"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, February 20, 2006

One Way of Teaching Morality

(A talk given on March 28, 1990, to a gathering of school trustees)

My subject is whether and how we faculty members promote ethics, morality, and the religious tradition at our school, and I will begin in what is perhaps an odd way—with some case histories. They are the kinds of moral problems that our students are called upon to deal with every day. Some details have been changed, for reasons that will be obvious. After I have presented each problem, take a moment to consider how you would respond to it and how you would use it as an opportunity to teach morality and religion.

Case 1: A student comes to me whose best friend has publicly said things that the community finds offensive. The administration has found the friend guilty and has ordered his punishment. This student asserts that his friend is innocent, that he had a right to say what he thought, which was not that bad, and that the administration is overreacting and being vindictive. He wants to know why his friend should not resist the unfair punishment. Wouldn’t it be better to run away in protest? The whole class is arguing about the case. To complicate matters, I personally think the administration has behaved outrageously. What should I say to the students?

Case 2: A student whose father died a while back and whose mother has remarried enters the room in a state of anguish. From various conversations he has discovered that his stepfather, a fairly prominent local official, whom the student can’t stand under the best of circumstances, is involved in a scam—in fact, has gained his position by fraud. The student is ashamed of his stepfather. He doesn’t want to hurt his mother, but on the other hand he knows people are being hurt by the stepfather’s dishonesty. The student feels that, according to the values taught him in school, it is wrong not to do something about it. He is afraid and confused and angry and desperate. The more he talks, the more suicidal he sounds. What have I to teach him that will help?

Case 3: A senior boy and a junior girl have been dating for a while, holding hands and smooching in the prayer garden. One day, the boy appears in my room unusually distraught. It seems that in a fit of desire and self-delusion the two of them have lost their innocence. The signs all point to trouble. He begins by blaming the girl—it was her fault, she had assured him it would be okay, she wanted to give him everything she had—in short, she intentionally tempted him. Meanwhile, she is saying that he should have known better, should have controlled himself, should have resisted. They feel their lives are ruined. They’re afraid to confess and submit to parental authority, and they’ve begun to hate one another. What do I tell them?

There are many other cases I could describe: the girl whose boyfriend’s father has found out that she’s not wealthy enough to attend the school without a scholarship and for that reason is pressuring his son into breaking up with her; the girl who can deal with her tyrannical mother and the mother’s abusive live-in boyfriend only by repeatedly fantasizing that her older brother, off at school, will come home and kill both of them; the girl whose neighborhood gang leader has threatened her that if she doesn’t sleep with him he will have her brother killed.

Every day I deal with problems like these, and as you can see, they are not easy. Often they are genuinely frightening. And they cannot be solved with simple platitudes or casual advice. They need to be lived with, struggled over, and suffered through. They are never solved once and for all but resurface in new forms and in different people. And always they are confrontations between the self and the world, confrontations which demand understanding and imagination and courage, and which severely test the deepest convictions that we at the school profess.

Now I know some of you are hoping that I’ve invented these cases out of whole cloth, because if not, then our students must be going to hell in a hand basket. But I have not invented them. And to prove it, I’m going to name names. I’m also going to name those who have helped me to respond to these dilemmas and thereby to learn and teach morality.

Case 1: The student whose friend is about to be punished is named Crito, and his friend is named Socrates. He accepts his friend’s unjust punishment with the help of Socrates himself, who, speaking as if to himself in the voice of the Laws of Athens, says, “Do not think more of your children or of your life or of anything else than you think of what is right” (Crito 54c).

Case 2: The student whose stepfather is a villain is named Hamlet, and through his tragedy Shakespeare conducts us to the recognition that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” and that “the readiness is all” (Hamlet V.ii.10–11, 222).

Case 3: The young man and woman in trouble are named Adam and Eve, and in Paradise Lost John Milton shows that having faith, hope, and love, the penitent Adam and Eve will have a happier paradise within them that that which they have lost.

