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Asked and Answered
Q: Do you think American society (or any other society) brazenly commits the "platonic error" of mistaking knowledge for virtue; and if so, to what value do you think contributes most to this belief system?
A: American society does.
It is because we have a strong cultural affinity towards meritocracy. This, being a classless society in theory while in practice have slowly evolved towards that ideal, we have never really accepted the idea of an aristocracy of inheritance. So we have titles, but we know that they are earned, like CEO or General or Doctor.
Since we desire meritocracy, we emphasize education to something of a ridiculous degree. Consequently, we actually award ridiculous degrees in subjects that are marginally useful at best. This ‘education’ ethic is surpassing the work ethic in many parts of society.
The problem isn’t so much that knowledge itself is overemphasized as a virtue, but that it is a particular kind of knowledge. This is the basis of a great deal of foolishness, and we have a kind of ‘The More You Know..’ mentality about the simplest things. So Americans tend to want to be informed about thousands of things that have no actual bearing on their lives, and clearly we signify about such knowledge pretentiously. In fact, a great deal of this information is trivia. On the other side, we pretend that certain other knowledge is so desperately important that we might fail as a society if we don’t bow down to those who possess it.
So if you are an AI programmer, you are considered a god among men, and the AIs you build with destroy a labor economy, but we’ll all be better for it. Stupid.
So if you publish a study about a deadly social phenomenon that affects 1000 Americans per year, you should be able to change the whole of American law and jurisprudence. Stupid.
Americans would do much better to consider timeless virtues that are universal, rather than subjecting themselves to a battery of tests, interview techniques, podcast subscriptions and up-to-the-minute reports on cutting edge research.
When I was a kid in elementary school that we used to be graded on a lot more than what we knew, but how we behaved. 'Makes good use of time' was the one where I always needed to improve. That's because I was a smart-ass, finished my work early, got bored and started daydreaming. Well, that and I'm lazy. But I know this, because I was graded on it. And with all the ruckus going on over the complete breakdown in trust and authority over in [Missouri / Wisconsin / Oregon] this month it's rather interesting what solutions are being proposed.
Now naturally since we're Americans and we like to congratulate ourselves in our ability to make something (rather than just nothing) out of race, there's a game afoot telling white people how they ought to think and behave and telling black people how they ought to think and behave. The ignorant assumption of course is that you add up all the diversity numbers and it will work out remainder zero. Except we're supposed to be indivisible with liberty and justice for all, but everybody keeps saying that diversity is the solution.
You can't have diversity without division. The opposite of diversity is conformity.
So that means you have to teach everybody the same thing and hold everybody to the same standard of behavior. Hey wait a minute - that's what public school is supposed to be about, right? That's why we had the Brown Decision to get us all in the same schools. But what if they didn't teach anybody how to behave? Hmm.
I specifically remember that as time went by in elementary school, the Citizenship & Work Habits side of the report card got smaller and smaller. The public middle schools basically reduced them to one line for each class you attended. What did you get in math? B, S, S? What exactly does an 'S' in Citizenship mean? Basically nothing. Hell, I wonder if they even use the word 'citizenship' here in Los Angeles for fear of insulting our Mexican national neighborhood residents. So I googled around to see if I could find any old school report cards. Not from LA Unified School District, but I did find some remarkable images.
I find it almost impossible to believe that any public school in America would consider such a detailed and rigorous evaluation of the character of children. It seems almost unthinkable. I mean look at this. 'Treats members of the visiting team with hospitality". "Shares good times with others whenever possible". "Subordinates his own will to the larger purposes and ideals of life." These are things we all know to be essential to good character These are all virtues we acknowledge. So why on earth do we not teach them to children? What was the breaking point? When did GPA and test scores become more important than anything else?
Now I attended Catholic middle school and high school and measures of character, as well as discipline for lapses in character were all part and parcel of the spirit of belonging to the school. One sought to bring honor and respect to one's school by exemplifying virtue in all these ways. And I know all of my small 'a' atheist pals out there can't seem to find a way to understand how you can teach virtuous citizenship without summary intimidation and invocation of fire and brimstone from an 'imaginary' supreme being, but I guess they forget that nuns and priests are people too. And people have different ways of inspiring and teaching to standards.
The point of course is to have standards and these are the kinds of standards I think too many Americans simply don't feel beholden to. They think perhaps that these are just optional - that you can function perfectly well in society and the worse thing that's going to happen to you is that somebody down the line is going to call you an 'asshole' or a 'douchebag'. Other than that, it's all whatever dude.
I am inclined to believe that whenever we get into 'this conversation' things get so far carried away into the identity troughs of 'race, creed, color, ethnicity, physical ability, sexual preference, gender' that people simply don't have space in their brains for character. It must completely blow their minds to imagine that character might be measured in other terms than these fetishized diversity buckets.
It's really hard to find in front of a paywall any sort of accounting for this set of measures. But I found a scanned copy from the Internet Archive. They are called the Upton-Chassell Scale and I have a copy for you.
Now on first glance this is clearly a mix in importance. The author is quick to point out.
It is interesting to note in Chart I, for example, that it is the consensus of opinion that a habit such as "Puts on or removes wraps quickly," listed on p. 22, is of trivial importance, since it is rated as i, and should, therefore, receive comparatively little attention from the teacher; while a habit like "Tells the truth without flinching or compromise, trying to give a correct im- pression," given on p. 24, which is rated 10, is of primary impor- tance and should be carefully considered when the teacher is making out the report card.
