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AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION: 1620s TO 1920s

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GUEST BLOGGER Heidi M. Ravven

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In 1600s and 1700s America, the family was the main transmitter of moral values, embodied in religion. In particular, Puritans believed that religion expressed God's will, which individuals should will themselves to obey. In the 1800s, economic development increased personal freedom. To manage that freedom, moral educators taught individuals to further control the self and disciple the will. The early 1900s brought still greater modernity, prompting conservative moral educators to redouble their efforts to preserve traditional individualist values. Meanwhile, progressive moral educators took a more social approach: normativity expressed community values and should be developed through deliberative participation in society, particularly schools.

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SERIES

This Post is the fourth in a Series on AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION – attempts to teach "values," mostly in American public schools. That topic may interest Chinese as China attempts to strengthen its own moral education.

The first Post introduced a new book on Western ethics, the second and third Posts reported its fieldwork on recent conservative approaches to moral education. This Post sketches America's HISTORY of individualistic moralism, alternating between more and less intense.

Later Posts will describe liberal approaches and provide philosophical background. Overall, recent approaches think they are returning to Greek "virtue ethics," but misinterpret the Greek notion of character, making it into a matter of individual DECISIONS, not social HABITS.

Another main point is that this individualist-volitional account of moral agency PERSONALIZES and DEPOLITICIZES moral discourse, blaming individuals for misbehavior and social ills while diverting attention from societal issues of power and justice.

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PURITANISM

PAN-PROTESTANTISM

RENEWED MORALISM

PROGRESSIVISM

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AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION: 1620s TO 1920s

From Heidi Ravven 2013 The self beyond itself, 23-33.

[For Notes, please consult the original printed book, where they are numbered differently. Here section Headings have been added or shortened.]

PURITANISM

In early colonial times in America, moral education consisted primarily of Protestant versions of the Christian catechism. "It was Protestants from northern Europe, especially from Great Britain, who did the most to give moral education its character in the thirteen colonies," McClellan writes in Moral Education in America. The Puritans of New England were "deeply committed to moral education and extraordinarily fearful that their children would drift away from the faith and culture," despite their understanding of their own journey to the New World as a special mission to establish a model Christian commonwealth. Religious and moral education were inextricable, and the family was the locus of both. "The most devout families among the Puritans . . . conducted family devotions at the beginning of each day; . . . drilled [their children] in the church catechism; and exercised a careful, sometimes severe, discipline." Children heard Bible reading, psalm singing, lessons, and stories of piety and moral instruction at the dinner table and, as soon as they could, participated in prayers. McClellan quotes the following telling passage from The Diary of Cotton Mather:

I began betimes to entertain them [the children] with delightful Stories, especially scriptural ones. And still conclude with some Lesson of Piety; bidding them to learn that Lesson from the Story.

And thus, every Day at the Table, I have used myself to tell a Story before I rise; and make the Story useful to the Olive Plants about the Table. When the Children at any time accidentally come in my way, it is my custome to lett fall some Sentence or other, that may be monitory and profitable to them.

In most Puritan families, McClellan goes on, the catechism, the basic instruction in the denominational doctrines of the Christian faith, was "the single most important element in formal moral instruction"; it was even more important than reading the Bible, he says. The short version of the Westminster Catechism, which was the standard in early New England, stated that "man's chief end is to glorify God," whose nature is "a spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." Hence "the duty which God requires of man" is "obedience to his revealed will." Although the family was the primary locus of religious moral instruction, what schools there were in colonial New England reinforced the same message in primers and hornbooks. Religious instruction was not primarily the job of churches but a task of the home and, to a lesser extent, of school and apprenticeship. Even higher education was theological , including classical, Greek, and Latin texts in its curriculum. And of course Puritan New England was known for its public scrutiny of private life.

