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Nov  2015 23
You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

Maybe it is because I grew up watching Lawrence Welk with my parents, but I’ve always loved Broadway-style musicals. I don’t remember when I first saw South Pacific or learned the lyrics to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” but these words have always stuck in my mind:

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Well, I don’t know about “carefully” taught. Mindlessly taught. Unconsciously taught. Sometimes willfully ignorantly taught. I’d venture that a relatively small percentage of children are carefully taught to hate. But, taught to hate they are.

Hate is not a public value that a society can endure forever without the danger of creating an unstable society in danger of imploding. So, where do we carefully teach a proper public morality in the U.S.?

In this third in a series of three reflections on the foundations of public morality in U.S. society, I want to click through the options of where we might learn how to be moral in public, when everyone is looking, on matters that concern the human capacity to share this world with people who are different from ourselves, and when we demand for others the rights and privileges we claim for ourselves.

I’ve divided the options between secondary sources of moral formation and primary sources.

Secondary Sources

  • Actors—Mix fame with an obscene amount of money and one should not expect to see consistently good moral examples among actors. Given how bad they all could be, I’m impressed with how many are generous and back good causes! Overall, I am cautiously optimistic that actors can use their fame and fortune for good. Now, if they could find a way to convince studios and writers to write more stories that don’t rely on the myths of a single hero who redeems the good with violence, even better.
  • Athletes—Same dangerous mix as with actors, but add youth to the mix. Is professional athletics the new Babylon? I know the media (and, let’s be honest, we the public) loves and will attend to a scandal much longer than they and we will to stories of compassion, generosity, and kindness. But the depth and breadth of scandals involving college and professional athletes make me reticent to expect much from athletes, in terms of moral examples.
  • Business Leaders—As is the case with each of these categories, the assessment depends where you look. Nationally, there are some great examples of teaching public morals by example if one observes the way leaders treat employees or customers. There are also all those leaders sucked into the world of greed and short-term gain who, with their boards, care most about how much they can glean from the work of others.

Locally in Tulsa, I’ve met some fabulous leaders in the business community whose care for all the people their company touches is extraordinary. I am optimistic about one set of business leaders regarding modeling public morality, and they have their work more than cut out for themselves because of the behavior of that other set.

  • Elected Office Holders—Disclosure: I think the Citizens United decision that broke the dam and flooded politics with money has done and will do more to bankrupt public morality than nearly any other factor. Yes, I know some elected leaders who are fighting the good fight. Their tribe is way too small. I am not optimistic about the capacity of elected office holders to be model moral citizens.
  • Courts—The courts are links in the justice system between the streets and the prisons. In the U.S., the incarceration rate is the highest of any nation on the planet. We lock up persons of color at a much higher rate than the white population.

The #blacklivesmatter movement is, in part, a result of unequal treatment in the justice system. When a class from Phillips witnessed how immigration court works in a border city (a class that included a retired attorney), they saw speed but not justice. Until the justice system can take significant steps to becoming a place of equal justice for all, I am not optimistic about courts as a place that is teaching good morality, by example.

Primary Sources

  • Scouting and Sports Programs—These were important sources of moral formation for me. Scouts and participation in team sports, especially track and cross country in high school, were among the places I saw practiced and learned the values of work, fairness, honesty, community, and self-reliance.

Help me out: Are they still? Are stories of parents who abuse officials and coaches, of giving participation trophies to everyone regardless of effort, and of self-important programs that trump family and school time overblown, or do they fairly represent their capacity to teach public morality?

  • Parents/Families/Home—Families of all kinds all around the world are stressed. Families teach morality, by precept and example. Of course, example is the more powerful teacher. But families don’t teach and model public morality in a vacuum; they need a supportive social network. It is the fortunate family that has all the moral support they need to do the job of forming moral citizens who act with integrity, who are the same people in public and in private.
  • Public SchoolsThomas Jefferson hoped public schools would teach public morality, rather than the sectarian one he expected from churches. I am sure there are exceptions, but the public schools I know have too few teachers for the number of children in the classes and are dealing with a range of behavioral issue with which schools are inadequately equipped and funded to deal.

Schools have adopted “no tolerance” policies on a variety of infractions; those policies are a species of the same “human waste” ethic that has governed who and how we incarcerate. “No tolerance” policies are understandable but some applications may not helpful a school where public morality is taught and learned.

  • Religion and Religious Schools—If Americans were asked about where they learned morality, public or not, I’d guess that home and a religious community would be the first two answers, in that order.

    But consider: how many hours a week, or over time, are necessary for moral formation to occur? Is one hour per week or, considering the evolving pattern of church-going, one hour a month sufficient for forming a moral foundation?

    One can see the draw of a parochial school combined with weekend religious services and a family’s required involvement in both. But religion by itself—just like family by itself or school by itself—can’t do the job.

As I write this blog, the news from Paris is still coming in. The carnage. The trauma. The obvious hate and desire to stoke hate, in adults and their children for generations to come. The desire to promote a perpetual war (and, man, has the U.S. taken the bait). What is the antidote to this hate? In the Christian community, we teach the answer is love and love’s social expression: justice. But where can we and our children learn a different way from the path that contributed to this horror?

Dylan’s song may be a good way to conclude: “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Does that mean elusive or that the answer is around us if we but recognize and grasp it?

By the way, I’ll end where I began this three part series: Putting a Ten Commandments monument on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds does NOTHING to strengthen the kind of public morality we need in this complex, diverse world in the 21st century.

That monument will not steer us and our children on the path toward love and justice, rather than the kind of society that prompted “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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