I often hear from people who begrudge conservatism its wisdom and other such folks whose motivations are opaque to me, that the benefit of all such things from the 'olden days' are negated owing to some inherent racist content or explicit racist implementation. So it would not surprise me in the least if at some point it were determined through some cockamamie finger-pointing posing as research, that white teachers were singularly unable to be consistent in their evaluations of non-white students when it came to these measures of character and citizenship. OK, let's stipulate that to be the case for 1919 but that somehow through the magic of the Civil Rights Movement, that white people have been sufficiently re-educated to give this idea a second-chance. Why not? What have we got to lose? Wouldn't you like to know this about public school students? Is there any situation in which these questions are inappropriate? I don't think so. I think these are things that anyone would notice in children and indeed ought to notice.
I don't have the complete set of these report card images but there is an extensive list of citizenship metrics in the document. So have at it.
Now while I'm at this let's get an idea of whom exactly this Horace Mann character was, since there appears to be something to the fact that much of this reporting by Upton and Chassell was done at Horace Mann Elementary School. The great and powerful Wikipedia says this of Mann's Congressional career:
In the spring of 1848 he was elected to the United States Congress as a Whig, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of John Quincy Adams. His first speech in that body was in advocacy of its right and duty to exclude slavery from the territories, and in a letter in December of that year he said: “I think the country is to experience serious times. Interference with slavery will excite civil commotion in the South. But it is best to interfere. Now is the time to see whether the Union is a rope of sand or a band of steel.” Again he said: “I consider no evil as great as slavery, and I would pass the Wilmot Proviso whether the South rebel or not.” During the first session, he volunteered as counsel for Drayton and Sayres, who were indicted for stealing 76 slaves in the District of Columbia, and at the trial was engaged for 21 successive days in their defense. In 1850, he was engaged in a controversy with Daniel Webster in regard to the extension of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. Mann was defeated by a single vote at the ensuing nominating convention by Webster's supporters; but, on appealing to the people as an independent anti-slavery candidate, he was re-elected, serving from April 1848 until March 1853.
Well that ain't hay. But wait, look at that last measure of character. "Recognizes moral purpose in the universe, and reverences a Higher Power". Geez, I dunno. Could we even have such a question posed of our children here in America? Leaving that nit to be picked by such people as find it appealing let us review then, the top categories from the Upton-Chassell document.
Takes Care of His Health.
Keeps a Good posture.
Thinks Clearly and Purposefully
Has a Sense of Humor
Is Characterized by Helpful Initiative
Lives up to the Traditions of Sportsmanship
Stands for Fair Play
Is Honest and Truthful
Has a Sense of Civic Responsibility
Is Courteous and Considerate
Has a Fine Sense of Appreciation and Seeks to Express It.
Character counts. So why do we not count character?
So here are some virtues to consider:
Orderliness: achieving our goals by doing the things we should do, when we should do them, and how we should do them. This is also involved with keeping oneself physically clean and neat and one’s belongings in good order.
Generosity: the attitude and habits we demonstrate when we give towards the needs of others in a willing and cheerful manner.
Fortitude: the courage to stand up for what is right, even in the face of pressure.
Prudence: the virtue that allows us to determine what’s right and what’s wrong and then act accordingly. Prudence could also be called wisdom.
Justice: giving to others what they are rightly due.
Temperance: controlling our desires and wants in order to achieve a greater good and meet our life goals. Temperance could also be called self-control.
Assertiveness: achieving goals by setting appropriate boundaries, asking for help when we need it, and being confident and positive about our abilities.
Purposefulness: having a vision, clear focus, and concentration on goals.
Modesty: purity of heart in action, especially in regards to dress and speech.
Peacefulness: having a sense of inner calm, no matter what is happening around you.
Service: being helpful to the entire family of man. This can also be called beneficence, which means helping the greater community for the common good.
Clemency: handling disobedience, poor choices, and disputes in a reasonable and consistent manner by not being too strict, but not being too lax either.
Helpfulness: being of service to others; doing thoughtful things that make a difference in their lives.
Kindness: expressing genuine concern about the well-being of others; anticipating their needs.
Good Counsel: seeking advice from a reasonable person.
Responsibility: fulfilling one’s just duties; accepting the consequences of one’s words and actions, intentional and unintentional.
Honesty: sincerity, openness, and truthfulness in one’s works and actions.
Respect: recognizing the worth and dignity of every single human person.
Tolerance: allowing other people to have their opinions about non-essential things and accepting the preferences and ideas that are different from your without compromising your own beliefs.
Perseverance: taking the steps necessary to carry out objectives in spite of difficulties.
Good judgment: thinking rightly about a decision, sound decision.
Gratitude: having a thankful disposition of mind and heart.
Humility: having an awareness that all one’s gifts come from God and appreciation for the gifts of others.
Obedience: assenting to rightful authority without hesitation or resistance.
Patience: remaining calm and not becoming annoyed when dealing with problems or difficult people. This could also mean paying attention to something for a long time without becoming bored or losing interest.
Command: directly acting upon a sound decision.
Truthfulness: acting in a way that inspires confidences and trust; being reliable.
Moderation: attention to balance in one’s life.
Loyalty: accepting the bond implicit in relationships and defending the virtues upheld by Church, family, and country.
Courtesy: treating other people with respect, recognizing that all are made in God's image and likeness.
Affability: being easy to approach and easy to talk to; friendly.
Sincerity: trustfulness in words and actions; honesty and enthusiasm toward others.
Prayerfulness: being still, listening, and being willing to talk to God as a friend.
Magnanimity: seeking with confidence to do great things in God; literally “having a large soul.”
Docility: willingness to be taught.
Industriousness: diligence, especially in work that leads to natural and supernatural maturity.
Foresight: consideration of the consequences of one's action; thinking ahead.
Patriotism: paying due honor and respect to one's country, with a willingness to serve.
Meekness: having a serenity of spirit while focusing on the needs of others.
Circumspection/Tact: careful consideration of circumstances and consequences.
Post Script: The complete Upton-Chassell book is available at Alibris.