is no guarantee that one will do good. Not surprisingly, research on the subject soon revealed that prison inmates tended to score high on tests of self-esteem.
“If it feels good, do it” is not a good recipe for reaching moral maturity, but it was considered sage advice by many in the education establishment during the seventies and eighties.
Some educators, however, did see the problems with a feelings-based approach to moral education, and they tried to come up with something more solid. The most prominent among them was Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard University, who developed a “moral reasoning” approach to moral education. Kohlberg believed that there were six stages of moral reasoning, and that students could be nudged to higher stages by presenting them with moral dilemmas—much as Socrates and Plato had done in their dialogues with their students. Apparently however, Kohlberg was unaware that Plato thought that the Socratic method was inappropriate for young people. Indeed, he thought it should be reserved for mature men. According to Plato, “one great precaution is not to let them taste of arguments while they are young.” Young minds, like young puppies, said Plato would only “pull and tear at arguments.” They would develop a taste for arguments rather than a taste for truth.
But the precaution was ignored by Kohlberg and his followers, and before long school children were being presented with complex moral dilemmas that would have stumped Middle-East negotiators:
- Should a poor man steal expensive medicine that might save his dying wife?
- Should a group of snow-bound settlers turn to cannibalism in order to avoid death by starvation?
- Should a doctor operate on a ten-year-old boy who has been hit by a car and needs surgery, despite the objections of the boy’s Christian Science parents?
Soon enough, the Value Clarification people got into the act with dilemmas such as this:
- You are a passenger in an overcrowded lifeboat in rough seas. Unless some passengers are thrown overboard, all will drown. From the [provided] list decide which passengers should be sacrificed.
So, before the point at which most young people have developed a firm habit of telling the truth, respecting the property of others, and respecting the value of human life, they are faced with thorny situations in which it might be permissible to lie, steal, or even take the lives of others. Such exercises undermine the notion that morality is, for the most part, a solid and settled thing, and instead convey the impression that what’s right and wrong is anyone’s’ guess. And if it is anyone’s guess, then we’re back to relativism. Indeed, Kohlberg’s insistence that there were no right or wrong answers to the dilemmas strongly suggests a bias in favor of subjectivism.
One of the basic problems with Kohlberg’s approach was revealed when he posed one of his stealing dilemmas to a group of prison inmates. Without hesitation the prisoners all said that the man in the dilemma should steal the medicine. “But why would you do that?” asked Kohlberg. “Because we steal things,” came the ready reply.
In other words, the decision to steal or not to steal is only a dilemma for those who already believe that stealing is wrong.
And where do young people get that belief? Initially, they get it from parents who patiently explain to toddlers that it’s wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to them, and who correct their children whenever they steal. Next, the lesson is reinforced by the child’s teachers. At least, that used to be the case. Nowadays, many teachers are too busy stealing minds to be bothered with the task of passing-on bourgeoise notions about morality.
Aristotle, who was no slouch at reasoning, nevertheless thought that an education in morality should be a kind of training. Just as one gets better at gymnastics through practicing gymnastics, one becomes a better person by practicing the virtues. As Aristotle understood, the hard part of morality is not knowing what is right, but doing it. Nine times out of ten we know what we ought to do. The problem is that we may lack the will or the courage or the self-control that enables us to do the right thing.
We may also lack the desire to do good. That’s why Plato recommended that children be brought up in such a way that they would fall in love with virtue. And one of the best ways to do this, he thought, was to expose them to stories, legends, and epics about virtuous people—or, at any rate, people who are striving to be virtuous.
In the past, character education was not a course one took in school. Rather it was woven into the entire school experience. Character was learned by reading good literature, by studying history, by playing sports, and by emulating teachers of good character. It was also absorbed by participating in a disciplined and orderly daily routine.
Of course, character education didn’t work perfectly; and in the sixties and seventies, educators thought they had found something better—namely, value-neutral sex-education, drug education, values clarification, and Kohlberg’s slightly less subjective moral reasoning approach.
Still, Kohlberg was no friend of character education. He dismissed the old approach to building character as the “bag of virtues” approach. He and other innovators complained that educators shouldn’t impose their values on students. Rather, students should be free to think for themselves, and to develop their own values.
Ironically, the relativistic approach they developed eventually led to less independent thinking and more indoctrination. Pope Benedict XVI often spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and you only need to look around to see what he meant. We now live in a world where there is far less freedom and far fewer choices than existed only a short time before. Our increasingly authoritarian society mandates that you wear masks and submit to shots of doubtful efficacy, and it forces you to say things that are untrue, at the risk of losing your livelihood.
The initial promise of all the psychology-based programs was that they were non-directive: children would be free to discover their own values, and find their own truths. But that was a lie. Anyone who takes a close look at these tendentious programs will see that they were designed to lead children in certain directions. And, more often than not, the directions were ones that most parents—had they looked more closely—would not have approved.
By confusing children about basic morality, these supposedly non-directive programs paved the way for today’s highly directive and indoctrinaire attempts to turn children into leftist ideologues: Marxist-based Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, the LGBTQ+ agenda, and, undoubtedly, other initiatives yet to be uncovered.
But the push to capture the hearts and minds of children is not confined to the classroom. It is an all-encompassing, nothing-left-to-chance endeavor. School-wide policies now reflect the leftist agenda: mandatory masking, rainbow posters in the hallways, rainbow flags flying from the flagpole, trans-welcoming bathrooms, Pride Month celebrations, forms that ask intrusive questions about parents, and much more.
In some ways, the current approach resembles the character education approach: Aristotle’s emphasis on learning proper habits of behavior; Plato’s belief that youngsters should fall in love with virtue. Except that today’s educators substitute causes for virtues. They don’t want children to fall in love with virtue, they want them to fall in love with the cause du jour. And to that end, they provide stories of heroic boys and girls who choose to be gay or trans or climate activists—much as the Soviets presented Pavlik Morozov–the boy who denounced his father—as a heroic model for other children to emulate.
Indeed, today’s efforts to get children to commit to leftist causes finds it’s closest analogy in the Hitler Youth movement of the Nazi era, and in the Young Pioneers of the Soviet era. In all cases, one of the prime objectives was (and is) to alienate children from the values of their parents and the past, and to convert them to a collectivist ideology. The first step in resisting the current attempts to kidnap young minds is to understand the radical nature of today’s education system. Our schools are no longer safe spaces for children.