Moral Education.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  To a good Moral Education, two things are necessary: That the young should receive information respecting what is right and what is wrong; and that they should be furnished with motives to adhere to what is right. We should communicate moral knowledge and moral dispositions.

  I. In the endeavour to attain these ends, there is one great pervading difficulty, consisting in the imperfection and impurity of the actual moral condition of mankind. Without referring at present to that moral guidance with which all men, however circumstanced, are furnished,1 it is evident that much of the practical moral education which an individual receives is acquired by habit, and from the actions, opinions, and general example of those around him. It is thus that, to a great extent, he acquires his moral education. He adopts the notions of others, acquires insensibly a similar set of principles, and forms to himself a similar scale of right and wrong.—It is manifest that the learner in such a school will often be taught amiss. Yet how can we prevent him from being so taught? or what system of moral education is likely to avail in opposition to the contagion of example and the influence of notions insensibly, yet constantly, instilled? It is to little purpose to take a boy every morning into a closet, and there teach him moral and religious truths for an hour, if so soon as the hour is expired, he is left for the remainder of the day in circumstances in which these truths are not recommended by any living examples.

  One of the first and greatest requisites therefore in moral education, is a situation in which the knowledge and the practice of morality is inculcated by the habitually virtuous conduct of others. The boy who is placed in such a situation is in an efficient moral school, though he may never hear delivered formal rules of conduct: so that if parents should ask how they may best give their child a moral education, I answer, be virtuous yourselves.

  The young, however, are unavoidably subjected to bad example as to good: many who may see consistent practical lessons of virtue in their parents’ parlours, must see much that is contrary elsewhere; and we must, if we can, so rectify the moral perceptions and invigorate the moral dispositions, that the mind shall effectually resist the insinuation of evil.

  Religion is the basis of morality. He that would impart moral knowledge must begin by imparting a knowledge of God. We are not advocates of formal instruction—of lesson-learning—in moral any more than in intellectual education. Not that we affirm it is undesirable to make a young person commit to memory maxims of religious truth and moral duty. These things may be right, but they are not the really efficient means of forming the moral character of the young. These maxims should recommend themselves to the judgment and affections, and this can hardly be hoped while they are presented only in a didactic and insulated form to the mind. It is one of the characteristics of the times, that there is a prodigious increase of books that are calculated to benefit while they delight the young. These are effective instruments in teaching morality. A simple narrative (of facts if it be possible), in which integrity of principle and purity of conduct are recommended to the affections as well as to the judgment,—without affectation, or improbabilities, or factitious sentiment, is likely to effect substantial good. And if these associations are judiciously renewed, the good is likely to be permanent as well as substantial. It is not a light task to write such books nor to select them. Authors colour their pictures too highly. They must, indeed, interest the young, or they will not be read with pleasure; but the anxiety to give interest is too great, and the effects may be expected to diminish as the narrative recedes from congeniality to the actual condition of mankind.

  A judicious parent will often find that the moral culture of his child may be promoted without seeming to have the object in view. There are many opportunities which present themselves for associating virtue with his affections,-for throwing in among the accumulating mass of mental habits principles of rectitude which shall pervade and meliorate the whole.

  As the mind acquires an increased capacity of judging, I would offer to the young person a sound exhibition, if such can he found, of the principles of morality. He should know, with as great distinctness as possible, not only his duty, but the reasons of it. It has very unfortunately happened, that those who have professed to deliver the principles of morality, have commonly intermingled error with truth, or have set out with propositions fundamentally unsound. These books effect, it is probable, more injury than benefit. Their truths, for they contain truths, are frequently deduced from fallacious premises,—from premises from which it is equally easy to deduce errors. The fallacies of the moral philosophy of Paley are now in part detected by the public: there was a time when his opinions were regarded as more nearly oracular than now, and at that time and up to the present time, the book has effectually confused the moral notions of multitudes of readers. If the reader thinks that the principles which have been proposed in the present essays are just, he might derive some assistance from them in conducting the moral education of his elder children.

