Hearing about the actions of former President Trump, his chief of staff Mark Meadows, and so many others—including some Republican members of Congress—makes you wonder about their value priorities. Especially after the riveting testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson. “What values?” you might ask. But everyone has values. They might be bad ones. They may never have been thought out or articulated, but they’re there, however deeply buried.
And that very condition—buried or subconscious values—takes us to the heart of our problem. But one not just for Trump and his backers and enablers. Rather one that afflicts our society as a whole, and one that our educational system, whether formal or informal, has failed to confront.
At this point I should quickly add, “Those of you on the Left, you liberals and progressives, please don’t stop reading just because it’s usually Republicans and conservatives that talk about values.”
Consider these words of Barack Obama, certainly no right-winger. Before being elected president, he devoted a 27-page chapter to “Values” in his The Audacity of Hope. In it he wrote, “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values,” and that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics, the cornerstone of any meaningful debate about budgets and projects, regulations and policies.”
“The heart of our politics.” Those are serious words. And not from some Ivory-Tower intellectual, but from a man who would go on to win two presidential elections.
Some of the values Obama advocated were empathy, honesty, fairness, self-reliance, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion, as well as wisdom, which implies the ability to prioritize such values in order to best work for the common good—which should be the main aim of politics.
Reflect also on the words of U. S. neuropsychologist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry, as cited by Copthorne Macdonald, founder of the Wisdom Page: “Human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.”
Thus, despite our often ignoring them, values are important—in politics, but also beyond in our personal, social, and work-related lives.
But now let’s start at the beginning, or rather two beginnings—one, our educational journeys starting in childhood, and two, our nation’s beginnings starting with the Founding Fathers.
Regarding education, the German-born British economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher said it best—and most concisely. At the beginning of his final book, A Guide for the Perplexed, he indicated the difficulties he faced trying to discover how best to live. “All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.” These “maps” he referred to left “all the questions that really matter unanswered.” He went on to note that the situation was “even worse now because . . . . at least in the Western world. . . . it is being loudly proclaimed in the name of scientific objectivity that ‘values and meanings are nothing but defence mechanisms and reaction formations.’"
In other words, his education (and most public Western education) ignores any treatment of values—we will deal with private “religious education” later in this essay.
But, you may ask, “How can educators deal with values without propagandizing for their own ones, which may be skewed, biased, or ones a child’s parents reject?” One of America’s leading wisdom scholars, Robert Sternberg, in an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “It's Not What You Know, but How You Use It: Teaching for Wisdom” has one answer. He writes that “teaching for wisdom recognizes that there are certain values—honesty, sincerity, doing toward others as you would have them do toward you—that are shared the world over by the great ethical systems of many cultures.” But that the goal of such teaching should not be propagandizing for such values, but rather helping students “develop positive values of their own that promote social welfare.” Sternberg also writes that “people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good. They do so by balancing, in their courses of action, their own interests with those of others and those of larger entities, like their school, their community, their country, even God.” Another important goal, he argues, is to teach students to see “things from others' perspectives as well as one's own,” to tolerate “other people's points of view, whether or not one agrees with such views.”
How fortunate our country would have been if Trump and his followers would have prioritized social welfare, the common good, and tolerance rather than their own narrow self-seeking (and perhaps even subconscious) values! Three years ago in “Why Values Matter: Obama’s Empathy Versus Trump’s Egoism,” I wrote that what the “young Donald Trump. . . . valued most was success, which he identified with making lots of money.” It’s probably fair to say that some narrowly self-centered view of “success” was (and is) also a main value of President Trump and his supporters.
When Schumacher lamented that education had taught him nothing about important values, he was referring to formal education—“all through school and university,” but how about informal education? In our dominant American culture, the “values” situation is not much better and maybe even worse.
In 1963, anthropologist Jules Henry wrote in Culture Against Man that the U. S. culture of his day had two main “commandments”: “Create More Desire” and “Thou Shalt Consume,” and that these two commandments contributed to planned obsolescence, instability, “technological drivenness,” and to making any religious or moral restraint on wants outmoded. In 1987, over 90 percent of U. S. teenage girls in one survey listed shopping as their favorite leisure activity.
In 1993 historian William Leach wrote that during the twentieth century “American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods. It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.”
And that “culture” continues today. Look at the advertising that bombards us everywhere we turn, so prominent that at times (such as product placements in films) we don’t even notice it—though, insidiously, advertisers believe it subconsciously affects our spending habits. As comedian Dave Barry once stated, “Another possible source of guidance for teenagers is television, but television's message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth.”
Regarding our “second beginning,” that of our nation’s, we should note that the Founding Fathers stressed the importance of solid values. In a previous essay on this site, I quoted Washington (“Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government”), John Adams (“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue,” were “necessary for the preservation of their [people’s] rights and liberties”), Ben Franklin citing favorably John Locke (“Tis VIRTUE, then, direct VIRTUE, which is to be aim'd at in Education”), and Jefferson.
In the case of our third president, he stressed the importance of education teaching good values throughout his adult life. For example, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), he wrote that “the first elements of morality” can be instilled in elementary education. And more than three decades later, in his post-presidential years, he still believed so and that higher education could “cultivate their [students’] morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.”
Years later, in his Illinois political days, Abraham Lincoln expressed his “desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present.” In his mature years, as Fred Kaplan has indicated, Lincoln most valued books that imparted important moral lessons such as the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, Aesop’s Fables, and the poetry of Robert Burns.
Following Lincoln, however, the virtues and values stressed by him and earlier by the Founding Fathers received less attention. Above I quoted from historian William Leach’s Land of Desire. Here’s another quote from it: “In the decades following the Civil War, American capitalism began to produce a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to a political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and of its moral stability . . . The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.”
Regarding the late nineteenth and first six decades of the twentieth centuries,“ Richard Hofstadter wrote in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: “On two matters there was almost no disagreement: education should be more ‘practical’; and higher education, as least as it was conceived in the old-time American classical college, was useless as a background for business. Business waged a long, and on the whole successful, campaign for vocational and trade education at the high-school level and did much to undermine the high school as a center of liberal education.”
Although public education and our capitalist culture increasingly emphasized career preparation and consumption, our presidents occasionally put higher values first. In her Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses not only on Abraham Lincoln, but also on a few of our twentieth-century presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. They were “at their formidable best,” she writes, “when guided by a sense of moral purpose.”
Before we end this essay, however, some final considerations:
- the stress on values that we do see in some private education;
- Republican talking points about such topics as “family values”;
- the considerable support (more than 80-percent) Donald Trump received from white evangelical voters in 2016; and
- the Catholicism of the majority of Supreme Court justices who voted to restrict abortions in their June 2022 decision.
A main values problem in regard to all four of the above considerations has to do with what Pope Francis (in a 2013 sermon) warned Christians against--ideological rigidity. He cautioned against letting faith pass “through a distiller” and become an ideology. . . . Ideologies are rigid, always. . . without kindness.” “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.” In a 2015 address to the U. S. Congress he added, “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”(See here for more on both the sermon and the 2015 address.)
Pragmatism does not mean acting without principles, but only openly, undogmatically. And those on the Left as well as the Right can be too dogmatic. But both sides can also be true to their values and still reach agreements that further the common good. Just a few examples: the conservative Senators Orrin Hatch and liberal Edward Kennedy often did so; more recently the conservative Congresswoman Liz Cheney has served as Vice Chair of the House January 6th Committee and cooperated with the more liberal members of that committee to uncover the truth of President Trump’s role in furthering the violence of that day; and finally, in June 2022, some conservatives joined more liberal members of Congress to pass a bipartisan gun-control bill that President Biden then signed into law.
All of the above does not deny that on some issues, for example abortion, different values come into conflict. But Obama was right: We should craft policies based on good values such as wisdom, empathy, honesty, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.