Christiana Hoff Summers on Character Education and Virtue Ethics
Public intellectual, thought leader, and former professor of philosophy at Clark University, Christiana Hoff Sommers argues for the existence of “plain moral facts” which generally transcend situation and cultures. Sommers points out:
“It is wrong to mistreat a child, to humiliate someone, to torment an animal. To think only of yourself, to steal, to lie, to break promises. And on the positive side: It is right to be considerate of others, to be charitable and generous.”
“To pretend we know nothing about basic decency, about human rights, about vice and virtue, is fatuous or disingenuous. Of course we know that gratuitous cruelty and political repression are wrong, that kindness and political freedom are right and good. Why should we be the first society in history that find itself hamstrung in the vital task of passing along its moral traditions to the next generation?”
“It is perversely misleading to say that helping children to develop habits of truth telling and fair play threatens their ability to make reasoned choices. Quite the contrary: Good moral habits enhance one’s capacity for rational judgements.”
“To understand King Lear, Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn, or Middlemarch requires the reader to have some understanding of (and sympathy with) what the author is saying about the moral ties that bind the characters and that hold in place the social fabric in which they play their roles. Take something like filial obligation. One moral of King Lear is that society cannot survive when filial contempt becomes the norm. Literary figures can thus provide students with the moral paradigms that Aristotle thought were essential to moral education”
Hoff Sommer concludes:
“I am suggesting that virtue can be taught, and that effective moral education appeals to the emotions as well as to the mind. The best moral teaching inspires students by making them keenly aware that their own character is at stake.”
I would further make the argument that literary, movie, and oral storytelling simply doesn’t make sense without the back drop of good and evil. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dead Man Walking, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or almost any other notable story in history gets back to an issue of character, virtue, and right and wrong. (Even the gurus of storytelling admit this to be at the core of great storytelling). Its a detachment of the most extreme degree to say these films have a message and yet I don’t think ethics, character, or virtue are meaningful. You simply can’t have it both ways.
* The above quotations are from Christina Hoff Sommers, “Teaching the Virtues” from The Public Interest, p. 3 to 13.