Charles Murray, in a series of op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal of last September, makes it clear that America is run by an elite, perhaps 10% or so of the population, and that for the most part the members of this elite, politicians, university professors, financial wizards, lawyers, doctors, scientists et al., have attended schools that have prepared them extraordinarily well for their respective vocations.
In fact, among this population there are no discernible flaws in their schooling, no school failures, no achievement gaps among them, no children here left behind. In preparing the ruling classes to rule the schools have done exactly what they were supposed to do. They are, without exception, success stories.
This would seem to be enough. And wouldn’t it now seem that we might sit back and relax and be satisfied with the performance of our schools? Murray says no, for while the knowledge and skills necessary to run the country are being well taught, virtue and wisdom are not, and, in many of our best schools, are absent from the curriculum.
Murray offers two prescriptions. First, teach the great books, install “a rigorous core curriculum that demands familiarity in depth with the greatest writings – philosophical, literary, and historical – bearing on issues of virtue and the Good.” In other words, teach virtue.
And second, teach one of the virtues, humilty, that which is clearly so little in evidence among our leadership elite. And to this end make sure that the future ruling classes encounter failure in their own preparatory years. Be sure that, “all gifted students hit their own personal walls.”
I know what he means. The integral calculus, Maxwell’s equations, chess, not to mention the special theory and then quantum mechanics did this for me. In fact, I may have never recovered from these humbling experiences.
Murray says that encountering one’s own “wall,” one’s limits, for even the country’s elite have their limits, “is crucial for developing one’s empathy with the rest of the world. When one sees others struggle with intellectual tasks, one needs to be able to say “I know how it feels” – and be telling the truth.”
Well, the teaching of virtue, it’s been tried before. And what parent and/or teacher hasn’t run up against the seemingly impossibility of actually doing this? The extraordinary thing is that not only Charles Murray, but far too many of our educational establishment leaders, seem to know no more today than did Socrates’ listeners in 5th century Athens, that virtue can’t be taught.
For there is probably nothing at all that we can do to insure that our elites are not only knowledgeable, but also virtuous. Furthermore, we certainly have never turned out those good citizens from our common schools, as Thomas Mann (and Thomas Jefferson before him) would have had us do. Mann and Jefferson were probably not teachers themselves.
We do recognize any number of virtuous qualities when we encounter them in others, and even in ourselves, such as courage, temperance, justice, loyalty, humility, generosity… but we simply have found no reliable way of passing these qualities on to our own children, let alone to others, children or adults, in classroom or other settings.
Although we are not able to teach it the world is not without virtue. The world, and our country in the world, is not without virtuous citizens. Happily, unlike Sodom and Gomorrah (and Carthage), we are not faced with immediate destruction because of what to many may be the overwhelming presence of vice or evil in our lives.
Returning finally to Charles Murray’s prescription, that we teach the great books, the core curriculum of great writings that have so much to tell us about virtue and the Good (as well as about vice and the Bad), I would say there is nothing wrong with doing this, as long as we realize that we are teaching something else, a familiarity with the great writers for one, but not virtue.
Charles Murray, so knowledgeable about so many things, somehow has not learned, what history has taught us again and again, that there is no relationship between the amount of education one may have had and the amount of virtue or goodness that one may embody by one’s words and actions.
Just as we are unable to diminish the presence of the one, vice, we are no less able, by our actions, to augument the presence of the other, virtue. Both qualities seem to be mostly beyond our power, to eliminate the one where it is, or to create the other where it is not.