Smarter than the French: A Review of Reitz’s Moral Crisis

The French are smart. They have two words for education, not one.

One word means “instruction.” It is what people get when they go to Harvard law school or a school for hairdressers. At both places, people are taught facts, concepts and useful skills.

The other word means “education.” It suggests the training one gets from family, friends, neighborhood role models and spiritual guides. It has to do with the formation of character, the instillation of values and a sense of self.

According to the French model, it is possible to be well-instructed but poorly-educated, and vice versa. A person can win every game of Trivial Pursuit but have no honor or integrity, just as a person can have little formal schooling yet be a person of great dignity (the “noble savage,” of 19th-century fame).

But if the French are smart, Donald Reitz is smarter. Reitz, a education professor at Baltimore’s Loyola College, has just written a new book – Moral Crisis in the Schools – demonstrating that he not only understands the distinction between instruction and education but also the connection between the two.1

Reitz’s point is this: It is difficult, if not impossible, to instruct children – to teach them facts and figures – without educating them at the same time. If students are not properly educated, the environment in the classroom will be chaotic. It will be physically impossible for students to pay attention to their lessons. Perhaps worse, students will not be able to achieve the necessary self-discipline needed to advance beyond the rudimentary stages of instruction. Studying is hard work. It takes concentration and a willingness to postpone gratification. Without these character traits, instruction becomes very difficult.

According to Reitz, the reigning ideal of value-neutral education, held by the majority of professional educators in America, lies at the root of many of the problems in public education. It is a difficult issue to debate. Value-neutral education in schools is not simply a matter of policy. To the education establishment, it is a matter of philosophy.

The whole notion of what it means to be a “professional” in education is tied up with this belief. Reitz explains that teachers’ sharing “convictions about right and wrong behavior is actively discouraged” (p. 11). To be a “professional” in education is to be “emancipated from non-scientific convictions and freed thereby to present only objective facts isolated from moral insinuations” (p. 12).

But Reitz does not want to solve the problem of public education in America by simply putting prayer back into the schools. He is discerning enough to know that there is an important middle ground, and he is able to explain why that middle ground was lost.

According to Reitz, the change in the schools took place in two stages. In the first stage, doctrinal religion was forced out of the public school classrooms. This was proper – the separation of church and state demanded it. In the second stage, the philosophy of “pragmatism” – with George Dewey as its leading exponent – seeped into the thinking of educators. According to Reitz, this was not so wise. It demanded not just a removal of church thinking from the schools but the introduction of “moral neutrality” into education. It meant that teaching was no longer a moral enterprise but, rather, a way of dispensing facts.

Over the last 50 years, pragmatism has reigned. Every effort has been made to sanitize the classroom, to make it free from any value-judgments on the part of the teacher whatsoever. The job of the teacher is now to “manage learning,” not “manage people” (p. 11). This is why, according to Reitz, classrooms are little more than jungles. It is impossible to learn in an environment where no one is allowed to utter the difference between right and wrong.

In his last chapter, titled “Will Conscience Prevail?” Reitz has some suggestions on how to fix the problem of public education (p. 149 ff.) First, educate teachers so that they are prepared to teach moral judgment to their students. Second, reaffirm the importance of the family. And third, reorganize the school of environment so that it is conducive to learning.

These are all reasonable goals, but the second goal is probably the most important. For can we really expect organizations whose main purpose is to “instruct” children now to take on the responsibility of “educating” children? Can teachers make children moral? The French never thought so – that is why they had one word for instruction and another word for education. Education is the primary responsibility of the family, not the school.

Nor did Theodore Roosevelt think so. In a speech, he once declared that a school is a useful adjunct to a home but a wretched substitute for a home.

The problem is the family. All other suggestions do little more than nibble around the edges. In the education debate, the crisis of the family is the beginning and the end.

Dr. Dworkin is the chairman of the Calvert Institute’s board of trustees.

End Note

[Back] 1. Donald J. Reitz, Moral Crisis in the Schools: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know (Baltimoe, Md.: Cathedral Foundation Press, 1998).

Posted in: Book Review, Education