Annapolis Institute Overview


Schools fall short on values, virtues

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, March 10, 1998

Society’s most important task is education. It is through education that we transmit to our children the knowledge and skills they need to function effectively in a modern economy, and the values and virtues they require to fulfill the responsibilities of family and citizenship in a free society. That’s why all that separates civilization from anarchy is a single generation.

I was thinking about the importance of education this past weekend as I was perusing exerpts from an oldMcGuffey’s Reader. To many, William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873) is still considered the “nation’s schoolmaster.” He was a college professor (at Ohio’s Miami University and the University of Virginia), a college president (Ohio University), and an association leader (founding the nation’s first teachers association). But most important, in 1836 McGuffey published the first edition of McGuffey’s Reader, one of the most widely used (more than 125 million copies sold) and influential textbooks of its time.

Looking through the selections, I came across the following, a passage from aMcGuffey Reader for third-graders, published in 1857:

“A farmer called, one day, upon a rich neighbor, who was very fond of hunting, and told him that his wheat had been so cut up by the hunter’s dogs that, in some parts, there would be no crop.

“‘Well, my friend,’ said the hunter, ‘I know that we have often met in that wheat field. If you will give me an estimate of your loss, I will repay you.'”

As I read through this passage, I thought, “There’s a lot more there than a reading exercise. There is a rich lesson in virtue.” Compare a McGuffey reading with a passage from a contemporary textbook for third-graders:

“Only birds have feathers. That’s the special thing that makes a bird a bird. A bird has to have feathers to be a bird. If it flies or not, if it sings or not; anything with feathers is a bird.”

These two passages show that it’s not just television that numbs the attention span of young people. They also suggest how both public and private schools of yesteryear never passed up a chance to lead students at every turn to address questions of right and wrong and good and bad, to tell a morality tale — and how government schools today pick textbooks that are generally agnostic on traditional values. Result: American society is reaping the harvest in the form of widespread adult illiteracy, increased juvenile delinquency and the general “dumbing down” of curriculum and of the students coming out of our schools.

As the teaching of traditional values goes out the window, the teaching of environmental values seems to come in — as environmental advocacy and political action are substituted for environmental science in the K-12 classrooms. According to Michael Sanera, director of the Tucson-based Environmental Education Research Institute, which did the study, most of the environmental textbooks and materials used in Wisconsin to teach teachers “indoctrinate rather than educate.” In fact, only one of nine textbooks examined by Sanera met the professional guidelines of the North American Association for Environmental Education, the nation’s largest group of environmental educators, based in Troy, Ohio.

So, whether it is knowledge and skills or values and virtues, what we are teaching is falling short. The government monopoly on public education clearly needs the fresh air of competition.

Get the Bonus Years column right to your inbox

We take your inbox seriously. No ads. No appeals. No spam. We provide — and seek from you — original and curated items that make life in the Bonus Years easier to understand and easier to navigate.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Other posts from the Annapolis Institute:

More from Phil: