Virtue and Volunteerism: Why Schools Should Stop Clarifying Values and Start Instilling Virtue

Louis Markos describes what's missing in values-free modern education.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

It is a sad thing that our modern world has redefined virtue in negative terms. Rather than define a virtuous man as someone who actively practices the positive virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, we turn things on their head and celebrate the goodness of those who don’t succumb to folly, don’t betray an excessive amount of cowardice, don’t violate anyone’s rights, and don’t drink or smoke. Such is the case with the four classical virtues, but it is even more so with the three theological ones. We celebrate those who press on, who don’t give up, rather than those who actively put their faith in an unseen Creator and their hope in his promises.

In Screwtape Letters (#26), C. S. Lewis critiques his age for replacing the positive love (caritas, agape) of the Bible with a negative form of unselfishness. Although the highest pagans (Aristotle) and the great Christian ethicists (Aquinas) taught that virtue is a habit gained by practicing virtuous actions, we of a more “enlightened” age have embraced a distinctly hands-off ethos. Had Lewis lived today, I think he would have said that the reigning virtue is not unselfishness but tolerance—a pseudo-virtue that manifests itself, not in active charity, but in a negative acquiescence to the “rights” of others.

I say it with sadness, but modern education in our country seems interested only in fueling the negative virtue of tolerance (together with the equally negative virtues of inclusivism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism). Rather than encourage young people to reach out in love, we teach them to refrain from any and all judgment. Love does not mean helping others to grow into the people God created them to be; it means turning a blind eye and telling them that whatever they believe is right is right for them.

Given the negative nature of tolerance, I was initially thrilled by the rise in volunteerism among grade school students. Since then, my ardor has cooled. Most public school volunteerism is first mandated and then overly celebrated. Such a mixture tends to instill feelings of pride, self-satisfaction, and entitlement, rather than humility, compassion, and thankfulness. The message is not “you have been blessed so bless others,” or “there but for the grace of God go I.” It’s much closer to: “He put in his thumb, / And pulled out a plum, / And said, ‘What a good boy am I!’”

Worse yet, students are taught to evaluate the success of their volunteerism on the basis of how it affected them, not how it impacted the lives of those they purportedly went out to serve. The attention is turned inward, causing the child to delight in his own goodness and kindness, when it should be turned outward toward a true love of God and neighbor. Feelings are given precedence over actions and introspection takes the place of David’s “Search me, O God” (Psalm 139:23-4).

That is not to say that the giver of charity should not take joy in the giving. To the contrary, as Aristotle, Aquinas, and Lewis all knew and taught, one of the greatest rewards of charity is that the giver comes to enjoy it. That’s what the old adage, “virtue is its own reward,” means. The more we practice virtue, the more we enjoy virtue.

But we can’t put the cart before the horse. We must not teach young people: you’ll feel good if you help at the soup kitchen. We must teach instead: help at the soup kitchen because it is the right thing to do, and, in time, you will come to have feelings of love toward the people you help. Indeed, if those feelings don’t come in time, it is likely a sign that the giver of charity is giving out of wrong motives (to gain social approval) rather than out of love for God and neighbor. Can there be anything more unlovely than a person who hands out charity but who radiates bitterness, contempt, even hatred toward the people he is helping? As G. K. Chesterton once quipped, a humanitarian is someone who loves humanity but hates human beings.

When Christ tells us to love our enemies, he does not mean that we should try to manufacture nice feelings toward them. He means that we should treat them with love (charity). The husband is not to wait around for his wife to do something loveable before he loves her, just as the wife is not to wait around for her husband to do something respectful before she respects him. The actions come first; the feelings follow. The husband who treats his wife with love will come to love her, even as the wife who treats her husband with respect will come to respect him. But that is only half the reward. Wives and husbands who are treated thus will themselves become more loveable and worthy of respect.

Now here’s the terrible irony. Making middle and high school students log in a hundred or so hours of volunteerism should work. Young people who get in the habit of extending charity to the less fortunate should come to feel charitable. Better yet, the practice of charity should instill in them the virtue of caritas. So why isn’t it working?

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I have a deep and enduring love for Hamlet; the play simply cannot be seen or read too often. Unfortunately, for all its beauty and power, it has had one negative legacy that Shakespeare could not have anticipated. Early in the play, Polonius, the advisor to the king, regales his son with a lengthy catalogue of proverbial nuggets. A close reading of the scene will reveal that Polonius is a windbag and that his advice is hackneyed at best, but that has not prevented the last several generations of teachers and students from enshrining one line out of Polonius’s jumbled litany as the be all and end all of virtue: “To thine own self be true.”

Don’t worry if you scandalize your parents or blaspheme God or violate all standards of decent behavior. As long as you are true to yourself, then your actions are justified. You are the center of your own moral universe. You are an autonomous individual with no ties or obligations to the past, to tradition, to your family, or to your Creator. You are the maker of your own destiny, the captain of your own soul. Learn to think for yourself, and everything else will fall into place.

Near the beginning of Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton argues that the core problem with the modern world is that it has taught us, not, as in the past, to doubt ourselves and believe the truth, but to doubt the truth and believe in ourselves. Charles Williams, a friend of Lewis’s who, like Lewis, was strongly influenced by Chesterton, explains, in chapter VIII of The Figure of Beatrice, that the Medievals “believed it to be less important that men should think for themselves than that they should think rightly.”

Ask ten random teachers why they went into teaching, and I guarantee that more than half of them will say that they became educators so that they could teach students to think for themselves. If they are English or art teachers, they might add a second, closely related reason: to inspire and foster self-expression in their students. Their goal is not to produce traditional artists who seek after the truth and then try to capture that truth in their art; it is to create a race of mini-Picassos who consider it their calling and their right to throw onto the paper or the canvas or the screen or the airwaves whatever they feel is good or true or beautiful.

More to the point of this essay, their job is not to instill the classical and theological virtues in their charges, but to help them (a la John Dewey) to “clarify” their own personal sense of virtue and vice, right and wrong, truth and error. Students are not trained to learn virtue at the feet of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus, nor even at the feet of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, but to assert (Nietzsche-like) their own personal understanding of virtue. It is up to them to choose their own standards of beauty, their own definition of goodness, even their own sexual identity.

Enforced volunteerism should work, but it does not, because it is carried out in a values-free zone apart from any traditional understanding of why we should be charitable in the first place. Darwinism, of which Dewey was a disciple, certainly offers no ultimate basis for charity (or any of the virtues), and the default religion of America, utilitarianism, offers a paltry pragmatic basis that quickly deconstructs itself. The “to thine own self be true” ethos of values clarification may work for a little while, but it doesn’t last, for it is powerless to instill virtue in students.

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How then can we instill virtue in our students? The same way it was done in the two dozen centuries that precede the modern age. We teach them classic works of literature, not just to hone their critical thinking skills, but to provide them with role models of virtuous and vicious behavior. When Bill Bennett published his Book of Virtues, it was hailed (or despised) as revolutionary. Had he published it before the modern period, it would not have been considered revolutionary at all. It would have been considered common sense.

The classic works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton must not be presented as relics of the past to be read quickly and then ticked off. They must be offered as arenas for wrestling: training grounds where students can flex their moral and ethical muscles against Achilles and Hector, Odysseus and Aeneas, Dante pilgrim and our original parents.

The literary, historical, and philosophical classics, especially the pre-Christian classics of Greece and Rome, should be used first to instill the classical virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance in students. Once those are (partially) achieved, then they will be ready to move on to the higher virtues of faith, hope, and love.


It is not a bad idea to first teach courage and chastity as practices that will save us from dishonoring ourselves and our family, and then lift them up to the higher Christian understanding of these virtues: that courage and chastity ultimately rest on a knowledge of who we are in Christ, why God gave us our bodies and our sexuality, and how we can stand firmly on the promises of God.

And as the virtues (and vices) are taught, the emotions appropriate to those virtues (or vices) must be taught as well. In chapter VIII of A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis argues that one of the main functions of art is to instill stock responses toward virtue and vice: “All that
we describe as constancy in love or friendship, as loyalty in political life, or, in general, as perseverance—all solid virtue and stable pleasure—depends on organizing chosen attitudes and maintaining them against the eternal flux . . . of mere immediate experience.”

Values clarification inevitably champions “immediate experience.” Our gut response to a work of literature or art or philosophy must always be the right one: for it is the right one for us, and that is all that matters. In our modern/postmodern world, insincerity is considered the worst of sins. As long as a student’s reaction to a work or an event or a behavior is “sincere,” then it must be respected. Lewis, together with Aristotle and Aquinas, would disagree.

Training a child to feel a certain way toward courage or cowardice, beauty or ugliness, loyalty or treachery, purity or perversion does not result in a warping or falsifying of his emotional responses. To the contrary, it helps him to properly order his desires in a way that will not only bring him greater happiness but help prevent the community he is part of from regressing (or progressing) into barbarism.

The real danger with young people today is not that they do bad things: all people at all times do bad things. The danger is that when they do bad things, they feel no remorse whatsoever, only anger that they got caught. That lack of remorse is a warning sign that highlights the failure of public schools to instill proper stock responses. Instead of teaching students to feel shame when they do something immoral or unethical, schools today “protect” them from feelings of self-disgust, lest their self-esteem be damaged. This aspect of values clarification is particularly deadly, for it “instills out” of students a necessary internal moral censor. Apart from that censor, civilization becomes a precarious thing indeed.

And what then of volunteerism? Should we continue to send students out into the community to volunteer their time and resources? By all means! But when we do so, let us make sure to provide them with the proper context for doing so: 1) we don’t help others because they are “entitled” to our help, but because we are called to love as we have been loved; 2) charity is right and proper, not because it makes us feel good when we give it, but because the second greatest commandment compels us to love our neighbor as our self; 3) charity is good, not because it helps us to be true to ourselves as we are, but because it helps us to be true to the true selves that our Creator would have
us grow into; 4) since charity means wanting the best for the other person, it must not manifest itself in a weak- kneed tolerance that overlooks, and thereby enables, self- destructive behavior.

A teacher who fails to provide such a context for volunteerism risks producing students who neither acquire the virtue of charity nor experience the real joy that accompanies the virtue.