  There is negative as well as positive education,-some things to avoid, as well as some to do. Of the things which are to be avoided the most obvious is, unfit society for the young. If a boy mixes without restraint in whatever society he pleases, his education will in general be practically bad; because the world in general is bad: its moral condition is below the medium between perfect purity and utter depravation. Nevertheless, he must at some period mix in society with almost all sorts of men, and therefore he must be prepared for it. Very young children should be excluded if possible from all unfit association, because they acquire habits before they possess a sufficiency of counteracting principle. But if a parent has, within his own house, sufficiently endeavoured to confirm and invigorate the moral character of his child, it were worse than fruitless to endeavour to retain him in the seclusion of a monk. He should feel the necessity and acquire the power of resisting temptation by being subjected, gradually subjected, to that temptation which must one day be presented to him. In the endlessly diversified circumstances of families, no suggestion of prudence will be applicable to all; but if a parent is conscious that the moral tendency of his domestic associations is good, it will probably be wise to send his children to day schools rather than to send them wholly from his family. Schools, as moral instruments, contain much both of good and evil: perhaps no means will be more effectual in securing much of the good and avoiding much of the evil, than that of allowing his children to spend their evenings and early mornings at home.

  In ruminating upon moral education, we cannot, at least in this age of reading, disregard the influence of books. That a young person should not read every book, is plain. No discrimination can be attempted here; but it may be observed that the best species of discrimination is that which is supplied by a rectified condition of the mind itself. The best species of prohibition is not that which a parent pronounces, but that which is pronounced by purified tastes and inclinations in the mind of the young. Not that the parent or tutor can expect that all or many of his children will adequately make this judicious discrimination; but if he cannot do every thing, he can do much. There are many persons whom a contemptible or vicious book disgusts, notwithstanding the fascinations which it may contain. This disgust is the result of education in a large sense; and some portion of this disgust and of the discrimination which results from it, may be induced into the mind of a boy by having made him familiar with superior productions. He who is accustomed to good society feels little temptation to join in the vociferations of an alehouse.

  And here it appears necessary to advert to the moral tendency of studying, without selection, the ancient classics. If there are objections to the study resulting from this tendency, they are to be super-added to those which were stated in the last chapter on intellectual grounds; and both united will present motives to hesitation on the part of a parent which he cannot, with any propriety, disregard. The mode in which the writings of the Greek and Latin authors operate is not an ordinary mode. We do not approach them as we approach ordinary books, but with a sort of habitual admiration which makes their influence, whatever be its nature, peculiarly strong. That admiration would be powerful alike for good or for evil. Whether the tendency be good or evil, the admiration will make it great.

  Now previous to inquiring what the positive ill tendency of these writings is,—what is not their tendency? They are pagan books for Christian children. They neither inculcate Christianity, nor Christian dispositions, nor the love of Christianity. But their tendency is not negative merely. They do inculcate that which is adverse to Christianity and to Christian dispositions. They set up, as exalted virtues, that which our own religion never countenanced, if it has not specifically condemned. They censure as faults, dispositions which our own religion enjoins, or dispositions so similar that the young will not discriminate between them. If we enthusiastically admire these works, who will pretend that we shall not admire the moral qualities which they applaud? Who will pretend that the mind of a young person accurately adjusts his admiration to those subjects only which Christianity approves? No: we admire them as a whole; not perhaps every sentence or every sentiment, but we admire their general spirit and character. In a word, we admire that which our own religion teaches us not to imitate. And what makes the effect the more intense is, that we do this at the period of life when we are every day acquiring our moral notions. We mingle them up with our early associations respecting right and wrong-with associations which commonly extend their influence over the remainder of life.”2

