Speech to the National Catholic Education Association

"Probably the most important political problem of the next 25 years will be also an ethical and religious problem of profound significance: How can the fruits of this Earth be shared equitably enough at least to reduce the chances of mass starvation, economic collapse, and war?"
New Orleans, LA • April 25, 1975

Nationally, the news about education today is largely confined to money. The high cost to the taxpayers, sky-rocketing tuition, budget deficits, fund—raising campaigns efforts to obtain state support for private schools, struggles between competing educational bureaucracies -- these are the topics which dominate discussion, questions of educational substance and content, of ideas and goals, of experimentation and reform are not being raised.

The comparison with the previous decade is striking. As compared to the sixties, few today argue about, or even discuss, subjects such as the new math or the old math; foreign languages in elementary school, live teachers versus technological substitutes; TV education in the classroom; pre-school and compensatory education; common core curricula versus free electives; area studies; or cross-cultural experiences as educational imperatives.

Poor James Allen and his “the right to read” program; poor James Coleman and his report; poor Jerome Bruner and his parent-education program; poor Urie Bronfenbrenner and his ideas for compensatory education. All these men look like candidates for a wax works museum, -- along with my own darlings -- Head Start, the Job Corps, Upward Bound, and foster grandparents.

“Pat” Moynihan urged Nixon to handle blacks with “benign neglect.” This administration and the intellectual community, have adopted, apparently the benign neglect approach to schools and colleges of America. Except for money and status, no one seems to care.

These reflections on the state of American education are not mine alone. They probably express widespread feelings and beliefs because they come from the experienced and perceptive education editor of the New York Times, Fred Hechinger, whose whole life has been spent analyzing and discussing education in America. Mr. Hechinger maintains, moreover, that “the educational leadership lacks the spirit and the voice to draw public attention to questions of substance."… Despite the need for initiative and action, “educators appear to have withdrawn from the public arena.” And he concludes that a defeatist and vapid image of education is undermining what for over a century has come to be an article of faith, ... Namely that education and the nation’s progress are tied together by policy and fate.

If Fred Hechinger is correct in his analysis -- there is little or no educational leadership -- a defeatist and vapid image of education is being presented to America - then, I suggest, the door is wide open for Catholic educators. In fact, the door’s wide open for any group of religious educators -- Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Communist or Catholic. Because what’s missing in American education is not money or buildings -- our gymnasiums are still the world’s best. And the super-dome is not from this banquet room. What’s missing is faith: -- faith in what we teach; faith in what we have inherited; faith in the future of American and Christian ideals.

Protestants and Protestantism once provided the ethic for our public schools, but for them it’s no longer possible even to recite the Lord’s Prayer in the classrooms. For the John Dewey pragmatists, the ideals of social adaptability and social acceptance, the importance of peer acceptance, group dynamics, these and all other byproducts of moral relativism have foundered on Watergate. For Watergate has exposed much that we need to know about our American ethic and our American schools.

All the participants in the Watergate debauch succeeded within the American system. They learned how. To get ahead in our schools, they got elected to important student positions in our universities. They belong to our churches, our country clubs, our political life.

Who taught them: their faith, let alone their ethics? John Dean and Egil Krough, Dwight Chapin and Neil Strachan, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Stans; Hunt and Liddy etc., etc., certainly never got any effective instruction that faith in America, or faith in education or faith in god, means anything more than success in’ this world at any price. As Mitchell said with pathetic self-righteousness: “I would have done anything to assure the reelection of Richard Nixon.”

In times dominated by ethics and men like these what has Catholic education to offer America? What have Catholic educators to say to our country?

First of all, Catholic education has nothing to offer if we focus our efforts solely, or, even primarily, on a fight for public tax support of our schools. We should not emphasize the money we save the taxpayers, nor the excellent performance of Catholic school students on national, standardized tests, or later in life. Yes, we do save the taxpayers’ money. Parochial school graduates do compete successfully -- academically as well as athletically. Notre Dame beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl! And graduates of Notre Dame are also professors and intellectual leaders at Harvard Yale, University of California, Chicago and elsewhere. Catholic education does not have to prove any longer that it is as good as secular education. America needs more of both, and more from both.

America needs schools able to develop values within the minds and hearts of our young people. We need to heighten and sharpen the moral consciousness of students. We need to establish and assert moral, standards. We need to work for the day when a person’s moral IQ will be as important as his or her mental IQ. And to achieve these objectives Catholic schools should be the best equipped and most highly motivated of all.

Traditional methods will not be adequate for this purpose. But that does not mean we are helpless.

