The Pursuit of Moral and Spiritual Values
by William Heard Kilpatrick - 1952
The text of an address given by Kilpatrick for his eightieth birthday celebration at the Hotel Commodore in New York City on November 17, 1951.
First of all, let me say that I deeply appreciate the honor done me in this celebration of my eightieth birthday. My words are not adequate to express the thanks that I feel, most to all those who have worked so tirelessly and unselfishly to make the occasion a success, next to those who have given us an unusually fine program this evening, and finally to all of you who were willing to give your presence here on this occasion. The honor is far beyond any dream I have ever had. I thank you profoundly.
What I have otherwise to say I have thought to devote to the demand that American life and education pursue in these confused times with greater zealous-ness and effectiveness the moral and spiritual values of our civilization.
First, let us take a hasty glance at the deeper lying factors that explain our present American situation. It seems fair to assert that six distinct revolutions can be named as currently in process, each interacting with the rest to shape our present world and its resulting confusion of outlook.
The result of these and other factors has been the emergence of serious tasks and problems which make urgent spiritual demands on our American civilization.
First, perhaps, is the new task of world leadership which has been forced upon us, a task for which we are as yet ill prepared. Our citizens need to understand and accept this new status of our country. Our schools in general must prepare the rising generation to understand and accept what this new status means, and our most advanced schools must prepare specialists to lead in the spiritual aspects of the practical demands of this new situation.
Certain domestic problems also make special demands, demands which if not met may bring serious consequences. The first of these problems is the proper, fair, and just treatment of the minorities in our midst. Any decent regard for democracy, any decent morality, and (for the more than half of our population who profess it) any decent religion—all alike demand that we treat these minorities according to the Golden Rule, as we ourselves would wish to be treated.
And now to these spiritual demands at home for the fair and just treatment of minority members there has been added also an international demand: we stand before the world charged with failure to live up to our professed democracy. For our treatment of minorities in our midst our enemies point at us the finger of scorn, while our friends stand perplexed and troubled.
Second, recent disclosures seem to show a widespread lack of regard for the proper moral code in both public and private relationships. Many of these disclosures are disgraceful, others while not so bad are still at variance with thoroughgoing integrity.
Third, less obvious to many but still clear to the more discerning is a widespread lack among our people of disposition to seek the finer quality of living. Mere "spectatoritis" is too often sought in the leisure time. An outward show of money is too often satisfying. An empty if not hurtful excitement is too often sought. We need more of the open mind, more of the imaginative spirit, more of personal creating, a greater appreciation of the more spiritual quality of living.
As we face all these problems, it seems clear that we need to improve our education. What we have thus far had does not suffice. Specifically I should like to assert that our education must in appreciably greater and more effective degree seek as its crucial essence the moral and spiritual values of life.
Because the terms "moral," "spiritual," and "value" have been long with us, they have become for many "shopworn." They do not grip us as they should. Besides, the revolutions named above have for many destroyed the traditional foundations that once supported these terms and gave them the then accepted right to claim obedience. Under these circumstances a critical glance at these three terms may help our discussion.
A word about the anthropological history of the term moral may help to remove any "shopworn" deterioration it has suffered and at the same time give it for many a firmer basis of obligation in practical life.
According to Sumner, the primitive beginning was in "folkways," the resulting trial-and-error ways of managing social behavior. It was easy to see that certain ways of social behaving hurt life, while others helped it. In time the conceptions of Tightness and wrongness arose to distinguish the helpful ways from the hurtful and to bring appropriate social pressure accordingly. When this occurred some "folkways" became "mores," socially obligatory ways of behaving. Later, when classical Greece, centering at Athens, became culturally self-conscious, what had been a traditional set of mores, largely taboos, were now for the first time in history critically examined. And morals in the critical and truer sense thus found a positive status among the intelligent people of the world, with ethics resulting as the severest study of the principles of morality.
In keeping with the third revolution named above, morality and ethics are now studied inductively. As to anything else, the late Durand Drake said, ". .. authoritarian morality is blindfolded morality." So that morality is now the conscious obligation to act in those ways that best promise to bring the worthy good life to all affected. Three things thus enter definitely into any adequate practice of morality. One is to build, individually and socially, such an aggregate of life's ideals and attitudes as will furnish an effective guiding conception of what constitutes "the worthy good life"; a second is to develop practical skill in evaluating the various possibilities of action implicit in any given situation; and a third is to develop the settled commitment to act up to the best that individual and social critical thinking can find. So much for the term moral.
The term spiritual tends to evoke greater differences of opinion. Because it is public education that here principally concerns us and because this, according to recent decisions of the Supreme Court, must be conducted on a strict basis of the separation of church and state, I am giving these considerations their due place in choosing a definition of the term spiritual., And I may say that in so doing I am at the same time following the earlier and more original meanings of the term as given in the latest Webster. (I might add in passing that I spent most of June in the state institutions of Kentucky discussing the problem of teaching moral and spiritual values in the public schools of Kentucky on a conscious basis of the separation of church and state, as charted by Professor William Clayton Bower, recently retired as professor of religious education from the University of Chicago, but now working in his old haunts at Transylvania College, Lexington, Kentucky. That experience has definitely influenced my present discussion.) But even more specifically I shall use the term "moral and spiritual values" to mean generally a morality as viewed in the light of the spirit of morality, morality in the light of its finest and clearest spirit. As Carlyle said, "It is not thy works . . . but only the spirit thou workest in, that can have worth." It is mostly in this sense that I shall use the term spiritual. I may sum up all of this in the words of my good friend, Dr. John L. Quids:
By spiritual I mean those ways of living and thinking which undergird, and contribute to, the dignity and worth of human personality. Nothing that degrades the life of the individual man can be considered spiritual; nothing that enriches it can be considered unspiritual.
