Moral Literacy

March 08, 1994|By JOANNE JACOBS

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — Frisky as a lambkin,

Busy as a bee --

That's the kind of little girl

People like to see.

Modest as a violet,

As a rosebud sweet --

That's the kind of little girl

People like to meet San Jose, California. -- No, it's not an ode to Nancy Kerrigan. Nor is the one about ''when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid'' about Tonya Harding.

I've been browsing through William Bennett's ''Book of Virtues,'' a collection of ''moral'' poems, stories and essays selected to illustrate self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

Yes, Mr. Bennett is President Bush's bully-boy drug czar turned cultural critic, and he also was President Reagan's secretary of education. Furthermore, in addition to the execrable ''The Lovable Child,'' quoted above, the book contains numerous verses of sub-Hallmark quality.

But it should not be judged by its frisky lambkins and busy bees. There's William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech, ''I Decline Accept the End of Man,'' Martin Luther King's ''Letter from Birmingham City Jail,'' Francis Bacon ''On Truth,'' James Baldwin's retelling of Greek and Roman stories, plus Winston Churchill, Willa Cather, Pablo Neruda, Aesop, Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare and Mary Wollstonecroft. P.T. Barnum on Truth in Advertising'' is followed by Plato on ''Justice.'' There are stories from the Bible, and poems from McGuffey's Reader. While Mr. Bennett focuses on Western civilization, he includes some stories and sayings from African, Asian and American Indian cultures.

Mr. Bennett offers a reference work for ''moral literacy'' and for ''moral education -- the training of heart and mind toward the good.'' He wants children to know what Horatius did at the bridge, and also to seek out their own bridges, where they can make a stand.

Then out spake brave Horatius,

The captain of the gate:

''To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And the temples of his gods?''

I say it beats Batman any day.

We don't have moralizing maxims now; we have exhortations to self-esteem, not to right conduct and good character. The popular culture's virtues are thin, weak, anorexic. Self-discipline? Perseverance? We admire talent.

Honesty? Only in the self-congratulatory confessional mode. Responsibility is long gone, replaced by creative blaming. Loyalty is not valued if it constricts individual desire; our virtues do not extend much beyond the self. Courage is too often defined as survival. Did Nancy Kerrigan show courage, or did she simply endure a nasty experience? And our compassion is self-referential: It tends to mean appropriating the misery of others as though it were our own.

TV is criticized for its endless depiction of violence, but what may be worse is its endless depiction of self-involved adults and bratty children. Children's books try to teach positive lessons -- they are preachier than ever -- but they rarely feature heroic heroes. Main characters must be dyslexic, anorexic, suicidal or pregnant, or possess friends who are abused, addicted, abandoned or homeless. Failing that, the plot requires divorcing parents, gay uncles, alcoholic aunts or dying siblings.

In books written for previous generations, children are brave, resourceful, steadfast, adventurous and capable of influencing events more consequential than the school talent contest. These books provided larger-than-life role models and exciting villains. You could tell the difference.

We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice.

We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many.

We will revere and obey the City's laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught.

We will strive increasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty.

Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us. -- The Athenian Oath

We are not fighting for our ideals. We're no longer sure what things we hold sacred. And we are not transmitting our culture greater and more beautiful to our children.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.

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