Saturday, January 12, 2013

How We Learn Goodness and Can Still Throw It Away by Robert M. Shelby

Ah, the wonderful days of yesteryear, the times before most people living today were born. I remember saluting the flag, first thing in the morning at school. Often, a short prayer was recited or an old-maid teacher read a verse from the bible. How salutary and cleansing. You didn’t have to understand anything, just conform. Make no trouble. Half your teachers had no other life, no deep interests, visible passions or unusual activities. Conventional. Those with families were well adjusted, organized, sometimes more maternal than others. From reading material and teacher-led discussion, we learned social values and skills of mind, as well as awakening empathy and circumspect caution by examples of human drama, edification and tragedy in current events. Precepts were not primary but insinuated in the course of hours between morning recess, lunch, afternoon recess and home-going. Each day at prescribed times, a number of subjects were taught. Reading. Spelling. Grammar. Penmanship. Arithmetic. Music. Geography. History.  Deportment was taught and judged all the time.

Ethical and behavioral values were implied without getting highly abstract about them. No hammering. In the same way we were taught Americanism. The wonders of California and nature. Living with appreciation for literature and all the arts. Nobody taught “Leftism” or “Liberalism,” though gradual, progressive improvement and personal liberality or generousness of spirit were assumed. We were growing. Human civilization was not yet final and complete. We could subscribe and add to it. Or, we could withdraw from the grand scheme of things into our self-concerns, our drives for self-improvement and empowerment; for gaining a career and the possessions that would eventually enslave us; just as we could turn away from the real world into worlds of our own making, alone or in company of similarly intentioned people. It was a balancing act to ride both horses at once. Most of us slipped off, one way or another. Some of us lived lives of permanent non-recovery. Some went to hell early, even when looking successful. Some converted to Catholicism or Communism for definition.

For the most part, we were already formed, already deeply programmed at home, before ever starting school. Character can be discriminated from personality only by verbal or dictionary definition. Almost as soon as we arrive in the world (not as genomes or bodily organisms but as) persons, we start to develop personality. Personality is that effect of a person which resides in other persons around, who interact with that person. People develop in mutual reflection. We form personalities by internalizing others’ projections upon us of their beliefs about our personal nature and how they expect we will behave. Always, personality is a social amalgam, but the underlying person may compound differently. There is the source of trouble.

What we call character has to do with what we expect or demand of ourselves. Others judge us by what of their own characters they see in us. Personality can become a false face and character a superficial construct. A person absorbed in his or her persona may grow unacquainted with a deeper self, one’s actual person, its feelings and wishes. That is how circumstance can split the connection, allowing the person to act out in ways otherwise impossible. Mob behavior and the madness of crowds is more than the title of an old book. There are less dramatic modes of breakdown when a more real and able person suddenly emerges; or a conventional, only slightly eccentric citizen goes wild whether in public or secret and “breaks the mold,” commits a criminal tort such as theft, damage to property or violent murder. Here rise questions of sanity and stability.

Several sciences work at discerning the bounds, sources and “essence” or definable nature of mental-emotional soundness and conscientiousness, hoping to measure them, hence to classify their expressions and predict individual behavior. Much is known, but to understand a particular individual requires long observation and deep study. Long psychological counseling is seldom possible. Nor is past behavior a sure index of future behavior. Signs of attitude may signal proclivity, but instability may presage not crime but creative activity. The bipolar person shiftily masked may be Mozart. The sweetly steady-seeming, young fellow next door may keep victims heads in his freezer while he sings in the church choir and dates the minister’s daughter on bank holidays.

Maybe our universities and colleges should found Schools of Goodness. Our high schools could initiate study hours in What Nice People Hope You Will Do. Primary and middle schools could start teaching units in How To Make Enemies, Hurt People and End in Jail, with daily series of dramatic scenarios like “Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come For You?” “Cops?” “Law and Order; Special Victims?” Or daily performance by class-members of Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s plays with expert interpretation?

Because, I’ll tell you this! Don’t expect to get the good results we want by pounding rules into students like drill movements in Boot Camp. A very little may help, but only as part of a broadly influencing pattern of life experience. Children never develop in isolation. Society exposes them to innumerable examples of best and worst behavior and everything in between, starting at home and ending up rich--or jobless, having lost everything in a financial swamp resulting from the immorality of multitudes.

How do you fix this mess? Not by schooling kids in superstitions that inadvertently build artificial facades imitating strong self-hood. Not by drilling them in mindlessly brain-stopping fictions and blistering effects of stove heat or paddle whacking. Nowdays, most kids know more about bullshit than you or I do. We are behind the parade, living our own charades. We need to be extremely careful, smile a lot, and love everybody all the time. Everybody.

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