On the contrary, I believe we are entering a period of greater hopefulness than any have experienced in hundreds of years-- I say “hopefulness,” first, because the problems we face cannot be solved with the popular ethics of previous eras. The old and shallow standards must be replaced. And, secondly, because new pedagogical methods have been developed which offer new ways to teach students how to analyze and resolve their moral and ethical dilemmas.

The new problems which should be challenging our imagination and our schools are the world-wide problems of food and population; of energy resources and consumption; of international trade and monetary stability; of water, air, and resource pollution; of human rights and political systems based on torture and repression. None of these problems can be “solved” by any one nation; neither the USA nor the USSR; neither by Western Europe operating, if it could, as a single entity, nor by Asia or Africa operating, if they could as continental entities. Fortunately, I believe, for mankind, God has given us problems beyond the capacities of any one nation-state. So even the Superpowers are going to have to hang together with their little powers to survive. Chauvinistic nationalism can produce only a nuclear holocaust.

To solve these new, supra-national problems -- even to approach and discuss these problems rationally -- will require a profound change in ethical standards which can only flow from persons whose own ethics have been elevated beyond the Watergate level. Fortunately, a pedagogical method has been developed capable of beginning that immense task. I refer to the theories and practical successes of professor Lawrence Kohlberg’s programs for helping human beings to advance through the seven stages of moral growth. Described simply and much too briefly, professor Kohlberg at Harvard University has established that all persons in all cultures develop morally through seven stages of moral development. These moral stages are analogous to Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. Professor Kohlberg has shown, moreover, that persons of all cultures can be helped to grow from the lowest levels of moral awareness -- and or moral action -- to higher levels of moral sensitivity and action by systematized instruction following Socratic methods. Grossly over-simplifying professor Kohlberg’s theories and programs, I can say that he replaces rote instruction in moral codes like the Ten Commandments by discussion, wherein those commandments are brought to life and applied practically to the existing problems of individuals and society.

These Kohlberg procedures have special relevance for catholic education, even though they are also viable for non-sectarian, public educational institutions. They are relevant to Catholic education because they offer a new way to energize adults as well as younger students into studying, understanding, and acquiring ethical insights into the most important problems of our times. They provide new reality and justification for religious education. They also offer a chance to re-establish on sound moral grounds the hackneyed, tired, out-of-date, “citizenship courses” so widespread and useless in our schools today.

Let me give an example.

Here in my hand is the current issue of “Theological Studies,” the learned journal published by the Jesuits. Out of 48 million Catholics in America, less than 10,000 read “Theological Studies.” This is not the Catholic Church’s answer to “Playboy” -- although a better title for “Theological Studies” might be “Thinkboy.”

This issue of “Theological Studies” is devoted completely to thee population problem, -- a problem of such vast significance that no Catholic should go through school without studying it.

Every religious school should be striving to inform students. About the mural dimensions of this problem. But how can this be done?

I suggest that Catholic educators could take this issue of “theological studies”, break it down to 36 discussion sessions following professor Kohlberg’s procedures, and next year provide every Catholic High School student with a chance to study, think about, debate, and learn the religious dimensions of this current problem of world significance. Whether or not Catholic educators and schools focus on this problem, your Catholic students will be, -- they are being – inundated with propaganda on population - the alleged necessity for zero population growth, abortion, and sterilization. Our American culture which has brought us sex without babies will soon provide for babies without sex. And the fundamental ethic of our-American society is no further away than the local movie theatre.

Have you seen Woody Allen in “Sleeper?” You must if you have not already done so -- because Woody Allen, the most gifted comic alive, reveals the true nature of our society, somewhat as Charlie Chaplin did years ago with “City Lights” and “The Kid.” At the end of “Sleeper,” Woody Allen’s girl says to Woody: --

”...Well, then, you don’t believe in, politics or government, or God do you?”

To which woody Allen replies

”... No, I don’t. And his girl then asks:--

“...what do you believe in?...”

And woody Allen says: --

”...Sex and death. Those are the only two things that don’t leave you nauseous afterward...”

That’s the ethic of contemporary America -- and the population problem is caught up in that ethic --- and your students are caught up in it, too.

Catholic education is not going to reach such students with the Baltimore catechism, nor even with Episcopal admonitions. Today’ s students must be brought into the intellectual process -- the decision reaching process -- because, as Pope John foresaw -- they want to be part of an open church, an open community of Saints striving to retain faith, sustain hope, and practice charity -- not with Christmas baskets – but with their human skills working on existing human problems.