What about the rest of early America? We know that both traditions and conditions in the southern and middle colonies, although not as thoroughly documented, were different from those of New England. The Anglicans of Virginia, for example, while concerned about the religious and moral education of their children, had come to the New World for economic reasons rather than religious ones. Nevertheless, they passed laws mandating the teaching of the catechism to youth, servants, and apprentices in the family, in church, and in the workplace. In Virginia, however, the harsh conditions of life, the very high mortality rate, the much lower literacy rate, and the pattern of settlement of scattered plantations and farms distant from one another did not permit the development of the kind of community and educational and religious institutions common in New England, with their focus on religious moral instruction. The Quakers of Pennsylvania, while emphasizing literacy and Bible reading less than the Puritans of New England, nevertheless taught children the Quaker catechism and basic Quaker values and exercised firm discipline. Southern society generally followed the Virginia pattern, whereas the middle colonies followed the example of New England. There were common assumptions and common patterns in all regions: the family was thought to be the major transmitter of moral values, while school, apprenticeship, and church were supplementary. Religion and morality were seen as intertwined and even indistinguishable, and the catechism was the main document transmitting both. After the Revolution and up to the 1820s, growing prosperity and social stability and hierarchy brought a loosening of the severity of the moral instruction of the earlier colonial period. McClellan points to a new gentler tone in child rearing and "a more affectionate and egalitarian structure challeng[ing] the rigid patriarchal forms" of earlier times. A prolonging of childhood and the allowance of play came to be accepted. McClellan characterizes this change as toward moderation and also toward a divergence in the roles of mother and father in child rearing, the mother now taking the primary role as moral educator in response to the new Victorian conception of women as the moralizing force of society. Churches and schools began to have an enhanced role in the moral education of children. Following the vision of Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, and Benjamin Rush to teach the virtues appropriate to the new nation as a republic, a system of public education began to develop. At the universities and colleges, the Enlightenment and its vision and values softened the older sternness and rigidity of early colonial Christianity while nevertheless maintaining "a general Christian framework." Also, at this time, religious revival and intensity were taking hold in certain areas, especially along the frontier. Methodists and Baptists, other evangelicals, and newly arriving settlers of pietistic sensibilities emphasized strict and harsh methods of child rearing and moral education.

PAN-PROTESTANTISM

The transformation of moral education in America took place in the context of great social, economic, demographic, and political changes. These included the end of the rule of the propertied elite and the beginning of popular rule; the weakening of the family economy that accompanied the decline of the family farm and small business; the growth of suffrage to roughly all white male adults; the opening of the West to settlement; and the growth of urban centers and large commercial and manufacturing enterprises. Mobility and opportunity replaced stable hierarchical social arrangements as the norm. These were the years of Jacksonian democracy, a revival of evangelical Protestantism, crusades for various moral reforms, a new utopian literature, and a new form of moralistic sentimental literature. Perhaps not as paradoxically as one might expect, in morals and personal behavior Americans at this time abandoned the relaxed moral style of the earlier period and moved toward more institutional restraints and "an insistence on rigid self-restraint, rigorous moral purity, and a precise cultural conformity." McClellan suggests that "a distinctly evangelical temperament pervaded the society." The new freedoms bred a concomitant moral rigidity, perhaps because of both the fears and the opportunities let loose by the new freedoms and mobility and the loosening of structures and hierarchies. An intense focus on self-restraint accompanied the new freedoms, especially in the years 1820 to 1865. Parents, keenly aware that the new opportunities offered their children might soon distance their offspring from them forever and also bring their children into urban areas or the western frontier, where lawlessness, danger, and "alluring evils" ruled, turned with a new urgency to giving children a firm and direct foundation in moral instruction.

At this time education and especially moral education began to be institutionalized and systematized in ways previously unknown, and there was also an emphasis on beginning such education early. The family and the school were to be focused on providing this urgent and early moral education, as one educator put it, in "prepar[ing the child] for this transition to freedom by effective training in self-control and self-guidance, and to this end, the will must be disciplined by an increasing use of motives that quicken the sense of right and make the conscience regal." As another wrote, "Having ordained that man should receive his character from education, it was ordained that early instruction should exert a decisive influence on character." This was moral character training through a prism of normative Christian free will and conscience, and it was incorporated into the new nineteenth-century view of a "special role for mothers" and the new social demand that women and especially mothers "exhibit . . . a constant Christian virtue in their own lives" and take up the primary responsibility in moral education "through daily readings and exhortations to children designed to increase piety and teach proper conduct." Mothers were less focused on the catechism's doctrinal specificities than on inculcating simple moral values, now readily available in a vast new popular literature of moral instruction for children. Mothers were seen as in charge of shaping the moral character of their children and could leave their academic education to the schools. The preference for women teachers, especially in the early grades, was indicative of the focus of public education on the moral shaping of children, for it was thought that only, or especially, women could provide that moral instruction. As McClellan writes, "The primary task of the female teacher in the classroom was to exercise a strong moral influence on the child, reinforcing the lessons of the mother both by serving as a model and by eliciting proper behavior from the child." Both Sunday schools (a new institution gaining popularity as a result of early nineteenth-century evangelicalism, which brought a wider constituency than the urban poor, who were the initial target of reformers in their hope to "civilize" the urban poor) and daily schools were seen as continuing the moral instruction begun in the home. A vast new public school system was just being developed in the 1830s–1860s as education became universal in America and all white children were to be educated together in the public schools.

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GUEST BLOGGER

Heidi M. Ravven is a Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College in Central New York. She is a leading proponent of basing ethical philosophy on empirical studies of how human beings actually function, particularly as revealed by current neuroscience.

Ravven has published widely on Jewish philosphers Spinoza and Maimonides and on Jewish ethics and Jewish feminism. Ravven's 2013 book The Self Beyond Itself explores Moral Agency: why we are moral, why and when we are not, and how to get people to be more moral.

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