  A very able essay, which obtained the Norrisian medal at Cambridge for 1825, forcibly illustrates these propositions; and the illustration is so much the more valuable because it appears to have been undesigned. The title is, “No valid argument can be drawn from the incredulity of the heathen philosophers, against the truth of the Christian religion.”3 The object of the work is to show, by a reference to their writings, that the general system of their opinions, feelings, prejudices, principles, and conduct was utterly incongruous with Christianity; and that, in consequence of these principles, &c., they actually did reject the religion. This is shown with great clearness of evidence: it is shown that a class of men who thought and wrote as these philosophers thought and wrote, would be extremely indisposed to adopt the religion and morality which Christ had introduced. Now this appears to me to be conclusive of the question as to the present tendency of their writings. If the principles and prejudices of these persons indisposed them to the acceptance of Christianity, those prejudices and principles will indispose the man who admires and imbibes them in the present day. Not that they will now produce the effect in the same degree. We are now surrounded with many other media by which opinions and principles are induced, and these are frequently influenced by the spirit of Christianity. The study and the admiration of these writings may not therefore be expected to make men absolutely reject Christianity, but to indispose them, in a greater or less degree, for the hearty acceptance of Christian principles as their rules of conduct.

  Propositions have been made to supply young persons with selected ancient authors, or perhaps with editions in which exceptionable passages are expunged. I do not think that this will greatly avail, It is not, I think, the broad indecencies of Ovid, nor any other insulated class of sentiments or descriptions that effects the great mischief; it is the pervading spirit and tenor of the whole,-a spirit and tenor from which Christianity is not only excluded, but which is actually and greatly adverse to Christianity. There is indeed one considerable benefit that is likely to result from such a selection, and from expunging particular passages. Boys in ordinary schools do not learn enough of the classics to acquire much of their general moral spirit, but they acquire enough to be influenced, and injuriously influenced, by being familiar with licentious language: and at any rate he essentially subserves the interests of morality who diminishes the power of opposing influences, though he cannot wholly destroy it.

  Finally, the mode in which intellectual education, generally, is acquired, may be made either an auxiliary of moral education or the contrary. A young person may store his mind with literature and science, and together with the acquisition, either corrupt his principles or amend and invigorate them. The world is so abundantly supplied with the means of knowledge-there are so many paths to the desired temple, that we may choose our own and yet arrive at it. He that thinks he cannot possess sufficient knowledge without plucking the fruit of unhallowed trees, surely does not know how boundless is the variety and number of those which bear wholesome fruit. He cannot indeed know every thing without studying the bad: which, however, is no more to be recommended in literature than in life. A man cannot know all the varieties of human society, without taking up his abode with felons and cannibals.

  II: But in reality, the second division of moral education is the more important of the two,—the supply of motives to adhere to what is right. Our great deficiency is not in knowledge, but in obedience. Of the offences which an individual commits against the moral law, the great majority are committed in the consciousness that he is doing wrong. Moral education, therefore, should be directed not so much to informing the young what they ought to do, as to inducing those moral dispositions and principles which will make them adhere to what they know to be right.

  The human mind, of itself, is in a state something like that of men in a state of nature, where separate and conflicting desires and motives are not restrained by any acknowledged head. Government, as it is necessary to society, is necessary in the individual mind. To the internal community of the heart the great question is, Who shall be the legislator? who shall regulate and restrain the passions and affections? who shall command and direct the conduct?—To these questions the breast of every man supplies him with an answer. He knows, because he feels, that there is a rightful legislator in his own heart: he knows; because he feels, that he ought to obey it.

  By whatever designation the reader may think it fit to indicate this legislator, whether he calls it the law written in the heart, or moral sense, or moral instinct, or conscience, we arrive at one practical truth at last; that to the moral legislation which does actually subsist in the human mind, it is right that the individual should conform his conduct.

  The great point then is, to induce him to do this,-to induce him, when inclination and this law are at variance, to sacrifice the inclination to the law: and for this purpose it appears proper, first, to impress him with a high, that is with an accurate, estimate of the authority of the law itself. We have seen that this law embraces an actual expression of the will of God; and we have seen that even although the conscience may not always be adequately enlightened, it nevertheless constitutes, to the individual, an authoritative law. It is to the conscientious internal apprehension of rectitude that we should conform our conduct. Such appears to be the will of God.

