At one time, purpose in life was found in such things as serving one’s country, bettering family life, helping neighbors, putting in an honest day’s work, and working together in communities. The home was a place where children learned right from wrong. The school was a place that extended the moral teachings of the home. Often, purpose came from an instilled sense of responsibility and accountability. For most of society, there was a larger sense of a higher authority.
While these elements may still exist, for many, a sense of purpose is often hidden, confused, or non-existent. There are many reasons for this confusion. The family, far more cohesive in earlier years, has experienced a series of breakdowns. Educators have decided that they should not impose views and values on children. And American society has become overtly God-less.
From Objective to Affective Morality
How did this happen? How is it that young children have been left to find morality within themselves? Without a strong sense of right and wrong and the reality of consequences for actions, how does a person grow to be responsible, caring, and concerned, with a well-developed sense of self and purpose?
During the early- to mid-twentieth century, new philosophies were sown and harvested. Darwinism, relativism, and logical positivism blossomed. These, as well as many other schools of thought, have played a role in shaping (or is it “unshaping?”) the character of today’s youth. Thomas Lickona, author of Educating for Character, touches on these philosophies. He states:
Darwinism said that biological life was the product of evolution; that view led people to see other things, including morality, as evolving rather than fixed or certain. Einstein’s theory of relativity, though intended to explain only the behavior of physical matter, affected thinking about moral behavior as well. When it comes to right and wrong, many people began to think, ‘It’s all relative to your point of view.’…Logical positivism introduced a fundamental distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value.’ It held that the only real facts or truths were ones that could be scientifically demonstrated (e.g., ‘A steel ball when dropped will fall to the ground’). Moral or value statements, by contrast, were considered ’emotive’-expressions of feeling rather than fact. Even a statement such as ‘Rape is wrong’ was judged to be personal sentiment rather than objective truth. (pp.7-8)
Over the past three decades, newer philosophies emerged. Affective education and values clarification became popular terms. The breakdown of the family became common, as did the breakdown of schools concerning the moral education of children. How children “felt” about issues of right and wrong became the focus while “indoctrination,” “imposition,” and “offending others” became the fear.
Not only teachers and administrators bought into these philosophies, but also, parents. The idea of imposing a particular set of values on children became, ironically, the wrong thing to do. Instead, it was determined that school and family authorities needed to help children sort through their own “feelings.” This way, children could decide for themselves acceptable thought and behavior.
At this time, another idea loomed over the domains of education and home. Not only did children need to tune into their feelings, but they also had to “feel good.” Feel good about what? About their behavior, their efforts, their image, and themselves. The term, “self-esteem,” was quickly popularized, as many people were persuaded that feeling good about oneself must be one’s highest priority.
While having a solid self-esteem is important, this concept has been stretched. The push for a healthy self-esteem may precede the notion that as long as a person can rationalize his or her actions and still feel good about oneself, all is well. Yet, this does not support the concepts of responsibility and accountability. As the self becomes the focal point, little regard is given for people and things outside the self.
Joining the breakdown of the family and the system of moral education in the schools was the breakdown of morals and values in society. American society was built on biblical principles, today considered overbearing and judgmental. The church, once deemed foundational for positive character building, now often kneels to governmental influences. Religion was once a basis of life purpose for many. Today, religion is whatever one “feels.”
However, while it seems that these views have dominated society, many still believe that religion and the church (as universally known) can and does positively affect people’s lives, including children. In his article, “God and the Underclass,” Robert Rector concludes that regular church attendance and a sense of religious belief are consequential. He writes:
We still find one institution that is overwhelmingly effective in transforming behavior and in helping individuals to lift their lives out of poverty and despair, self-destruction and violence. That institution is the church. The power of religion is amply documented….Children 10 to 18 who do not attend church are a third to a half more likely to exhibit anti-social and dysfunctional behavior.
