My Controversial Statement
By Frederick P. Close
In early 1994, the Communitarian Network published a special issue of its journal titled "The Moral State of the
Union." I contributed an article to that issue, "The Case for Moral Education."1 (You can read the entire article by
clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.) My article contained this controversial statement: "The fundamental
tragedy of American education today is not that we are turning out ignoramuses, but that we are turning out
Shortly after the article appeared, a friend of mine, Dr. Kevin Ryan, director of the Center for the Advancement of
Ethics and Character at Boston University, called to say he had found the sentence particularly insightful. He found it
so insightful that he used a version of it without attribution in an article he wrote for Education Week: "The
fundamental problem of our schools, then, is not that we are turning out ignoramuses and illiterates, but that we are
graduating moral savages."2 Kevin Ryan is a wonderful fellow, whom I greatly like and admire, so I somewhat
playfully got on his case, suggesting advocates for the character education movement ought not to commit
plagiarism, especially against each other.
Next, the statement took a dark turn. The president of the National Educational Association picked out my sentence
and read it aloud at a major conference on character education at George Washington University that Al Gore and
Hillary Clinton attended. Since he didn't mention me by name, only referring to me disdainfully as "some ethicist," I
won't mention his name either. He apparently feared criticizing Dr. Ryan, so he kept quiet about Kevin's
endorsement of the same idea. The NEA president condemned the statement because he believed it proved that
"some ethicist" thought that all students were savages and that teachers were responsible for this horrible situation.
The proposition makes neither claim. Consider a similar but less controversial statement: "The fundamental tragedy
of American education today is not that we are turning out students who don't appreciate literature, but that we are
turning out kids who can't read or write." Does this sentence imply that every graduating student is illiterate? No. The
tragedy is that any child leaves school not being able to read and write, not that they all do. Second, is it clear from
the statement who is to blame? It is not. It could be teachers, or administrators, or curriculum designers, or
politicians, or taxpayers who won't fund schools, or parents who don't care, or textbook providers, or a dozen other
In short, the president of NEA defended his union members without giving much thought to whether my statement
was true or false. Looking back on the incident, I suspect what really upset him was the use of the word "savages" to
describe children. More on that below.
Later, the followers of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology who died in 1986, also endorsed my controversial
sentence, which they scrupulously attributed to me by name, in an article about the failures of American education.
Some people wondered if I was a Scientologist, or had sought that organization's endorsement. For the record I am
not and did not. But their approval continues to appear on the Internet.
Back to the controversial statement itself. Is it true? Even if true, is the description of some schoolchildren as
The term "savage" used to refer to primitive peoples who lacked the morality of civilized societies, most especially
those societies informed by Christianity. The civilized viewed primitives as marauding rapists and murderers. White
Americans notoriously referred to American Indians as savages. This meaning, along with "primitive," fell into
disuse some time ago. Obviously, I did not mean schoolchildren were savages in this archaic sense.
I had in mind another meaning of the term, that is, an amoral person who is brutal and vicious. Anyone can be a
savage in this sense. In the article I pointed out the effects of the failure of American schools to teach morality as
part of their curriculum. The last attempt to address morality directly, the pedagogy of moral relativism known as
values clarification in the 1970s and 80s, had been replaced in the 1990s by the curricular equivalent of a moral
Please note the qualifiers "teach morality as part of their curriculum" and "address morality directly." Schools teach
children right from wrong every day. An institution cannot have control over children for that many days every year
without teaching them something about morality. The problem is that the instruction is haphazard. Unless the school
system has consciously decided how to teach morality, the methods and goals for moral education, and included
lessons in the formal curriculum, it's pretty much every teacher for him or herself. Some school officials point to their
adoption and announcement of a set of punishments for bad behavior as tantamount to inclusion in the curriculum. A
code of punishable behaviors, however, represents a quasi-legal system, not moral education.
Below is the Violent Crime Index, a chart of arrests for juveniles, ages 10-17, from 1980 to 2008:3
I wrote the article at about the time indicated by the red arrow. As you can see, juvenile crime was exploding. Ever
younger children were involved in thuggery, gangs, rape, and murder. This is what I meant by savagery. (Whether the
ensuing reduction in the crime rate may be due in part to the introduction of character education programs in
schools is another subject.)
Something more profound than crime prevention lies at the heart of this debate. My grandmother used to refer to me
and to children generally as "little savages." She used the term with some affection, but at bottom her description
came from an earlier era's world view with which modern educators like the NEA president had, and generally still
have, lost touch.