  It should therefore be especially inculcated, that the dictate of conscience is never to be sacrificed, that whatever may be the consequences of conforming to it, they are to be ventured. Obedience is to be unconditional,—no questions about the utility of the law,—no computations of the consequences of obedience,—no presuming upon the lenity of the divine government. “It is important so to regulate the understanding and imagination of the young, that they may be prepared to obey, even where they do not see the reasons of the commands of God. We should certainly endeavour, where we can, to show them the reasons of the divine commands, and this more and more as their understandings gain strength; but let it be obvious to them that we do ourselves consider it as quite sufficient if God has commanded us to do or to avoid any thing.”4

  Obedience to this internal legislator is not, like obedience to civil government, enforced. The law is promulgated, but the passions and inclinations can refuse obedience if they will. Penalties and rewards are indeed annexed, but he who braves the penalty and disregards the reward may continue to violate the law. Obedience therefore must be voluntary, and hence the paramount importance, in moral education, of habitually subjecting the will. “Parents,” says Hartley, “should labour from the earliest dawnings of understanding and desire, to check the growing obstinacy of the will, curb all sallies of passion, impress the deepest, most amiable, reverential, and awful impressions of God, a future state, and all sacred things.”—“Religious persons in all periods, who have possessed the light of revelation, have in a particular manner been sensible that the habit of self control lies at the foundation of moral worth.”5 There is nothing mean or mean-spirited in this. It is magnanimous in philosophy, as it is right in morals. It is the subjugation of the lower qualities of our nature to wisdom and to goodness.

  The subjugation of the will to the dictates of a higher law must be endeavoured, if we would succeed, almost in infancy and in very little things; from the earliest dawnings, as Hartley says, of understanding and desire. Children must first obey their parents and those who have the care of them. The habit of sacrificing the will to another judgment being thus acquired, the mind is prepared to sacrifice the will to the judgment pronounced within itself. Show, in every practicable case, why you cross the inclinations of a child. Let obedience be as little blind as it may be. It is a great failing of some parents that they will not descend from the imperative mood, and that they seem to think it a derogation from their authority to place their orders upon any other foundation than their wills. But if the child sees—and children are wonderfully quick-sighted in such things—if the child sees that the will is that which governs his parent, how shall he efficiently learn that the will should not govern himself?

  The internal law carries with it the voucher of its own reasonableness. A person does not need to be told that it is proper and right to obey that law. The perception of this rectitude and propriety is coincident with the dictates themselves. Let the parent then very frequently refer his son and his daughter to their own minds; let him teach them to seek for instruction there. There are dangers on every hand, and dangers even here. The parent must refer them, if it be possible, not merely to conscience, but to enlightened conscience. He must unite the two branches of moral education, and communicate the knowledge while he endeavours to induce the practice of morality. Without this, his children may obey their consciences, and yet be in error and perhaps in fanaticism. With it, he may hope that their conduct will be both conscientious, and pure, and right. Nevertheless an habitual reference to the internal law is the great, the primary concern; for the great majority of a man’s moral perceptions are accordant with truth. There is one consequence attendant upon this habitual reference to the internal law which is highly beneficial to the moral character. It leads us to fulfil the wise instruction of antiquity, Know thyself. It makes us look within ourselves; it brings us acquainted with the little and busy world that is within us, with its many inhabitants and their dispositions, and with their tendencies to evil or to good. This is valuable knowledge; and knowledge for want of which, it may be feared, the virtue of many has been wrecked in the hour of tempest. A man’s enemies are those of his own household; and if he does not know their insidiousness and their strength, if he does not know upon what to depend for assistance, nor where is the probable point of attack, it is not likely that he will efficiently resist. Such a man is in the situation of the governor of an unprepared and surprised city. He knows not to whom to apply for effectual help, and finds perhaps that those whom he baa loved and trusted are the first to desert or betray him. He feebly resists, soon capitulates, and at last scarcely knows why he did not make a successful defence.

  It is to be regretted that, in the moral education which commonly obtains, whether formal or incidental, there is little that is calculated to produce this acquaintance with our own minds; little that refers us to ourselves, and much, very much, that calls and sends us away. Of many it is not too much to say that they receive almost no moral culture. The plant of virtue is suffered to grow as a tree grows in a forest, and takes its chance of storm or sunshine. This, which is good for oaks and pines, is not good for man. The general atmosphere around him is infected, and the juices of the moral plant are often themselves unhealthy.