Finally, research shows that young people who attend church have a positive effect on the behavior of other youngsters in their immediate neighborhood. The positive effect of young people motivated by religious virtues is the exact counterpart to the heavily publicized negative peer pressure exerted by street gangs who suck the young into lives of aimless violence and alienation. (p. 32)
Studies by secular institutions seem to suggest similar conclusions. Recent findings of organizations such as Dartmouth Medical School and the YMCA cite the critical importance of moral and spiritual training for the youth. You can read more about this in our book review of Hardwired to Connect.
Where do we go from here?
How do we loosen the chains of ever-new schools of thought that undermine the direct teaching of right and wrong? How do we pull our children out of this pool of confusion and aimless direction?
As parents, educators, and societal participants, we have several options. First, the home. Parents need to be more aware of their children’s everyday environment, including the house in which they live, their school, and their play areas. They need to take an interest in their children’s friends. They should familiarize themselves with school policies and stand against unhealthy teachings. Basically, parents need to be more involved in the lives of their children.
As already seen, the schools play a vital role in the moral education of children. Schools need to be environments of moral excellence. The expectations and standards set for the children should stretch them in terms of building character. (Other things, such as studying and self-esteem, will fall into place naturally if a virtuous character is well-established). Schools need to exude such universally accepted virtues and values as respect, fairness, integrity, self-discipline, and commitment. At the same time, these expectations should not only be required of the students, but also of the school’s faculty and staff.
Yet, parents and schools are not alone in the responsibility of bringing morality back into the lives of our children. The leaders of the American nation need to see the moral decline of our youth as top priority and concern. Although this decline has received some attention in the last few years, there needs to be a greater effort in this area.
One of the most powerful tools available is age-old, yet as effective today as it was then—the story. William Kilpatrick writes:
The same impulse that makes us want our books to have a plot makes us want our lives to have a plot. . . . There is something in us that is not satisfied with a merely psychological explanation of our lives. It doesn’t do justice to our conviction that we are on some kind of journey or quest, that there must be some deeper meaning to our lives than whether we feel good about ourselves. Only people who have lost their sense of adventure, mystery, and romance worry about their self-esteem. And at that point what they need is not a good therapist but a good story. (p. 192)
To put it more simply:
We all know that stories entertain, but as suggested by the Arabian storytellers, they can also serve a more basic function. Put simply, they save lives. The conviction that our life is a meaningful story can literally keep us alive. (p. 194)
The adults of this nation have a tremendous responsibility, obligation, opportunity, and privilege to love, care for, and teach their children. Confusion will end where direction and purpose begin. It is to everyone’s detriment if the children are left to “figure it out” on their own. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt:
To educate a person in the mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society (Lickona, p.3).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
When you observe your own children, or the children you work with, do they seem to have a sense of right and wrong? What are some of the indications that validate your answer?
In your own view of the younger generation, what do you see as the most significant factors leading to moral decline? List at least three.
What do you desire most, for the children with whom you are in contact, in terms of a knowledge base that will lead to a life filled with direction and purpose?
Though several suggestions of “how to” bring these desired results about were given, list at least three of your own ideas that would contribute to the well-being of the future generation.
The moral decline of our young people should be of great concern to the adult population. Children are imitators. As role models, we need to be constantly aware of how we portray morality in our own lives.
With a strong sense of right and wrong, children grow in respect for self and others. Adults need to be aware that, while the feelings of the children are important, they are not decisive measures. A direct approach to teaching morality is crucial if positive results are to be seen.
Children need love. They also need guidance. Responsibility and accountability are not learned if they are not taught and modeled effectively.
People of faith believe that returning to and emphasizing biblical principles and morals will be a vital key to proper morality.
Kilpatrick, W. (1992). Why Johnny can’t tell right from wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lickona, T. (1991). Educating for character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility. New York: Bantam Books.
Rector, R. (1996, July 15). God and the underclass. National Review, XLVIII(13), 30-33.