A course on values gives one many reasons to shudder

July 21, 1999|By Alan Lupo

THE GOOD people at Brown University have decided they're going to teach their students values.

This does not mean, for example, instructing a freshman as to where he or she can go to get a really good buy, or value, on a textbook. This means teaching and discussing what kinds of principles we, as a nation, should tout. Brown will insert such instruction into next fall's course work.

This is a most slippery of slopes, especially so when a faculty member is quoted as worrying about the "decline of personal virtue" among our leaders and "the collective horrors in our world." Right away, I am worried.

Why? Because personal virtue has been in decline for quite some millenniums now. Nor are horrors, be they personal or collective, anything new on the face of the well-worn planet. We know more about both because our information gathering and dispensing systems are so much better than when somebody yodeled to somebody else from one mountaintop to another.

Add to that reality the insatiable appetite that radio and television talk shows and the tabloid press have for the peccadilloes of every politician, entertainer, sports figure, and who-knows-who-else, and we are lulled into believing that integrity has deteriorated from some historic reference point.

It always has been unclear to me when that point was. Could it have been during our ethnic cleansing of Native Americans? During slavery and Jim Crow laws? How about those anti-immigration riots of the 19th century? Labor-management warfare in the streets? The wild West? The right-wing McCarthy era witch hunts of the 1950s? Left-leaning students preventing other students from attending their classes in the 1960s?

When it comes to virtue, one could look at pretty much every president, for example, and find some measure of scandalous, or, at least, questionable behavior.

Let us take John Adams, who was a giant figure in our nation's birth and second U.S. president. We learn in our history books that he was a man of great integrity and conscience.

One supporter said of him, "You stand nearly alone in the history of our public men in never having had your integrity called in question or even suspected." Not bad.

But a critic said, "Whether he is spiteful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy, stiff, jealous, cautious, confident, close, open, it is always in the wrong place or to the wrong person."

Ah, well, who among us is the embodiment of personal integrity? Indeed, as Brown prepares to teach values, it will offer a discussion of philosopher Henry David Thoreau and his belief that self-sufficiency was life's secret.

Is this not the same Thoreau who had some unpleasant remarks to make about Irish immigrants who were doing their best to practice self-sufficiency? Is it not the same "independent" fellow who depended on Ralph Waldo Emerson to come to his aid in time of travail?

Well, I wish Brown much luck, though, when you think about it, the task of teaching values is not that difficult. It all comes down to one rule, as it always has: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. The rest? Academic commentary.

Alan Lupo is a reporter for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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