  In the nursery, formularies and creeds are taught; but this does not refer the child to its own mind. Indeed, unless a wakeful solicitude is maintained by those who teach, the tendency is the reverse. The mind is kept from habits of introversion, even in the offices of religion, by practically directing its attention to the tongue. “Many, it is to be feared, imagine that they are giving their children religious principles when they are only teaching them religious truths.” You cannot impart moral education as you teach a child to spell.

  From the nursery a boy is sent to school. He spends six or eight hours of the day in the schoolroom, and the remainder is employed in the sports of boyhood. Once, or it may be twice, in the day he repeats a form of prayer; and on one day in the week he goes to church. There is very little in all this to make him acquainted with the internal community; and habit, if nothing else, calls his reflections away. From school or from college the business of life is begun. It can require no argument to show that the ordinary pursuits of life have little tendency to direct a man’s meditations to the moral condition of his own mind, or that they have much tendency to employ them upon other and very different things.

  Nay, even the offices of public devotion have almost a tendency to keep the mind without itself. What if we say that the self contemplation which even natural religion is likely to produce, is obstructed by the forms of Christian worship? “The transitions from one office of devotion to another, are contrived like scenes in the drama, to supply the mind with a succession of diversified engagements.”6 This supply of diversified engagements, whatever may be its value in other respects, bas evidently the tendency of which we speak. It is not designed to supply, and it does not supply, the opportunity for calmness of recollection. A man must abstract himself from the external service if he would investigate the character and dispositions of the inmates of his own breast. Even the architecture and decorations of churches come in aid of the general tendency. They make the eye an auxiliary of the ear, and both keep the mind at a distance from those concerns which are peculiarly its own; from contemplating its own weaknesses and wants; and from applying to God for that peculiar help which perhaps itself only needs, and which God only can impart. So little are the course of education and the subsequent engagements of life calculated to foster this great auxiliary of moral character. It is difficult, in the wide world, to foster it as much as is needful. Nothing but wakeful solicitude on the part of the parent can be expected sufficiently to direct the mind within, while the general tendency of our associations and habits is to keep it without. Let him however do what he can. The habitual reference to the dictates of conscience may be promoted in the very young mind. This habit, like others, becomes strong by exercise. He that is faithful in little things is intrusted with more; and this is true in respect of knowledge as in respect of other departments of the Christian life. Fidelity of obedience is commonly succeeded by increase of light, and every act of obedience and every addition to knowledge furnishes new and still stronger inducements to persevere in the same course. Acquaintance with ourselves is the inseparable attendant of this course. We know the character and dispositions of our own inmates by frequent association with them: and if this fidelity to the internal law, and consequent knowledge of the internal world, be acquired in early life, the parent may reasonably hope that it will never wholly lose its efficiency amid the bustles and anxieties of the world.

  Undoubtedly, this most efficient security of moral character is not likely fully to operate during the continuance of the present state of society and of its institutions. It is I believe true, that the practice of morality is most complete among those persona who peculiarly recommend a reference to the internal law, and whose institutions, religious and social, are congruous with the habit of this reference, Their history exhibits a more unshaken adherence to that which they conceived to be right,—fewer sacrifices of conscience to interest or the dread of suffering,—less of trimming between conflicting motives,—more, in a word, of adherence to rectitude without regard to consequences. We have seen that such persona are likely to form accurate news of rectitude; but whether they be accurate or not, does not affect the value of their moral education as securing fidelity to the degree of knowledge which they possess. It is of more consequence to adhere steadily to conscience, though it may not be perfectly enlightened, than to possess perfect knowledge without consistency of obedience. But in reality they who obey moat know moat; and we say that the general testimony of experience is, that those persons exhibit the most unyielding fidelity to the moral law whose moral education has peculiarly directed them to the law written in the heart.

1 See Essay i, c. 6.
2 “All education which inculcates Christian opinions with pagan tastes, awakens conscience but to tamper with it.” Schimmelpenninck: Biblical Fragments.
3 By James Amiraux Jeremie.
4 Carpenter: Principles of Education.
5 Carpenter: Principles of Education.
6 Paley, p. 3, b. 5, c. 5.

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