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In the honors physics class at one of the top public high schools in Chicago, after correcting a test, the teacher called two girls forward and congratulated them for being honest—the other 28 students had cheated. Someone from a previous class made the answers to the test available and they were passed around. Two honest students out of 30 is not encouraging.
Almost everyone admits that something is wrong in our schools. But what can we do about it? The president of the Chicago School Board recently was on a radio show to discuss his plans to improve the schools and the performance of students. My contribution to the discussion—had the lines not been busy—would have been that in order to improve the performance of students you must improve the students. Since academic excellence is the fruit of disciplined study and disciplined study can only rise from a quality of character, it is essential that we instill in students a sense of moral character and talk about virtues.
But the school board president’s approach to school reform focused on more money, more time in classrooms, more classes, in short simply more of what they are already doing. There was no talk about character development or how to help students discern any meaning to life beyond buying and selling. Genuine motivation rises from moral conviction and a sense of transcendent meaning, with the dismal exception of the motivation to excel in order to simply buy more things.
But virtue, character development and role models are what students need—and want. They gravitate toward it wherever it is found. We should stop assuming that moral values cannot, and should not, be taught. At the same high school of the cheating students, an early morning club met last month to hear a talk given by a nun about consecrated religious life, about sacrifice, about giving. They hung on every word. That such groups are rare and small is only because few look at today’s youth as the “field white unto harvest” that they truly are.
Also at this school some 300 students attend Young Life club meetings. (Young Life is a Christian organization for high- school students.) The leaders have been told that other high schools want clubs. But there are not enough people willing to staff the clubs. The schools desperately want the clubs because they know they lack solutions to discipline problems and the problems related to drugs, sex and alcohol.
That students have such problems is not only a result of a moral vacuum in the classroom. At a recent “parents’ night” gathering of Young Life, we were told by the leaders that lately anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of the students who attend have at least one parent who is addicted to alcohol or drugs. At its Bible study, 18 of the 20 students come from broken homes. It’s no wonder there is a lack of character development and virtues such as fidelity, honesty and perseverance.
So who will teach our nation’s children right from wrong? What will we show them? A preoccupation with material resources, facts, technical knowledge and data unrelated to any larger worldview that gives meaning to life? Or a return to virtue?
We should not expect much help from our government. In his State of the Union address, President Clinton put forward his (and others’) program for our children’s development: the government should guarantee every child access to the Internet in the twenty-first century. Contrast this with the televised response to his speech by the Baptist minister and congressman, J. C. Watts of Oklahoma. Watts urged that our country focus on the building of character and virtue and that we become a “people of prayer.”
The chasm between the visions of the president and Watts couldn’t be wider. One calls us to get plugged into the Internet; the other calls us to get plugged into God. The Internet is useful, but it does not by nature encourage the growth of character and virtue. Without these a civilization degenerates and eventually loses the discipline required to maintain its accumulated wealth and material lifestyle.
So what do our churches have to offer our youth? I pose two questions. First, are the churches up to the task of reinvesting in serious mission to so many youth who are looking for answers, who are unsure whether life even has meaning beyond being a cog in the economy? I am skeptical about our interest in this endeavor.
This leads to my second question. Are not our churches accomplices in overturning spiritual values in favor of temporal goods? The impression I get from reading about the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, our various denominations down to the local parish, is that when money is involved, everyone listens. There is a greater emphasis on the temporal aspects of the Church—statistics, analyses, attendance figures, budget cuts, trust funds, programs—than there is on the character development program of the Church: discipleship, growth in holiness.
When we choose the image on the coin of Caesar over the image of God in our youth that is in need of care and nurture, it should not surprise us if kids cheat on tests. And they will not be surprised to find us spending more time on-line than we spend in prayer.
—James M. Kushiner