Combating the "Devil-Made-Me-Do-It" Theory of Moral Responsibility

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In many ways educators respond to their critics the way silly putty responds to the poke of a child's finger. In the late 1960's, as a result of the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam war, there was a hue and cry to "humanize" the curriculum. The old pedagogy, it was felt, was as dry as parchment and didn't meet the needs of the students. Hence, we had the so-called educational revolution lead by people like Dwight Allen, dean of the school of education at the University of Massachusetts.

Standards, in the fundamental sense, disappeared faster than summer spit on a Dallas sidewalk. Prerequisites were dropped and many courses were graded on a pass/fail basis. College-level education courses had all the substance of a Hostess Twinkie. And a graduate degree in education amounted to little more than a certificate of attendance.

Graduates of such programs then brought their message to the public schools of America. Within a few years there came the inevitable reaction calling for a return to the "basics." The specter of declining Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores quickly alarmed the parents and outraged the taxpayer. The emphasis shifted back to reading, writing and, computational skills.

This change was widely applauded, as well it should have been. If the sat scores would reverse their skid then, maybe, the taxpayers would again feel as though they were getting their money's worth and would get off the backs of classroom teachers.

SAT scores are, after all, easy enough to understand. If they go down, the schools have failed; if they go up, whoopee, the schools have done their job.

There is, however, one old-fashioned basic which has been overlooked or misunderstood. And, unlike the others, it is impossible to measure and nearly impossible to teach. The neglected basic is moral responsibility.

How can we teach our children that they have control over their destinies and that they are responsible for their successes and failures? How can we teach them that they and what they do have some ultimate significance? How can we teach them that life isn't a losing proposition? On the surface it seems simple enough. Parents, teachers, and churchmen can teach morality and the worth of the individual. But the 20th-century child is also receiving another message.

The underlying and subtle message from science--that the individual is less and less significant--is destroying the foundation of moral responsibility. The fact that it is unintentional doesn't help much. It is an irony that as man's knowledge expands, the place of the individual seems to shrink.

Ptolemy's universe put us in the center;Einstein's put us nowhere. Behavioral psychology has placed man "beyond freedom and dignity." A parent tells a child that he or she is responsible. B.F. Skinner says that human will is only a fanciful superstition--a part of the illusion of ego. A minister tells us to love thy neighbor. Biology tells us that all life is war--the struggle of one individual against another.

Evolutionary progress has done more for weaponry than it has for human nature. Even love has been analyzed and reduced to mere physical congestion. The mystery and wonder are gone. There's nothing sinister in any of this. Truth has always led the way for modern man. And we have followed it blindly in the sure and certain knowledge that the succeeding revelations would only make the world a better place to live. Progress has been our most important product.

All of which is not lost on today's youth. They have adopted the "you-only-go-around-once" philosophy of living. They want their share of gusto. Only the present counts. And when something goes wrong, they can always fall back on the "devil-made-me-do-it" theory of moral responsibility. Such attitudes are extremely difficult to combat.

The "truth"--which modern science has revealed--was supposed to set us free. But it hasn't. Freedom of the individual will to decide between right and wrong doesn't square with scientific determinism, which makes nonsense out of such thoughts as "What would have happened if...?" Moral responsibility is a firefly's light in the eternal darkness.

Human dignity is an experiment between ice ages. Who will take responsibility for racism? For Cambodia? For acid rain?

The cards are stacked against us in the struggle to teach moral responsibility--the most basic of the "basics." But we must try. We must continue to teach human accountability, not because it's ultimately right, but because we can't survive in a democratic society without it. Like Tolstoy, we cannot find our morality in intellectual discourse, but only in life as it is lived day to day.

Teachers, parents, and clergymen must somehow teach children that they can only find significance and be morally responsible if they give themselves over to a task which takes them beyond their own individual needs and wants. We must continue to believe and convince our children to believe, like Schopenhauer's fly, that we are actually pushing the stagecoach and not just tagging along for the ride.

Vol. 01, Issue 07, Page 19

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