Answering the “Virtuecrats”: A Moral Conversation on Character Education
By Robert Nash
Teachers College Press (Columbia University) 208 pages $22.95
When Robert Nash announces his intention to unmask the fallacies and foibles of those he dubs “virtuecrats”—character educators like William Bennett, William Kilpatrick, and Thomas Lickona—he promises more than the “answering” his title suggests. He vows to give them a good intellectual thrashing, after which, one infers, Bennett may never utter the word “virtue” again, Kilpatrick will confess that neither he nor Johnny can really know right from wrong, and Lickona will have to stop dedicating his books to God.
Nash promises to demonstrate that character education is a “deeply and seriously flawed” project, “unnecessarily apocalyptic . . . inherently authoritarian in its convictions . . . excessively nostalgic and premodern in its understanding of virtue, too closely aligned with a reactionary . . . politics, anti-intellectual in its curricular initiatives, hyperbolic in its moral claims, dangerously antidemocratic,” and more. Once the premodern virtuecrats have been dispatched, postmodern virtuecrats like Nash and his role model, Richard Rorty (when he isn’t joshing), can inculcate “the spirit of postmodern virtues,” starting with “a sensitivity to the postmodern realities of incommensurability, indeterminacy, and nonfoundationalism.” As the teacher sensitizes the student to these noble negations, the student enters the postmodern landscape of “dialectical awareness; empathy; hermeneutical sensitivity; openness to alterity (‘otherness’); respect for plurality; a sense of irony and humor . . . and humility in the face of shifting and elusive conceptions of goodness and truth.”
Incommensurability, we are told, means “the absence of a common moral standard by which to evaluate competing moral vocabularies.” If that’s the case, it remains a mystery how Nash can possibly “answer” or so lustily condemn the competing moral vocabulary of his targeted “virtuecrats.” Judging from his pugnacious introduction, he seems to have lost the sense of irony, humor, and humility he prescribes for the rest of us.
The second key denial of traditional rationality, indeterminacy, “assumes that no authority can ever determine . . . what ought to be the ‘final’ word on truth and morality.” As we’ve already been told, the pilgrim along this pathway moves among “shifting and elusive conceptions of goodness and truth”—the moral equivalent of one of those spiraling, pulsating screen-saver images, or a cubist painting in random, perpetual motion. If so, how are we to understand Nash’s critique of character education? How provisional, ephemeral, or hypothetical is it? Is it actually meaningless? It would seem that the universe of truth and meaning—or perhaps their “conceptions”—would have altered their states or contents by the time Nash’s book came off the press.
The antifoundationalist teacher realizes that “no authority can justify a moral assertion once and for all.” Ultimately, there is no ultimately. There is no rock for the wise man to build his house upon and no sand upon which the foolish man can throw up his shabby little lean-to. One must scrap the habit of justifying beliefs and actions. Having confessed that his views have no justification, why would Nash strain to convince us of their worth?
Nash hopes that teachers and students will assume “a vantage point of determining those virtues that are most likely to encourage a better quality of democratic life for everyone.” It is perhaps impolite—and rather redundant—to ask how the “better” can be determined when it cannot be determined, and how the determiner can know what is “likely” to result in a “better” life.
Of course, postmodernists have a standard answer for this kind of questioning, namely, that those of us who think and talk this way are imprisoned in premodern categories, and enslaved to the linear mode of reasoning. The act of asking for consistency and cohesion in argument indicates our insensitivity to incommensurability, etc. The remedy is to repent of this disrespectful, antisocial behavior and learn the way of peace and democracy, i.e., sensitivity training. After suitable reorientation, we may hope to speak the language of alterity, with “a commitment to civility; a capacity for fairness and charity; compassion in the presence of suffering, with an antipathy for violence.”
Some of these habits of the heart sound awfully familiar—remnants of the old-fashioned, discarded moral curriculum. It’s hard to imagine what’s so postmodern about civility, charity, compassion, and nonviolence. Why retain these? Well, they are “‘democratic dispositions’ necessary for productive and mutually respectful living in a diverse, robust, secular pluralist society.” But why should people champion mutual respect? Why should they meekly accept a diverse secular pluralist society as is? If they don’t like it, why shouldn’t they try to overthrow it? My own guess is that postmodernists wouldn’t like to live in any other kind of society. The only kind they can stand is a society made in their own image, after their own likeness.
The other jargon in Nash’s catalogue fleshes out that likeness. He invites us to join one another in “dialectical” moral conversation that avoids “the Scylla and Charybdis of two perilous extremes—relativism and objectivism.” Nash, like Rorty, thoroughly dislikes and rejects the label of relativist, which is, not surprisingly, often bestowed on philosophers like himself. (For obvious reasons, no one seems to label him or Rorty objectivists.) The dialectical approach is “free-flowing,” characterized by “critical discussion and negotiation” that navigates between the extremes, the Scylla of right and the Charybdis of wrong. But Nash hopes that through much sharing of perspectives, interpretations, and vocabularies, a sense of understanding and a possible “shared moral reality” might emerge. That indeed seems like a worthy goal and, from, say, a theistic perspective, an achievable one. From Nash’s presuppositions, it seems more quixotic.
Occasionally, friends of Bennett, Lickona, Kilpatrick, Marva Collins, and other character educators will find evidence in these pages that virtue inculcation often makes good sense, even to its enemies. Nash, to his credit, doesn’t hide facts that strain his thesis. Early in the book he tells of a sex educator in one of his classes who burst out with this tirade against Kilpatrick’s Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong: “Even though Kilpatrick has almost convinced me that what I do as a sex educator is counterproductive in many ways, I’d never admit it to him, nor would I change anything I do. He’s far too self-righteous and close-minded for me to take seriously.” Despite her protests, she obviously is taking him very seriously. The message has struck home. Like C. S. Lewis shooing away the hound of heaven, she can offer no intellectual objection to the message—only bitter, personal resentment that it is true, it is unflattering, it is unpalatable.
Nash himself, despite his in-your-face introduction, often comes across as a decent, likeable sort. He is at his best when he narrates how he conducts moral conversation in which each student is oriented to the class, respected as a human being, encouraged to contribute, and listened to with intentional interest.
Yet, as one reads his ground rules for moral conversation, an ominous intuition troubles the soul. The student is commanded: “You [will] show a willingness to improve your current moral language, because it may be incomplete.” The suspicious veteran of the culture wars wonders, “What kind of moral language will be weighed and found wanting? Which student must show a willingness to yield his language and convictions?” Probably not those whom Nash affectionately describes as “postmodern in temperament, eschewing any belief in a universal metaphysical or moral archetype.” Probably not those who are sensitized to the subtleties of incommensurability, indeterminacy, and antifoundationalism. “These students,” he remarks with favor, “question other—worldly views of reality, preferring to remain persistently grounded in the here—and—now.” It seems unlikely that these secularists will be required to “improve” their language.
That leaves the intransigent “virtuecrat” who refuses to embrace the fashionable decadence of the moment, someone, for instance, who follows the One Who told his inquisitor that His kingdom was not of this world. One is left with the troubling thought that the authority on the throne—or in the classroom—has lost hold of the sense of any transcendent good or evil. The modern Pilate presents an ensnaring, condescending question—”What is truth?”—and expects the subject to know that no answer is expected, and none will be tolerated. End of conversation.
Gary Hardaway, a new contributor toFirst Things, teaches philosophy and theology at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda, Lithuania.