Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong: And What We Can Do About It
by William Kilpatrick
From Publishers Weekly
Attacking the moral relativism of such current approaches to the teaching of ethics as Values Clarification, Kilpatrick, an education professor at Boston College, calls for a return to a traditional model of teaching morality based on content rather than decision making. In tracing the history of character education, he dissects the moral reasoning curriculum of Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and the feminist theories of Carol Gilligan. He suggests that schools should become more authoritative and that parents should discipline their children and read to them (he includes a lengthy, annotated Guide to Great Books for Children and Teens). His jeremiad hits the mark when aimed at ambiguous approaches to drug and sex education. But with his more general assertions–such as, in a discussion of rap and rock music, The beat says, ‘Do what you want to do,’ –Kilpatrick fails to convince.
For parents, educators, and policymakers, Kilpatrick’s hard-hitting and controversial book will not only open eyes but change minds. He maintains that by stressing “feelings” rather than good behavior, schools and parents have failed to instill moral values in our youth.
By A Customer 1
This book makes its point without self-righeousness or preaching of any kind. The author argues that the mission of schools has changed from building character and citizenship to addressing social problems (i.e. drug and sex education, multi-culturalism), and the focus has changed from conveying a shared culture to a focus on the process of learning itself. The author argues that virtues can be taught by offering up heroes to emulate through classics, song, and story, as an antidote to relative values. The last section of the book contains suggested children’s literature, by age group. I found this book to be riveting and profound, offering a unique perspective, evenly and logically presented with no trace of fanatacism (religious or otherwise) such as might be expected in a book of this sort.
By A Customer 2
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
In recent years, a plethora of books, many of them excellent reading, have been published on the decline of moral ethics and intellectual knowledge, both in our educational establishment and within society at large. However, if one wants to focus specifically on the decline of moral discipline on the modern American scene, one could do worse than to read _Why_Johnny_Can’t_Tell_Right_from_Wrong_ by William Kilpatrick .
Kilpatrick is (oddly enough) a professor of education at Boston College. (At least that strikes me as peculiar because I have difficulty envisioning any sensible person working in Boston.) He uncovers in detail the history of moral relativism’s introduction into the curriculum, the rationalizations for the implementation of various programs, and the philosophical mindset or what Germans call _Weltanschauung _(worldview) of their respective proponents. These are dissected and discredited tartly but without rancor within the limited confines (not including notes and index) of 315 pages.
_Why_Johnny_Can’t_Tell_Right_from_Wrong_ begins by describing pedagogic techniques, comparing those methods proven by experience and fashionable fads that stir up a brief flutter of excitement only to be discarded or renamed. Just as phonics was replaced by look-say methods with corresponding deterioration in scholastic achievement, so “character education” has been supplanted by approaches called variously “decision making” or “moral reasoning” to name two. The objective in this switch was ostensibly to enable children to make moral decisions with greater understanding and self-discovery rather than to learn them by rote. Much of the methodology focuses on “New Age” quasi-religious sensibilities and intimidation techniques designed to break down family bonds and loosen cultural inhibitions. The result has been instead, the raising of a generation that is unable to distinguish reasonable moral arguments from mere rationalizations. These future citizens are aware of their own “feelings” but are wholly ignorant and often contemptuous of concepts of absolute right and wrong.
Kilpatrick illustrates these points in subsequent chapters. Narcotics awareness education, for example, situates students in a “bull session” in which those having engaged in drug usage describe their experiences. This gives classroom dominance to the users and places nonusers in an awkward and unresponsive position. Sex education has demonstrated tremendous propensity to encourage sexual activity among unmarried school-age adolescents and by so doing transforming a deeply personal and intimate sharing between couples into a casual recreation. In a still later chapter, the devolution of contemporary “music” receives its share of deserved criticism.
The author goes on to describe two schools of thought currently enamored in schools: one emphasizing personal feelings, the other on moral dilemmas. The first, such as _Quest_ which focuses on “self-esteem”, turns teachers into “facilitators” and encourages children to explore a develop their _own_ values and morals. The second, often labeled “values clarification” confuses children into believing that all morality is problematic. Instead of being taught clear examples of right and wrong, immature minds are presented with quandaries that would stupefy Middle East negotiators. The impression children are then left with from either of these exercises is that morality is relative.
The effects of multicultural education are also dissected. When American society is fractionalized, no transcendent themes or common commitments can emerge–merely a collection of groups bickering over snout privileges at the collective feeding trough–the opposite of the American goal of assimilation. Without an understanding of America’s moral imperative, historical and even current events lack context. A highschool teacher in Virginia polled his students in three classes and fifty-one out of fifty-three saw no moral difference between the American and Soviet systems of government. The two who could see a difference were both Vietnamese boat children.
Kilpatrick notes that most of us learn moral values from stories and not from ab-stract definitions. He writes, “Morality needs to be set within a storied version if it is to remain morality. Conceived as rule keeping… it never works for long. Instead, it withers into something cold and cautious and, all too often, into self-righteousness. It is, of course, important to keep the rules, but the spirit in which they are kept is equally important.” In _Orthodoxy_, G. K. Chesterton confessed, “I have always felt life first as a story.” (This probably explains why _A_Book_of_Virtues_ by William Bennett was a best-seller.) Virtue, described in this way, is not simply a matter of abiding by regulations, but on acting in a heroic fashion. It matters, of course, what kind of stories are read. The idyllic vision of the nihilistic 1960s era remains attractive to many. Joseph Campbell represents a facet of this thought by offering an undemanding mythology of pantheistic nature worship. The discipline demanded in Judaeo-Christian ethics is less appealing to the self-indulgent–precisely all the more reason such values must be taught in our society, especially to the young.
The author concludes by admonishing parents to read to their children and providing a list of entertaining stories and novels from which to select. He ends his next-to-last chapter with a quotation from Jim Trelease, “I read because my father read to me. And because he’d read to me, when my time came I knew intuitively there is a torch that is supposed to be passed from one generation to the next. And through countless nights of reading I began to realize that when enough of the torchbearers–parents and teachers–stop passing the torches, a culture begins to die.” It is in the hands of parents that ultimately the future learning of children is held. Without that active guidance, the spiritually neglected descendants of our heritage may be morally crippled from productive participation in the world at large–of benefit to neither man nor God. Fortunately, Professor Kilpatrick has given some insight into the problems and the remedies for this calamity, and _Why_Johnny_Can’t_Tell_ deserves to be on the reading list of every parent and teacher.