Nov  2017 28
Moral Education for Adults

Finding common ground on nearly any matter of substance is difficult these days. I was impressed with the interchange a few years ago between two of Krista Tippett’s guests (Krista is the host of Onbeing, see As part of the Civil Conversations Project, she interviewed a defender of heterosexual marriage, fatherhood in particular, and an advocate for same-sex marriage. The two parties disagreed about substantive matters but found common ground in this perspective: long-term relationships are difficult to sustain and they need societal support.

I would love it if the nation, or simply religious communities, could find similar common ground in this: the moral formation of children and the continuing moral development of adults are difficult and need all the support a society can give.

Remember Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

People don't expect—people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice.

What people loved about that speech was its both–and content. Yes, raising children is the job of parents and families. Yes, formal education outside the home—either public or private (not including the four percent of families that homeschool children)—is an essential element for raising children.

Yes, for many families, some form of religious education, along with voluntary associations such as scouts and sports teams, are also essential elements of raising whole persons. And, yes, government policies can help or hinder being family, raising children, and forming morally decent citizens.

Raising children to be moral persons—capable of living lives of good, and capable of mutual and reciprocal relationships in complex societies with persons who differ from themselves—takes all the resources a society can devote to the cause. Family, yes. Education, yes. Voluntary associations, yes. Government, yes.

There is a lot I like in the essay by Yuval Levin written three years ago (read it here). What I most appreciate about his essay is the way he articulates how conservatives and liberals agree in a fundamental way about society, but both are off-target.

Both left and right... generally articulate their understandings of liberty in terms of enabling free individuals to make choices as they wish. The progressive sees freedom as a power to act while the conservative sees freedom as an absence of restraint. This is a real difference—a great deal of our political debate turns on it—but it can too easily obscure a deeper agreement. Both views equate greater human liberty with progress, as any good liberal would, and both believe that such progress is achievable by arranging our laws and institutions so as to best enable people’s freedom to choose.

Levin goes on:

The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire. …This older idea of liberty requires not only that people be free to choose but also that they be able to choose well. This liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction. To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation.

The kind of moral formation we need to be a complex, diverse society represents both a profound aspiration and a deep concern. It is aspirational and of deep concern because it may not have existed previously on a societal level, it does not exist now, and the path between the present and achieving the aspiration is unseen.

There is quite a gap between well-educated citizens choosing good and simply being free to choose.

Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), it is not only children who need moral education. Adults need continuing moral education. In church circles, we comment on the phenomenon of confirmation classes, often taught to 12-14-year-old children, being the last formal religious education those persons receive. We complain that a 12-year-old faith cannot sustain a person throughout life.

And it cannot. Neither can the moral formation of a school child sustain throughout adulthood. Neither can the moral formation of an adult in 1950s U.S. society, premised upon white and black and native persons all in their segregated places, men superior to women, homosexual persons hidden, assumptions that all the world would be Christian, and the claim that America is the beacon of freedom and opportunity living forever on top of the post-war world.

I’ve often heard the comment—never from children but frequently from adults: “It is good to get kids to mix with kids not like themselves, with different ethnic groups and races. Then it will be natural for them to live and work alongside persons different from themselves.”

There may be some truth in that comment, but only some. Segregation, both mental and physical, is stubbornly persistent. And adults often let themselves off the hook by pushing all the change agenda onto children and grandchildren!

How about this?

“As an adult in the U.S. at the present, I have a responsibility to attend to my own moral education. I do this by who and what I read, by choosing to associate with persons like and not like myself, by taking time to put down or turn off my screens, by learning facts and by weighing multiple interpretations of the facts, by intentionally learning about my own biases, and by supporting the rights of other persons to do the same.”

This work is difficult. It is costly. It can’t be done solo. It requires multiple communities of support. It requires time and attention from leaders in those communities of support: government, religion, other voluntary associations.

But this adult work might contribute to a stronger moral upbringing for children, also. In fact, I can’t conceive of a better U.S. society and better moral formation for children without attending to the moral formation of adults.

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