Political Correctness and the Moral Development of Children

One of my children has been having some problems internalizing certain moral standards — a not uncommon problem in a young child. With a child like mine, who hasn't yet internalized abstract moral standards, it's not wrong to steal, it's just wrong if a someone you love is made unhappy by the theft.

To short—circuit the problem before it became a big deal, I ended up talking to a child behaviorist. She recommended that I get my child some of those "Republican virtue books." I asked, "Do you mean Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues?"  Yes, that's precisely what she meant. It turns out those books "can be very helpful to kids." That got me thinking....

At schools today, kids are taught about feelings. It hurts people's feelings if you say mean things to them or about them. It hurts people's feelings if you steal. It hurts the teacher's feelings if you're not respectful. While it's not at all a bad thing to take other people's feelings into consideration when you're planning your own conduct, feelings do not equal an external moral standard that apply in most circumstances. Instead, they provide a yardstick that rapidly changes depending on the day and the person involved. Thus, at any given time, you must reach your "moral" conclusion by balancing your feelings against the other person's feelings. (As in, "My feeling is that I will be miserably unhappy if I don't have his money, whereas he has so much money that he won't be that unhappy if I steal it. So it's okay for me to steal.") This, of course, is not a moral standard at all. It's anarchy (or, if one looks to the example I gave, it's Communism.)

Other than the obsessive focus on feelings, what's taught to young children through books given prominent display at the library and urged upon students at school, is the fact that no politically incorrect thought goes unpunished. That is, kids are no longer taught that virtuous conduct — especially conduct that falls within classic virtue categories (honesty, loyalty, bravery, etc.) — is rewarded. Instead, so many of the books and movies aimed at kids seem to have a character who is a one dimensional personification of a bad idea who runs afoul of a pure person and gets punished for his bad behavior.

The lessons taught are negative. If you despoil the land, some good hearted kid will foil you. If you run slum housing, some good hearted reformer will foil you. If you are a war—monger, some good hearted peace activist will demonstrate against you. The good hearted person never has anything to learn, while the evil person is a wooden representative of some specific politicized wrong who invariably gets a comeuppance — usually without experiencing any moral growth.

In a way, this approach to modern morality is remarkably similar to the fire and brimstone morality that characterized evangelical teaching in the early 19th Century. Those were the days when stories involved bad boys tortured cats and inevitably got burned to death, or lazy girls caught some awful disease, died and went to Hell (If you can get hold of a book called Flowers of Delight, you'll get to enjoy a wonderful sampling of these tales.) Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre,  provided a pitch—perfect illustration of this type of educator when she created the frightening Mr. Brocklehurst (who was modeled on a real evangelical educator in whose school two of Charlotte's sisters died). Children raised on these stuff may have hewed to the straight and narrow, but they did so not because they believed there was a positive benefit to such good behavior, but because they hoped to avoid agonizing deaths and eternal Hell fire.

To my mind, the more effective approach to educating people in virtuous behavior is the story in which an ordinary person commits a moral error, experiences a resulting consequence, learns his lesson, changes his behavior to comport with the moral standard or required virtue, and invariably enjoys a happy ending because of this lesson learned.

Given my world view, it shouldn't come as any surprise that my favorite book is Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice I don't think I'm being a spoiler to any person on planet Earth when I say that this book's plot tells a classic morality tale. The heroine, Elizabeth, is a fine person, honorable and loving, who is blinded by her prejudices. Because of them, she falls for the scoundrel Wickham*, and is unable to recognize Darcy's virtues. In this, she is aided by Darcy's own moral failing of insufferable pride. In a perfectly choreographed clash, each faults the other — with Darcy properly accusing her of prejudice, and Elizabeth accurately accusing him of pride. For each of them, being forced to see his or her own failings is devastating, and each takes the lesson to heart. Each works to improve his moral self, and the reward is true love.

The same path plays out in one of my other favorite books, Little Women.  If one reads the book without the pollution of Wynona's Ryder's appalling 1994 movie version (which managed to turn Jo into a self—centered modern woman who does what she wants and still gets her man), one discovers that the whole book is about Jo's learning to live by the prevailing moral principles of her time. Only when she abandons her self—centered behavior and begins to live unreservedly for others is she rewarded with the ultimate 19th Century prize —— true love and marriage.

The books that had the most blatant examples of people living virtuous lives and getting rewarded are Horatio Alger's works. They were enormously popular, and generations of American boys (native born and immigrant) were inspired by the examples of Ragged Dick, Mark the Match Boy, and many others. These somewhat wooden characters, despite living in appalling poverty and being exposed to temptation and cruelty, nevertheless remain true to principles of honesty and hard work. And unfailingly, they were rewarded for their good behavior. Incidentally, despite the common belief that the rewards involved instant riches, the opposite is true. The reward in each book is a slow but steady trajectory from poverty to the Middle Class — the class that is the greatest repository of 19th Century virtue.

In the realm of movies, my favorite is Groundhog Day,  and in that I'm not alone. When it originally opened in 1993, it was viewed as a clever film that highlighted Bill Murray's unique comedic talents. In the decade—plus since then, it's become one of the best loved movies ever —— and that's not just because it's funny. As a New York Times article pointed out on the movie's tenth anniversary, myriad religious teachers have embraced the movie because of the important life lessons it teaches:

Since its debut a decade ago, the film has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in "Groundhog Day" a reflection of their own spiritual messages. Curators of the series, polling some 35 critics in the literary, religious and film worlds to suggest films with religious interpretations, found that "Groundhog Day" came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective's catalog [a Museum of Modern Art retrospective about "The Hidden God: Film and Faith"].

The movie is cited by various religious teachers as symbolic of Christian resurrection, Hindu reincarnation, and the Jewish requirement of good deeds. I see it as the perfect successful morality tale. That is, it demonstrates that being moral — living a good life for the benefit of the community, not for yourself, and living it according to greater moral precepts than just your feelings — confers a benefit on the actor. In this regard, it is entirely different from the grim message constantly foisted on our children, which is that your feelings govern, and that, if you have the wrong feelings (usually about various political hot button issues) you will be punished. I believe that kids learn a whole lot better from an uplifting, achievable message, than from endlessly being scolded about thinking the wrong thoughts.

*Thanks to an attentive reader who corrected the earlier reference to Willoughby (who was in Sense & Sensibility)

Bookworm is the pen—name of a crypto—conservative writer living in one of America's bluest locations. She is proprietor of the website Bookworm Room.