The girl maligned by the snobbish and greedy father of her boyfriend is named Catherine Morland, and in Northanger Abbey Jane Austen shows us how her happiness is preserved by her own honesty and by the reason, conscience, justice, honor, and fidelity of her beloved Henry Tilney. The girl who wants her brother to kill her mother and her mother’s lover is named Electra. She gets her wish, but in the end, in The Eumenides, Aeschylus shows us that peace comes to families and to cities only when wisdom, through “holy persuasion,” substitutes justice for vengeance and law for violence. And the girl whose brother’s life seems to depend on her unchastity is named Isabella. She ends happily, but not before Shakespeare, in Measure for Measure, causes her to perform one of the most dramatic acts of mercy in all Christian literature.

Ladies and Gentlemen, school is life. It is not a lab experiment. And children are not predictable substances upon whom we can work our preferred transformations. Nor can love of the good and the true be produced by formula. Teaching ethics and morality and spiritual values is a risky, slow, uncertain, often painful, though often rewarding business. Above all, it is a daily business. And it is part of what my colleagues and I do for a living.

How? Through chapel talks, religion courses, and casual conversations, yes. But also through our everyday teaching of philosophy, history, literature, language, and the arts. Contrary to popular opinion, these subjects are not addenda to life. They are not excess baggage which you leave aside when you want to teach values. In the works of the human imagination, just as in daily life, the spirit lives, and in them it can be taught. Plato and Shakespeare and Jane Austen are not merely subject matter. They are voices of the moral, ethical, and spiritual tradition that it is our duty to pass on to the next generation. In teaching them we are teaching how to live.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Couplets: Composed during the Humanities Final Exam

(Not to be taken as a substitute for study!)

Occam’s razor cuts the soul
Out of the empiric whole.

Machiavelli’s other cheek
Is turned to realpolitik.

From Bacon’s lofty knowledge tower
Man sees all nature in his power.

Descartes distinctly finds that man’s
A function of his cogitans.

Thrasymachus is Hobbes’s man;
His hope for peace, Leviathan.

Society has misunderstood,
Says Rousseau, that man’s nature’s good.

According to de Condorcet,
Reason will chase death away.

Bentham takes mankind’s true measure
By subtracting pain from pleasure.

For Shelley, who would be the wind,
’Twas God and not Prometheus sinned.

Darwin’s man (once chimpanzee):
Through accident, complexity.

Marx redistributes goods to end
Class war and human history mend.

Nietzsche’s barbaroi are free
From sickly slave morality.

Freud finds man where he is hid,
In the ego’s war with id.

The archetype-clad self will be,
For Jung, absolute deity.

In Sartre one’s essence can’t exist
Till one acts, like a Communist.

Man is the life-support machine
For Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene.

TV’s Oprah Winfrey hooks
Millions into buying books.

Who among them will discern
In books the truth for which they yearn?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Little Poem for My Students

That Would Be Scanned*
Which Foot in Your Mouth?

Of all the common English metric feet
The iamb has the most familiar beat.
[iambic pentameter]

Since he throws his punches early,
Trochee seems a trifle surly.
[trochaic tetrameter]

Twin-stressed slowpoke,
Spondee’s no joke.
[spondaic dimeter]

Stiff amphimacer** beats his drum,
Marches forth, rather glum.
[amphimacric dimeter]

Dactyl is slicker and quicker and sunnier,
Forming a verse that is apt to be funnier.
[dactylic tetrameter]

The amphibrach carries his weight in the
Thus tending to teeter and totter a little.
[amphibrachic tetrameter]

And when anapests gather, prepare to shout
Or upon them, be sure, you will galloping go.
[anapestic tetrameter]

* See Hamlet, Act III, Scene iii, line 75.

** Because the word amphimacer [accent on phim] contains two unstressed syllables together, it cannot be made to fit perfectly into a line of amphimacers. In the verse above, those two syllables should be tossed off lightly as a minor rhythmic variation.