Daily Archives: December 16, 2009

Public School Relativism

Faculty meetings at school are usually useless.  Whole bunch of people talking about absolutely nothing.  For the most part, that was the case in today’s faculty meeting.

There were the usual characters: the eager beavers, the silent ones, the ones that always complain, and the one sarcastic curmudgeon in the corner–who could forget him?–who always just bluntly lays it out there.  The eager beavers always gasp, but there his words sit, like a dog’s vomit.

There was the usual (useless) agenda: tweaking our school mission statement.  It’s a totally banal exercise.  We were meeting in separate departments today (English, History, Science, etc, all separate), so no doubt our tweaked mission statement is going to get passed around and hacked to death by the other departments.  The wheel will be destroyed, then reinvented all over again, and we will end up with mostly the same mission statement we started with.  All this will take quite a few months to accomplish.

Things got a bit interesting at the end, though.  Most people wouldn’t find it interesting, but given the fact that I’ always thinking about the issue that came up, it was invigorating to me.

The statement focused on making students who can “feel successful and accepted.”  I piped up: “well, who really cares about their feelings?  We want students who don’t just feel successful, but are so.  Plus, isn’t the whole ‘successful’ bit a little sketchy?  What if you’re successful at being a prick?”

That got a few laughs

I then moved on to a more serious point:  the mission statement didn’t include character.  Shouldn’t that be a goal?

Another colleague objected: “we’ll get parents who will criticize, saying that character should be taught at home via religious values.  We cannot mention character here.”

Another teacher added that including it was a bad idea because what character is differs from one person to the next.

My thought during all this: “geez, where do I start?”

I thought their responses were highly ironic.  After all, our school has a program that emphasizes virtues like respect, integrity, and honesty.  Many school clubs have character as their focus, and it is infused throughout the Language Arts curriculum.  And they say we shouldn’t talk about character?

I brought that up, and added, “you might think that what character is differs from person to person, but its not real difficult to find some things we all agree on.”  What I didn’t say but should have is: “who cares if different people have different concepts of character?  How often does that happen with darn near *everything* we teach at this school?  It has rarely stopped us in the past, why should it now?”

I chose to move on to a deeper point, though: “really, there is no neutral ground here.  You don’t have the option of ‘not talking about character.’  You are already teaching about character right there.”  My point was that by adopting that stance of  ‘since what is character differs from person to person, we shouldn’t talk about it,’ they were, by their silence, teaching a certain point of view about virtue–that it’s relative.  This is far, far from being neutral on the question.

By ‘not talking about it,’ they are teaching the students that character is such an  irrelevant personal taste thing that it doesn’t deserve to be explicitly addressed by the school.

That is a lesson that speaks volumes.

For the record, I sympathize with the hypothetical parent the first colleague talked about.  Given the track record of the public school system of teaching absolutely horrible character (not virtue, but vice), I’m leery of giving it the reigns in such an important area.  However, like I noted above, it’s not too difficult to find some virtues that we all–conservative and liberal alike–can agree upon (lets start with, “it is absolutely objectively wrong to cheat.”  Ok, build from there), and, the school doesn’t have the option to be neutral on the issue.  It will teach about character one way or the other, by hook or by crook–even if not one soul broaches the subject.