I mention the population problem first only because this year population has a special cutting edge. Population is being linked directly with protection of the environment (too many people equals too much pollution), and with the shortage of energy. As we confront the possibility of world-wide scarcity of food oil, minerals, clean water & air, many are turning to population reduction as the first, cheapest, and quickest way to deal with shortages of raw materials. But the ethical and religious dimensions of these problems are much more complicated than control of population alone.

Look only for a moment at the terrifying food problem.

By what moral right can we in the USA continue to consume five times as many calories a day as human beings in Africa, Asia, or Latin America?

By what moral right can we Americans eat, use, and burn more than 30% of the world’s resources while we have only 6% of the world’s population?

President Nixon expressed the popular attitude last November. Speaking to members of the seafarer’s union, he said: -..."America uses 30% of the world’s energy and that isn’t bad... That’s good. That means we are the richest, strongest people in the world... May it always be that way!” I guess he got thunderous applause. Similarly when speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution or to the Executives Club in Chicago - the president promised we will be “energy independent” by 1980. But, according to what system of religion or ethics. Do we have the right to guzzle food and energy while millions starve and billions walk?

Nixon knows the visions he calls up are impossible to realize without inflicting unbelievable suffering on others. Even though they don’t vote in our elections, do millions of human beings merit no place in our economic calculations, not to mention our ethical outlook?

Probably the most important political problem of the next 25 years will be also an ethical and religious problem of profound significance:

How can the fruits of this Earth be shared equitably enough at least to reduce the chances of mass starvation, economic collapse, and war?

That question cannot be discussed intelligently without an ethical outlook. The Popes have taught for generations that people and nations must have a basic perception of the globe as a potential community, where all human beings are inter-dependent one upon another not independent of each other. Compared to papal teaching the Watergate success ethic is not Catholic or Christian.

The “we are #1 ethic” is not Christian or Catholic. The “we are the richest and strongest” nation is not Christian or Catholic.

But all of these statements are pretty close to the heart of the American ethic today.

So, I repeat, all religious education has a Herculean task to perform and an historic role to fulfill. For it is already resolving our religious-minded, spiritually motivated people to teach the necessity for Americans to rise above Watergate ethics – and this can be best done by focusing on the most emotional issues confronting mankind: - population, food, energy, money, human rights, and political freedom from repression and torture.

Last month, the greatest writer of his nation was exiled by his own government -- not because he hated his nation, but because he loved it enough to believe it could be better. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written and witnessed to the enduring values which alone can make existence more than a materialistic journey toward extinction. He has experienced and exposed the Soviet system of oppression. He has just told the world the truth of that system in his new book, “The Gulag Archipelago” and now for him, his native Russia is a prison surrounded by high walls -- not to keep him in, but to lock him out.

Yet as we stand with Solzhenitsyn, we must also understand the deeper truth his fate teaches. For the Gulag Archipelago is not a place of geography, but a global condition. Political prisoners are exiled to the Gulag Archipelago of torture in Bolivia and Brazil and Greece. Millions of Blacks inhabit the Gulag Archipelago of apartheid in South Africa. Thousands die each month on the Gulag Archipelago of starvation in India. The Gulag Archipelago surrounds us -- and the hard truth is that it also exists among us.

The Gulag Archipelagos of America are not as harsh as a Siberian Labor Camp, or a Dihari Refugee Center. But the relative, nature of our shortcomings does not excuse the absolute reality of the suffering they inflict. Here in our own country, we have allowed the desperate isolation of the urban ghetto, the lonely poverty of Indian reservations, the corruption of a government which commits crimes and then covers up.

The Gulag Archipelago takes different forms in different lands. But there is a common path to that--place in every land. It is the path of official injustice -- what Costas Gavras calls “injustice in the name of justice,” the abuse of power to repress the people power should protect. The injustice Solzhenitsyn’s exile was ratified by the rules of Soviet justice -- and Saigon’s jails are filled with dissenters according to the law and the forms of Vietnamese justice -- and reporters’ phones are tapped in America in the name of national security and with the support of the Department of Justice.

Yet our condition is different in another, happier sense. As much as any nation in the world -- and more than most, we still have the capacity to correct wrongs instead of committing them, to widen the writ and reality of our liberty. For we do not exalt the state over the individual; we still have the freedom to choose and the forums to express our choice; and we still profess the ideals which inspired our forbearers to revolt against injustice and to write into our Constitution a promise to “establish justice.”

And that is where we must begin the battle against the Gulag Archipelago among us -- with an effort to match our institutes of justice to our ancient promise of justice. Now more than ever, that is the central challenge of American life.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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