Virtues, Values, and Education

The shift from virtues to values relativizes moral thinking
December 3, 2018 Updated: December 3, 2018

You may have read a recent, sadly not atypical story from Canada about a Christian couple who were rejected as foster parents because of their Christian beliefs.

It seemed they had satisfied the social worker who interviewed them that they would adhere to all policies of the Children’s Aid Services and would carry out their duties accordingly.

The problem came when they were asked, “Are you one of those churches that still believes that the Bible is true? It was written thousands of years ago and, obviously, the world has changed.”

The couple were clear they would abide by agency policies, including those pertaining to spanking and homosexuality, but that was not good enough for the social worker.

The couple’s Christian values and beliefs disqualified them, in the agency’s view, from being foster parents. As the official letter of rejection said, the “policies of our agency do not appear to fit with your values and beliefs, and therefore, we will be unable to move forward with an approval for your family as a resource home.”

The problem for the agency was not the couple’s behavior, character, or assurances, but their views.

Virtues Versus Values

The shift from virtues to values relativizes moral thinking. Virtues form and define character. They are habits of the heart that incline us to behave well, avoid the vices that entrap us in sin, and so flourish as human beings, individually and communally.

They imply substantial agreement—as Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman found across major faith traditions in their handbook, “Character Strengths and Virtues.” The faith traditions differed in details, but not in the importance they placed on being just and courageous, acting with prudence rather than rashness, with temperance or self-mastery rather than gluttony or lust.

Values, on the other hand, pertain to what we believe and what (we say) is important to us. They tend to the relative and subjective, avoiding the assumption that there are objective truths about what good behavior is, instead of accepting different views: your truth and my truth.

Moral education then becomes about “values clarification” rather than formation of virtuous character.

This kind of relativism and subjectivism is first experienced as liberating. It frees us from the traditional moral restraints of law and custom.

The sexual revolution unlinked sex from children, and both from marriage and family. It promoted the liberal ideal of the autonomous, unencumbered self, owing no duty that has not been consented to.

So the bonds, duties, and calls for sacrifice tying us to family, community, and nation seem quaint and outmoded restraints on the individual’s pursuit of personal interest.

Modern Education

If there is no objective basis for virtues, then what culture and faith have taught us—through the King James Bible and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” once a shared heritage of all educated Americans—is reduced to expressions of will and power: what I want and am able to do.

The great texts of our civilization in the West—the works of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare—are no longer sources of wisdom, inspiration, and moral insight.

As Harvard historian James Hankins puts it with heavy irony: “[The] goal of modern humanities education is to unmask the old authors and expose their writings as the poisoned fruit of a corrupt socioeconomic system, or of racism, sexism, and other approved targets of moral opprobrium. Yes, I know many of you think that, when we read ‘texts’ for truth or wisdom, we are being at best utterly naive, at worst making ourselves complicit in spreading a hegemonic ideology, perpetuating the interests of the dominant class.”

This is how our cultural resources, those guides to virtue, are discounted and disparaged in our institutions of learning. The result has been a loss of internal control, the virtue of self-mastery replaced by not only freedom, but enslavement to vice, and addiction to destructive habits.

Those appetites we learn to temper with the support of culture, custom, family, and church now require formal policing instead—as seen with kangaroo courts on college campuses to adjudicate bad dates.

Ever more state intrusion into civil society enforces the new state religion of sexual liberalism and liberal secularism. Curricular reform is legislated to inculcate the new ideologies of marriage, sex, and family.

The liberalism of our day, promoted in the name of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity, becomes an ever more intolerant exclusion of dissent and difference. But since there is no longer truth—an objective reality to appeal to—orthodoxy becomes a matter of who has the will and power to impose it.

Our schools and colleges, with few exceptions, do less to form character and educate in the virtues than to inoculate the young against their cultural heritage.

So what is the alternative? There are many initiatives and efforts to promote virtues through character education. This is especially true of private and faith-based schools, and of the growing movement among parents to home-school their children. In those settings, the great literature and other achievements of our civilization are subject to respectful study. In many, students even study the Bible.

Educators committed to the classical and Christian tradition have developed curricula for use in such schools and homes, notably the young order of the Dominican Sisters of Mary. Other efforts, such as the Virtues Project, draw from a wide range of faith traditions and have been used even by the highly secular National Education Association of the U.S.

Russell Kirk, in his 1982 essay “Virtue: Can It Be Taught?”, notes the depth and seriousness of the problems discussed here and acknowledges the need for reform of schools and churches.

He emphasizes the importance of restoring the role of the family to its central responsibility for the education of its young. Neither the state and its bureaucracies, nor the educational professionals they regulate ever more tightly can or should replace the role of parents who traditionally have had primary responsibility for education.

This is partly a matter of asserting their participation and leadership in policy and governance of schools. It also, irreplaceably, involves teaching children virtues at their mother’s knee and into adulthood, by precept and example.

Abandoning the young to professionals and the state, leaving them cultural and spiritual orphans, only reinforces the message given, more or less explicitly, to parents of faith: Send us your children so we can turn them against you and everything you believe!

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic af- fairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.