Mathew 24:12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.
- HOW AMERICA GOT MEAN
- I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. Murder rates have been surging, at least until recently. Same with gun sales. Social trust is plummeting.
- For roughly 150 years after the founding, Americans were obsessed with moral education. In 1788, Noah Webster wrote, “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” The progressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1909 that schools teach morality “every moment of the day, five days a week.”
- As late as 1951, a commission organized by the National Education Association, one of the main teachers’ unions, stated that “an unremitting concern for moral and spiritual values continues to be a top priority for education.”
- School textbooks such as McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers not only taught students how to read and write; they taught etiquette, and featured stories designed to illustrate right and wrong behavior
- A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard.
- Schools began to abandon moral formation in the 1940s and ’50s, as the education historian B. Edward McClellan chronicles in Moral Education in America : “By the 1960s deliberate moral education was in full-scale retreat” as educators “paid more attention to the SAT scores of their students, and middle-class parents scrambled to find schools that would give their children the best chances to qualify for elite colleges and universities.”
- The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and a team of researchers asked young adults across the country in 2008 about their moral lives. One of their findings was that the interviewees had not given the subject of morality much thought. “I’ve never had to make a decision about what’s right and what’s wrong,” one young adult told the researchers. “My teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” many teenagers said.
- The moral instincts that Smith observed in his sample fell into the pattern that the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called “emotivism”: Whatever feels good to me is moral. “I would probably do what would make me happy” in any given situation, one of the interviewees declared. “Because it’s me in the long run.” As another put it
- A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. Social trust falls partly because more people are untrustworthy. That creates crowds of what psychologists call “vulnerable narcissists.”
- Luke Bretherton, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, told me. The result is the kind of sadness I see in the people around me. Young adults I know are spiraling, leaving school, moving from one mental-health facility to another.
- Suicide rates have increased by more than 30 percent since 2000, according to the CDC.
- If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.
- The Manichaean tribalism of politics appears to give people a sense of belonging. For many years, America seemed to be awash in a culture of hyper-individualism. But these days, people are quick to identify themselves by their group: Republican, Democrat, evangelical, person of color, LGBTQ, southerner, patriot, progressive, conservative. People who feel isolated and under threat flee to totalizing identities.
- Politics appears to give people a sense of righteousness: A person’s moral stature is based not on their conduct, but on their location on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be good; you just have to be liberal—or you just have to be conservative. The stronger a group’s claim to victim status, the more virtuous it is assumed to be, and the more secure its members can feel about their own innocence.
- This is not politics as it is normally understood. In psychically healthy societies, people fight over the politics of distribution: How high should taxes be? How much money should go to social programs for the poor and the elderly? We’ve shifted focus from the politics of redistribution to the politics of recognition. Political movements are fueled by resentment
- The politics of recognition has not produced a happy society. When asked by the General Social Survey to rate their happiness level, 20 percent of Americans in 2022 rated it at the lowest level—only 8 percent did the same in 1990.
- Healthy moral ecologies don’t just happen. They have to be seeded and tended.
- Mandatory social-skills courses. Murdoch’s character-building formula roots us in the simple act of paying attention: Do I attend to you well? It also emphasizes that character is formed and displayed as we treat others considerately. This requires not just a good heart, but good social skills: how to listen well. How to disagree with respect. How to ask for and offer forgiveness. How to patiently cultivate a friendship. How to sit with someone who is grieving or depressed. How to be a good conversationalist.
- These are some of the most important skills a person can have. And yet somehow, we don’t teach them.
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