Where We Used To Learn Values

But how does one get values?

It used to be that children were taught certain things in a family setting; both explicitly and by example. One believed in honesty and hard work because the people you knew and respected were honest and worked hard, and they seemed to be rewarded for it, in some measure. But this type of learning has disintegrated in many ways; the family unit itself is not strong, with the meteoric rise of divorce and children born out of wedlock (The cause and the effect of choosing short term benefits over long term commitments.) If you don’t see your father or mother come home from work every day, you’re not going to learn that process.

Just as important is the fact that hard work and commitment to long term values aren’t rewarded any more. Huge sums are made not through adherence to values, but from class action lawsuits, short term financial chicanery, providing amusement to the bored masses through sports and entertainment, meteoric Internet ventures that make huge fortunes and then self-destruct, etc. Wealth comes and goes. It’s simply not statistically true that the rich always get richer; these days fortunes are made, and lost, at an astounding rate. The idea of building a long term career or business seems very old fashioned.

One was also taught, explicitly, values in formal educational settings. Few remember that Harvard University, that current bastion of value neutrality, was founded by John Harvard to teach clergy, whose primary task was to teach values in the context of religion. Kids in school today are taught sex education, tolerance, racial diversity, and eco-sensitivity, but they certainly aren’t taught to make hard moral choices. Children are trained to do well on standardized tests, but the greatest test they will really face in life is the moral choices they will make, and they are completely unprepared for that. Should I marry the woman I just got pregnant, should I steal from my employer, should I cheat on my taxes, should I flee from the accident, should I take unemployment payments rather than find a lower paying job?

Formal religion was at one time the overriding teacher of values, and, to a large extent, still is; Whether one is Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Confucian or something else, religion explicitly teaches certain values, and, up until very recently, the values of each religion were deeply embedded in both the formal rules and informal cultural mores of each society in which that religion was dominant. Most Americans were Protestant Christians, and American was a society dominated by Protestant values. But as society has become more secularized all over the world the impact of religion has fallen, though it is still influential in many ways. One might take the list of good values I propagate and say, as Max Weber does, that they flow directly from Protestantism, and the Protestant work ethic. While this may to some degree be true, it’s also true that I am not a Protestant, nor even a Christian.

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