The perils of neglect

The link between learning and liberty is immutable and indisputable. Every big name involved with America’s founding remarked upon the necessity of education, none more forcibly than George Washington.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote in his Farewell Address in 1796.

“Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” he continued, calling its corollary education an “object of primary importance.”

Today, his words are more likely to be found swept under the proverbial rug than anchoring school mission statements. Fortunately, our state constitution codifies a declaration of educational core values that echoed the general’s sage sentiment.

“Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools,” reads Article 14.

The Twitter-ized, truncated tendency to abandon sentence structure in texts notwithstanding, the rules of language remain intact. “And” is an inclusive conjunction; it means both when connecting two nouns or subjects.

The constitutional precept is really just a restatement of common-sense reality. Before any child can ever truly master the fundamental three Rs of education, he or she must first learn the two Rs of right and wrong. Yet modern curricula focus almost exclusively on teaching students to acquire and apply knowledge and skills—the intelligence requirement.

How many classes are built around moral instruction, and how many tests measure its successful learning? How many Common Core standards explicitly address teaching virtue?

In a search of the Arkansas Department of Education website, the word “standards” returns 8,390 results and the word “knowledge,” 3,820 results. The word “virtue” garners a mere 164 mentions–and 118 of those are contained in “by virtue of” clauses.

Derivative words are even more sparse: “morality,” 37 results; “kindness,” 28 results; “goodness” only seven results, all of which are preceded by either “my” or “thank.”

In sampling several dozens of the framework documents themselves, which cover every class for every grade and number anywhere from around 10 pages to more than 50 each, I never found the word “virtue” at all. Not in English Language Arts, not in Fine Arts, not in Social Studies, not even in the Psychology or Sociology frameworks.

In short, across the gargantuan site containing all manner of curricula descriptions, frameworks, standards and learning services, there’s basically no mention of anything regarding the second half of the declared purpose for Arkansas public schools.

There are hundreds and hundreds of search results for words like “analyze” and “critical thinking” and “explore” and “reason” and “experiment” and “calculate,” as there should be. There is no deficiency in the Department of Education’s demonstrated quest to further intelligence. Where inadequacy exists is in the cultivation of its twin criterion, which happens to be a relatively recent development.

This school year marks the 51st since the National Education Association stopped publishing its American Citizens Handbook. For 27 years, from 1941 to 1967, that volume was an inspiring nationwide model that balanced the instruction of knowledge with the development of virtue among its 400-plus pages.

It built on the foundation previously laid by the McGuffey Readers, 120 million copies of which were sold between Arkansas’ year of statehood, 1836, and 1920. An estimated 80 percent of U.S. schoolchildren were taught using McGuffey books, which embodied the founding-era understanding of virtue as essential to self-government and education the means of instilling it.

Common school visionary Horace Mann lamented the failure to match the Revolution’s governmental transformation with corresponding change in education institutions and structure. “For every dollar given by the wealthy … to colleges to cultivate the higher branches of knowledge, a hundred should have been given to primary education,” he said in his “Go Forth and Teach” speech in 1842.

Incisive perspective at a time when multimillion-dollar gifts to state universities are making headlines.

Noting that our republic allowed the “vote of the veriest ignoramus” to balance that of Franklin or Washington, Mann cast a prudent warning. “With universal suffrage there must be universal elevation of character, intellectual and moral,” he said, “or there will be universal mismanagement and calamity.”

His closing rings prescient.

“Licentiousness shall be the liberty; and violence and chicanery shall be the law …” he predicted, “of that people who neglect the education of their children.”

It would be a mistake to minimize the coincidence of the decline and fall of the NEA’s handbook as an educational influencer with the rise in criminality (every crime is a wrong moral choice).

We have not wholly neglected education—only one part of our constitutional charge, albeit a crucial part.

Perhaps the new legislative women’s caucus, which just addressed educational literacy, will step up, dust off Article 14, and take a leadership role in restoring the teaching of virtue as an educational focus and responsibility.

There’s already a wealth of timeless truths in maxims and essays and lessons out there—two centuries’ worth, enough for lots of effective frameworks for all grades.

All that’s needed now is the will.

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