Everyone wants America’s schools to teach values.  Progressive types tend to imagine schools that teach children the value of egalitarianism, of celebrating the rich mosaic of cultures that make up America. Traditionalists tend to imagine schools that train students in traditional cultural values.  As we have argued in earlier posts about the “Cult of Multiculturalism” (see here and here), traditionalists could argue that the values of progressive education aren’t real values at all.  Traditionalists might argue that the only real moral instilled by the progressive educational regime is a lamentable and decadent relativism.  According to this traditionalist argument, children are indoctrinated by progressive educators in the pernicious notion that there are no transcendent values, that all values must be welcomed equally.

Such traditionalists have insisted that America’s schools must instead lay out an explicit menu of true moral values for their students.  In its more sophisticated forms, this traditionalist argument has pointed out that we can distill a reasonable list of these values that does not simply impose traditional Christian values in public schools.  Rather, it is simple enough to create a short list of moral values that will incorporate the traditions of all cultures.

For example, writing in the 1960s, California School Superintendent Max Rafferty built his career, in large part, on his insistence that public schools must return to their original mission of instilling traditional moral values in children.  The problem with progressive education, Rafferty believed, was that it denied the obvious and inescapable truth that there are “positive and eternal values.”  In such an educational environment, which Rafferty believed had dominated America’s schools since the 1930s, this moral irresponsibility had drastic effects.  Not only did students fail to grasp obvious moral truths, but under the progressive educational regime,

the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

In the place of time-tested values, Rafferty argued, progressives offered “such airy and ephemeral soap bubbles as ‘group dynamics,’ ‘social living,’ and ‘orientation.’”

Rafferty noted that such innovations meant both educational and moral failure.  It also ignored the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.  As Rafferty argued in 1964,

Parents, by and large, want what they have always wanted for their children.  They want them turned into civilized, patriotic citizens speaking and writing good English; able to succeed both in business and college; possessing at least a passable knowledge of our great cultural heritage; trained in such minimum essentials as reading, basic mathematics, spelling, grammar, history, and geography; and, above all, well enough grounded in habits of diligence, perseverance, and orderly thinking to enable them to prepare for adult life. 

Such values did not imply, in Rafferty’s opinion, that minority groups and non-Christians would be made to feel unwelcome in public schools.  Rather, Rafferty believed that everyone agreed on a few basic values that schools must impart.  For Rafferty, these included love of country, non-sectarian religiosity, and character traits such as bravery, honesty, thrift, and hard work.

Writing in the late 1960s, Rafferty noted with alarm that public schools had been divested of their traditional role as moral guardians.  As he wrote in 1968,

Parents pay us to introduce their children to the accumulated culture, wisdom and refinement of the ages, not to give them a mud bath in vice and suggestiveness.  They expect us to inspire in those children a love for the good, the true and the beautiful.

Anybody can pick up obscenity and irreverence on any street corner.  You don’t have to go to school to learn four-letter words and ugly racial slurs.  The schools are built and supported to fight against this sort of dry rot, not to go over to it and embrace it.

We teachers need to set standards, understand them and then uphold them.  And this we cannot do until we abandon an educational philosophy which holds that all standards are fictitious and all truths mere fantasy.

The problem with progressive education, in Rafferty’s opinion, was its “bizarre and even creepy” insistence that public schools must “uproot the ethical standards of 2000 years and to substitute for them the moral criteria of a pack of sex-starved alley cats.”

Max Rafferty’s unabashed insistence on traditionalist education for California did not take his career quite as far as he had hoped.  He ran for U.S. Senate in 1968, on an unapologetically conservative platform that included, in the words of one Newsweek article, “shooting looters, summary street courts-martial for other rioters, more capital punishment, abolishing most foreign aid, and escalating the Vietnam war (perhaps with nuclear weapons).”  Unlike other conservative California politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for governor in 1966 and Richard Nixon’s win as President in 1968, Rafferty lost his election by a huge margin.  Nevertheless, his fulminations on the importance of including traditional values in America’s public schools won him a large and dedicated following among traditionalists.

William J. Bennett shared many of Rafferty’s beliefs about the importance of traditional values for America’s public schools.  As U.S. Secretary of Education in the mid-1980s under President Reagan, Bennett encouraged American schools to encourage “Moral Literacy.”  Bennett built his educational program around what he called the “Three C’s:” Content, Choice, and Character.  He insisted that teaching students traditional moral values was a necessary function of public schools.  Only by doing so, Bennett believed, could schools help young people develop their character, their unique individual moral quality.  Such moral values, Bennett argued, did not imply the imposition of one set of moral values on a culturally diverse American population.  They did not, as his critics allege, yearn for a return for an imagined past in which only the values of White European Americans were valued.  No, Bennett insisted in 1986, “there is a good deal of consensus among the American people about these character traits.”  Americans of all cultural backgrounds, Bennett believed, could agree that schools ought to teach such traits as “thoughtfulness, fidelity, kindness, diligence, honesty, fairness, self-discipline, respect for law, and taking one’s guidance by accepted and tested standards of right and wrong rather than by, for example, one’s personal preferences.”

Bennett worked during his tenure as Secretary of Education to encourage public schools to teach these values formally and explicitly.  He also published the phenomenally successful Book of Virtues to help parents, educators, and young people learn these time-tested standards of right and wrong.

More recently, two academics have attracted attention beyond the usual ranks of committed traditionalists with their concoction of a list of universal character traits that schools ought to be teaching.  Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson claimed by 2004 to have distilled twenty-four universal values from their survey of moral thinkers from all cultures, from all periods.  As one New York Times article described their work, Seligman and Peterson “consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters.”  As we might expect, their list of character traits included some of Bennett’s and Rafferty’s favorites, including bravery and integrity.  They also include personal traits such as gratitude.  As many commentators have noticed, Seligman and Peterson also added a few that might surprise traditionalists, such as the need for “zest” among young people.

Most important for our discussion here, the notion that schools ought to do more than expose children to a variety of moral values has continued to attract vehement supporters among large numbers of parents, scholars, and educators.  According to these supporters, the fundamental presumption of progressivism—that schools ought to help students discover their own morality rather than imposing an external list of disembodied moral values—has proven to be both ineffective and morally indefensible.  Instead, schools must teach students actively and explicitly that they must practice a short list of traditional values.  They must be honest.  They must be charitable.  They must be kind.  They must be brave.  At times, of course, students may stumble and fail as they learn these traits, just as they might not master long division on the first try.  But one of the primary functions of schooling, in this traditionalist argument, must be to guide students toward learning these fundamental values.


FURTHER READING: Max Rafferty, What Are They Doing to Your Children (1964); Rafferty, On Education (1968); William J. Bennett, Moral Literacy and the Foundation of Character (1986); Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004).