Divergent views of the nature of children is one of the fundamental differences between contemporary and classical
times. We have turned 180 degrees from tradition. For most of human history, parents, religious leaders, societal
authorities, and other moral educators did indeed regard children as little savages, and their goal was to prevent
kids from growing up to be big savages. The ancient Greeks likened children to adults who were intemperate, i.e.
governed only by their desires. The Old Testament testifies to the evil tendencies of children, offers counsel about
the constant application of the rod to place them on the straight and narrow path, and recommends execution when
they persist in their disobedience. The early Christian Church believed that original sin infected even babies and
instituted the rite of infant baptism lest the souls of children fly straight to the Devil if they died, as so many did, in the
first years of life. Fifteen centuries later, John Calvin reaffirmed this tradition: "We are not corrupted by acquired
wickedness, but bring an innate corruption from the very womb."4 Even a secularist like Freud agreed in principle
with this classical approach: "Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to
How times have changed! The origin of the revolution in our view of the nature of children may with rough justice be
attributed to the 1762 publication of Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Contrary to the sentiments above,
Rousseau asserted that "there is no original perversity in the human heart." If children were savages, they were
noble ones. If left alone to develop naturally, they "will only do good." As far as children's moral education is
concerned: "The first education ought thus to be purely negative. It consists not at all in teaching virtue or truth, but in
preserving the heart from vice and the mind from error. If you could do nothing and let nothing be done, [the child]
would soon become the wisest of men; by doing nothing to begin with, you would end with a prodigy of education."6
This book on the philosophy of education influenced generations, indeed centuries, of educators.
Nineteenth century novels popularized Rousseau's view of children. Sentiments such as "Children are God's
apostles day by day sent forth to preach of love, and hope, and peace"7 were common. Dickens tells us, "In the little
world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so
finely felt, as injustice."8
In contemporary times we have achieved the New Age and the search for a symbol of moral perfection has come to
rest in the philosophy of the inner child.
1. The Responsive Community (Volume 4, Issue 1, Winter 1993/94), pp. 23-28.
2. Kevin Ryan, "Character and Coffee Mugs" in Education Week (Volume 14, Issue 34, May 17, 1995), p. 48.
3. See http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/.
4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1962), Volume 2, Book Second, chapter 1, section 5, p. 214.
5. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, chapter V, D, B, in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 54, p. 241.
6. Rousseau is a study in the dangers of being a corrective for one=s age. He reacted with passion to the common
and contradictory practices of educating children by rote and caning them for failure while at the same time viewing
them as small adults fully competent in reasoning. Rousseau believed children ought to be children for as long as
possible and his flawed theology was probably created only to give a theoretical backing to what were the
sentiments of a good heart. I suspect he would be surprised at what his views have wrought in the modern world, but
it cannot be doubted that the credit or blame for volumes of educational theory over the past two centuries rests with
Citations for the various quotations of Rousseau are as follows: "no perversity" and "do only good" Bk2, section
267; "only habit" Bk1, section 145; "first education" Bk2, section 272. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or
Education, translated by Barbara Foxley and Grace G. Roosevelt (HTML at Columbia). This may be found at
7. James Russell Lowell, "On the Death of a Friend's Child," in Poems (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and
Company, 1898), poem dated 1844, p. 242.
8. Dickens, Great Expectations, chapter 8.
9. John Lee and Bill Stott, Recovery: Plain and Simple (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1990), p.
The child in us is in charge of our free energy, our intuition, spontaneity, lightness, ecstasy,
joy.... Our inner child is our highest self. Our real self. He or she is the person we were before
society, in the form of our parents, put our masks on us. Our adult self says, "God's hard.
God's far away. Man's alone. Life's sad. We've lost connection to God." To which the child
self says, "You're ridiculous. What do you mean connection to God? I am God, you fool!" ...
You open up a passage to the child within. And that child-I'm scared to say this, so I've got
to-that child, to me, is God. They are one and the same.9
In addition to being yet another instance of the eternal error of confusing ourselves with God, the notion that
childhood represents moral perfection helps explain why practically everyone insists "I didn't know what I was doing"
is an excuse that trumps every screw-up, both foreign and domestic, and why the modern ideal of a moral hero is
So how is it really with children? Are they savages or angels (or God)? The answer profoundly affects how a village
will rear its young. If children are relentlessly egotistical, throw a screaming fit because they don't get their way or
they can't have a cookie before dinner (the cry of "it's not fair!" may or may not exhibit a finely perceived injustice),
then parents and other educators have to cajole, threaten, punish, and generally drag them by every humane means
possible into some semblance of moral decency. If, on the other hand, the essence of children is sweetly angelic,
and society is responsible for whatever evil infects them as adults, then we should leave them alone and allow them
to blossom into the natural perfection that is their birthright.
My article endorsed the older, more traditional view. It argued that schools have a responsibility to help educate our
children so that they become morally good. No school ought to leave morality out of its curriculum. The notion that
describing some children as savages is reprehensible is to decide without debate that the contemporary view of
children as angels is correct. I argued then and will argue in my book on moral education that we adopt the modern
perspective at our peril.
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