The term value is easy to define. Said E. L. Thorndike, "Value or worth or good means power to satisfy wants." Man as a behaving organism is, as we all know, stirred to action by his wants. But, as we also know, wants often get in each other's way. It is now 7:30 A.M., and my alarm clock is calling on me to get up; but I want to sleep longer. However, I also want to make good in my new position. I must then choose. After the conflicting wants in any given situation have been critically weighed against one another and one has won out over the others as promising to take best care of all the pertinent considerations, the want thus critically evaluated and found most worthy of choice ceases to be a mere want; instead it becomes what we call a value. As John Dewey says, a value is "whatever is taken to have rightful authority in the direction of conduct."
With these strategic definitions thus cleared we move to the next step and ask how education can, psychologically, hope to pursue effectively the desirable "moral and spiritual values."
First, what is, psychologically, the effective pursuit of an educational aim? In more common language, when has anything been learned? What do we mean by the verb to learn? And when has true learning taken place?
To answer this in its setting we have to revert to the current revolutions referred to at the outset. It was not so stated then, but one revolution very definitely now in process in our midst relates to education. In the third revolution there named it was stated that logic had shifted its emphasis from the deductive use of static essences to the inductive study of change and becoming. It fitted with that older point of view to count that education is handing down on authority to the young and ignorant the formulated wisdom of those who know. On this basis, learn in the school sense meant to acquire, principally by repetitive memorizing, the formulations of knowledge found in books; and any such formulation had been learned when it could be recited or, better, repeated by the learner to the teacher. The belief and hope—strange as it now sounds—was that if the learner had the words "in his mind," they would somehow constitute wisdom in him and— stranger still—that he would behave accordingly.
We now know that both of these are too much to hope for. Acquiring words may fall far short of acquiring ideas and still farther from building wisdom; but even more, acquiring words or even ideas to recite gives little or no assurance that one will in actual life behave that way. Instead, we now see that we learn to behave a certain way by actually behaving that way; and one will learn it in the degree that he himself feels it, accepts it in his heart—and not merely outwardly—as his chosen way of behaving. In other words, we learn what we really live, live from our hearts in an actual life situation.
This means, and I wish to stress the point as crucial, that book learning as a process does not suffice to effect adequate social-moral behavior. This does not mean any depreciation of books or of book learning; it only means that we really learn what is in books best, if not only, as we use the book meanings in and for life. In a word, if we wish to uphold character building as our dominant educational aim—and I for one do so uphold character building with stress on the moral-spiritual aspect thereof— then we have to remake in great measure our existing educational enterprise, particularly the secondary school and the college. Our better elementary schools, especially for the youngest school children, have accepted in theory the thoroughgoing remaking of the school and school procedures. In this area, the school is increasingly accepted as a place of living for living, the richest and finest living that teacher and pupils can together contrive. But the secondary school and the college still run too largely on the basis of merely acquiring the contents of books and lectures, with the test of success being the ability to give back the content of the assignments in quiz and examination. Speaking generally, behaving in a social-moral situation has no place in most secondary schools and colleges. In this respect also is education in the midst of current change, with the revolution less than half accomplished.
One more word, and that about discipline. The older notion here was if we consistently forced a child to behave in a desirable way, even under threat of positive punishment, that he would in time build that desirable trait into his character. Now, our psychiatrists tell us that this is a hazardous procedure. We are more likely to develop a maladjusted personality than we are to build a strong moral character. And careful observation bears out what Shakespeare long ago said, that "the quality of mercy is not strained," does not come by compulsion. So with all the finer traits of character, the moral and spiritual values, they come not by compulsion. They have to be lived in and from the learner's mind and heart.
How then can we bring about such inner living of the moral and spiritual as will develop moral and spiritual traits? How can we bring it about that child or youth accepts wholeheartedly what is to him a novel way of behaving?
First, we have to start where the learner is. The new and desired way of responding must to him not seem too new or different.
Second, the new way has to be called for in a situation that appeals to him as life itself. And it is much more likely to be thus accepted if some of his established comrades are with him in the group and they approve the idea. Under such circumstances he will likely go along. But his first response along this new line will probably not itself be wholehearted; nor will the first learning probably suffice to build the desired habit and attitude. Additional real learning situations will, under proper guidance, carry the learner further along the road. He will likely respond this second time more nearly wholeheartedly, and consequently his second response will bring stronger learning. If this can be continued under favorable conditions, we can expect the time to come when this person also will be strongly committed to this way of behaving and will then help others to take the same road. Of course, approval, feelings of achievement, satisfyingness will help strengthen the growing acceptance. These are things that every sensitive and discerning teacher already well knows.
In conclusion, then, citizens in general and schools and colleges in particular must accept the positive duty of seeking a quality of citizenship superior to what otherwise we must expect. Specifically, our secondary schools must allot half or more of their time to the more general type of education with intelligent and responsible citizenship as a central feature. This probably means giving up the present departmentalization for half the day or more. And this responsible citizenship will come only if the students get positively into socially useful work in the surrounding community. The college must do likewise for somewhat less than half its working week.
And now the final word. We shall not meet these strategic social needs unless we recognize that full commitment to the spiritual-moral is an essential element in the effort. Respect for personality wherever found, regard for the rights and feelings of others, commitment to the common good—these are in the final analysis moral and spiritual values and must so be treated. Effective moral commitment is the only safe hope we can have for meeting the social needs of the world. And if this birthday celebration is to have adequate justification, it must mean for us all a truer and fuller devotion to the pursuit of the moral and spiritual values.