A third-grade conversation

John E. Coons

Billy to his teacher: “Where do right and wrong come from?”

Ms. Bland: “Well, it’s in our genes; we’re made that way.”

Billy: “Then why do people do bad stuff?”

Ms. Bland: “People are free to choose the wrong; even if they know what’s right, they don’t always do it.”

Billy: “How did right and wrong get in our genes like that? Who put them there?”

Ms. Bland: “Excuse me, I think I have a call.”

Explaining for the child the source of nature and our moral responsibility is nearly as difficult as doing the same for that sophisticated adult who prefers to shun the question altogether, while the child’s mind at least continues to wonder.

“How can something come from nothing? I know that I should be good and that I can be bad. But what made it this way? Why aren’t we just good?”

Morality is a story; much of our fictional literature portrays the reality and tragedy of our choices of evil, and such drama depends for its tang upon the assumption of a real good that, to our shame, we betray. Billy knows this, but who or what made us this way?

Mankind’s non-fictional desertion of the good in daily life can occur despite the best of intentions, but with unhappy consequence on a large scale. Consider the classroom of the government school which is assigned to the low-income family as its child’s educator 180 days each year. Ms. Bland is its spokeswoman but feels unable to respond to Billy’s question.

When next they meet, if asked again, Ms. Bland decides to respond in the manner accepted in her profession – and the law.

“Billy, all I can say is that’s the way life is.”

This may be followed by the observation, also acceptable in the public system:

“Billy, you just have to find it in yourself; just don’t be bad.”

This vacuum of response to the most basic of human questions has persisted in our country over two centuries of history. As early as 1909, American educators recognized and pondered the problem, in a multi-faith society, of teaching a particular view of the origin and content of the moral order, and everything else transcendental. The plot thickened as the Irish and Jews began to arrive in numbers, making religious conflict highly political.

In due course, respected authorities would produce such classics as the 1988 “Romanism Versus the Public School System.” In those intervening 79 years, the “public” school had decided to confine its notice of things transcendental primarily to an eclectic opening prayer and casual ambiguous reference to a deity – plus maybe some Christmas carols.

The ecclesiastical war had produced a crude armistice, as the “Romans” founded their own separate systems of schools and “Blaine amendments” were added to a majority of state constitutions forbidding public money for religious institutions altogether. In the 20th century, the gradual dominance of public education by secular humanism gave schools new reason to chill all notice of things transcendental, and in the 1950s, the Supreme Court slammed tight the door of the “Establishment” clause.

Of course, God still sneaked in with the occasional release program, the renegade teacher and naughty commencement speaker. But no money for the transcendental – until states like Wisconsin and Florida began in this century to reinvent parental sovereignty for the poor with various forms of financial aid to the parents themselves (not directly to the schools), allowing them to choose church schools and let Billy hear that the moral order has a source more specific than Darwin – or the opposite, if Mom and Dad so prefer.

To the extent of these aid programs, the lower-income family has regained the dignity the rest of America enjoys.

The process of liberation is slow. The teachers union can still intimidate the state legislature, as it has and does most successfully in my own state, California. But the day is coming, I pray, when every poor family gets to decide for itself who made us free to choose between good and evil – and become an interesting species.

You may also like