The front page of the March 25, 2008 Dallas Morning News carried the headline: “Attacks on staff rise in disd,” adding the consoling sub-title, “Student assaults have doubled since 2002, are still below state average.” About 1960 there was no statistic at all. What happened? There are of course many answers: latchkey kids, permissiveness, television violence, the culturally acceptable fashion of attacking authority. But certainly one part of the answer is that we, not just our children but most of us, have none of that fear of the Lord that is, we are told, the very beginning of wisdom. The average child has every right to think that nobody cares, because if God does not care, in the end nobody does.
We are perhaps all familiar with the tales of religious sisters who warped little Johnny’s psyche by telling him that his guardian angel was whispering in one ear, the devil in the other and that if little Johnny listened to the devil he would go to hell and be punished everlastingly. This we are told is the very worst kind of moral education. But, alas, there is one kind that is worse. And that is the education conducted in a moral context in which God does not care, and in which the highest moral appeal is to the standards of political correctness or, finally, to the positive authority of the police. For without God to back them up, lurking there at the edge of conscience, parents, teachers, policemen, and tax collectors are just other sets of fallible men and women who have interests different from my own and whose claim to authority can be ignored or circumvented as occasion requires. The prospect of eternal punishment may be highly discomfiting, but free fall into the moral vacuum in which actions have no significance beyond the displeasure of a teacher or judge is consummately destructive.
Malcolm Muggeridge often remarked that when the entire gdp of the United States is directed to funding public education, ignorance will be universal, his point being that as school budgets have increased, learning has withered. For this there are many reasons, but one surely is the neglect of the axiom that apart from a significant moral context, teaching cannot be fruitful. If learning were just information, the computer, always an abstractive, one-person operation no matter how interactive it might be, would do quite nicely. But in fact not only does language itself create a moral context, but, properly pursued, teaching and learning take place in a community in which language is establishing hour by hour the meaning of right action and the sources of authority, whom to obey and what to admire.
In 1962, when Bible-reading and prayer in schools were stopped by court order, it was hard to see that true religion would suffer. There were not many reports of conversions from the reading of a few lines of the King James and a short prayer. But that brief reading made the case that somebody cared; Someone who was to be listened to, namely God, and if the impression was indistinct, it was nevertheless pervasive. At eight thirty in the morning there was another Somebody in the classroom, to whom even teachers paid attention. And when that Someone vacated the premises, nobody who really mattered was left to care what Johnny did.