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Antidisestablishmentarianism and How We Can Fill the Moral Vacuum in Our Schools

When I was growing up, one of the fascinations of childhood was learning to spell the word antidisestablishmentarianism. It was the longest word my friends and I could find and presented a fitting challenge for our budding intellects. (Some will say it has since been surpassed by the likes of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.) Of course none of us had the slightest idea what the word meant and no motivation to find out. Later as a young man though, the word drifted back into my memory along with the curiosity to finally look up its meaning. To my surprise I found that it provided a very helpful clue to understanding something that deeply concerned me, the lack of values and moral direction in our educational system.

The word itself refers to the question of whether or not a country should have an established church, a major concern when the United States was forming since European countries of the time were firmly aligned with either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were firmly opposed to this practice, and thus we inherited the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

At first, the application of this doctrine was confined to keeping religious prejudices out of our courts and government. Schools, however, were for many years left to reflect the overwhelmingly Christian basis of our culture by incorporating such practices as prayer, the celebration of Christmas, and an emphasis on developing sound Christian values. As our country diversified, people began to challenge this bias in light of the separation clause. In recent decades our courts have consistently, if unpopularly, upheld that it is unconstitutional to impose any religious ethics and practices in a secular institution. Today as we observe the consequences of these decisions, it is appropriate to ask if we are cultivating the kind of society that Jefferson and the others were envisioning, and more importantly whether it is the society we want for ourselves and our children.

When we interpret the separation clause to make it illegal to emphasize moral instruction in our classrooms, we can only offer our children a narrow, superficial view of life that has grave consequences. Most poignantly, we have the school shootings. While the shooters themselves are extreme examples of social isolation, insensitivity, and moral confusion, it will be clear to anyone visiting a typical American high school that there is a strong and growing subculture of our teenagers who share these same negative attitudes toward life. With no positive ideals to aspire to, they “glorify” cynicism, apathy, and decadence. In these circles achievement in academics or any constructive pursuit is grounds for ridicule and ostracism.

This absence of positive values is also disturbingly apparent when we shift our focus to another key aspect of society, our economic situation. Here too we find the notorious “villains”, the Bernie Madoffs and Ivan Boeskes who personify unbridled greed, insensitivity, and dishonesty. But once again we can see that they are only the most visible examples of a morally deficient environment that also brought us the credit default swaps and robo-mortgage signings that produced the latest economic collapse. How did we get to the point where our primary financial institutions like Bank of America, J.P. Morgan and others are subject to outright fines in excess of 100 million dollars and “settlements” that run into the billions? [1]

In looking for answers it is instructive to examine how this broader social drama has played out in one particular educational setting. Many of the people in charge of our major financial institutions received their college training at Harvard which lists such people as Jamie Dimon (J.P. Morgan), John Thain (Merrill Lynch) and Jeffry Skilling (Enron) among its graduates. This institution’s response to the crisis of leadership in our economic and financial sectors is revealing. There is a page on the university’s website entitled “Global Financial Crisis Continues: Harvard Economists React” [2] As one might expect, it is a rather imposing collection of articles on the pros and cons of bailouts, regulation, cap and trade, and financial stimuli. While these topics are no doubt worth examining, not a single article addresses “the elephant in the living room”; that even the best economic system will fail us if the people running it are lacking in the basic moral sensitivities.

Harvard was founded as a divinity school in 1636 during the Puritan era of Massachusetts. During the 1800’s it was heavily influenced by the Unitarian Church and was “secularized” under the presidency of Charles W. Eliot from 1869-1909. Eliot’s motivation however, like Jefferson’s, was to promote religious toleration, not the abandonment of the cultivation of moral values [3]. But here again we see
sincere efforts at promoting religious toleration somehow getting sidetracked and leading instead to moral decay. Faced with results so diametrically opposed to the intentions of people like Jefferson and Eliot, it is time to ask ourselves if there is not some basic flaw in our understanding of the relationship between religion and morality.

The Dalai Lama recently offered a profoundly helpful insight into this discussion. In his book “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World” he equates religion with tea. He notes that everyone likes tea, but some prefer it with certain spices, others with sugar, and in Tibet, with a pinch of salt. On the surface there may seem to be broad differences. But he makes the point that the real reason people like tea, is that everyone needs water; and tea is simply a way of meeting this universal need. He goes on to show how religions (like teas) are simply different approaches to meeting the universal human need for morality.

Utilizing this insight we can see that our fear of encouraging morality in our schools is based on a false identification of moral values with a particular religion. Is there really a Christian monopoly on humility? Have the Buddhists cornered the market on compassion? One of the advantages of a pluralistic society is that we have all met kind, honest people who were different from us in religion, ethnicity, and race. On this basis we can begin to see that there are universal values like courage, honesty, and justice that are simply the bedrock of any healthy and successful society.

In separating church and state, we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or as the Dalai Lama might put it, deprive people of water while making sure we don’t impose a particular brand of tea. We are intrinsically moral beings. Would you rather buy your next car from an honest or a dishonest person? The next time you use public transportation, would you rather sit next to a kind or an obnoxious person? By focusing on this universal basis of morality, we find the path that allows us to bring moral training back into our schools, not in the mode of dogmatic indoctrination, but in a spirit of experiential, free-ranging exploration that allows students to examine what really works in creating the happy, fulfilling life that we all aspire to.

Nitai Deranja is the president of Education for Life International and the author of “For Goodness’ Sake: helping our children and teens discover life’s higher values”

[1] (CNN, April 10, 2012)

[2] (http://www.economics.harvard.edu/about/views)

[3] “The second eminent contribution which the [people of the] United States have made to civilization is their thorough acceptance, in theory and practice, of the widest religious toleration.” The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914. Volume XX. Five American Contributions to Civilization by Charles William Eliot