Chapter 12 Some Unconsidered Aspects of Moral Training

Chapter 12
Some Unconsidered Aspects of Moral Training

Three Foundation Principles.––Three principles which underlie the educational thought of the Union12, and the furtherance of which some of us have deeply at heart, are:––(a) The recognition of authority as a fundamental principle, as universal and as inevitable in the moral world as is that of gravitation in the physical; (b) the recognition of the physical basis of habits and of the important part which the formation of habits plays in education; (c) the recognition of the vital character and inspiring power of ideas.

Authority, the Basis of Moral Teaching.––First let us consider the principle of authority, which is the basis of moral as it is of religious teaching. 'Ought' is part of the verb 'to owe,' and that which we owe is a personal debt to a Lawgiver and Ruler, however men name the final authority. If they choose to speak of Buddha or Humanity, they do not escape from the sense of a moral authority. They know that that which they ought is that which they owe to do, a debt to some power or personality external to themselves. God has made us so that, however much we may be in the dark as to the divine Name, we can never for a minute escape from the sense of 'Ought,' the law, which becomes flesh-torturing and spirit-quelling in proportion as we are removed from the light of Revelation. To us, who know the name of God and have the revelation of the Scriptures, authority carries no vague terror. We know what is required of us, and that the requirements are never arbitrary, but necessary in the nature of things, both for the moral government of the world and to gratify the unquenchable desire of every human soul to rise into a higher state of being. Perhaps parents, great as they are and should be in the eyes of their children, should always keep well to the front the fact that their authority is derived.

Principles, not Rules.––'God does not allow' us to do thus and thus should be a rarely expressed but often present thought to parents who study the nature of the divine authority where it is most fully revealed, that is, in the Gospels. They see there that authority works by principles and not by rules, and as they themselves are the deputy authorities set over every household, it becomes them to consider the divine method of government. They should discern the signs of the times too; the tendency is to think that a man can only act according to his 'lights,' and, therefore, that it is right for him to do that which is right in his own eyes; in other words, that every man is his own final authority in questions of right and wrong. It is extremely important that parents should keep in view, and counteract if need be, this tendency of the day.

Limitations of Authority.––On the other hand, it is well that they should understand the limitations of authority. Even the divine authority does not compel. It indicates the way and protects the wayfarer,  and strengthens and directs self-compelling power. It permits a man to make free choice of obedience rather than compels him to obey. In the moral training of children arbitrary action almost always produces revolt. Parents believe that they are doing well to rule their households, without considering the pattern, the principles, and the limitations of parental authority.

Duty can exist only as that which we owe.––An American writer on the moral instruction of children states that 'it is the business of the moral instructor in the school to deliver to his pupils the subject-matter of morality, but not to deal with the sanctions of it.' Here we have a contention at least two thousand years old. Socrates combated it as expressed in the formula:––'Man is the measure of all things'; 'Just as each thing appears to each man, so it is to him'; 'All truth is relative.' We say to-day that a man can but live up to his 'lights'; in other words, there is no authority, no truth, and no law beyond what every man carries in his own bosom. The necessary issue of this teaching is the doctrine of the unknowable God––the God who, if He exists, does not exist for us, because we have no relations with Him. It is in their early years at home that children should be taught to realise that duty can exist only as that which we owe to God; that the law of God is exceeding broad and encompasses us as the air we breathe, only more so, for it reaches to our secret thoughts; and this is not a hardship but a delight. That mothers should love their little children and make them happy all day long––this is part of the law of God: that children are glad when they are good, and sad when they are naughty––this, too, is the law of God: that, if Tommy drops his spoon, it falls to the ground, is a law of God too, of a different kind. Mother or teacher cannot give children a better inheritance than the constant sense of being ruled and encompassed by law, and that law is another name for the will of God.

Morals do not come by Nature.––No doubt every child is born with a conscience, that is, with a sense that he ought to choose the right and refuse wrong; but he is not born with the power to discern good and evil. An educated conscience is a far rarer possession than we imagine; we are all startled now and then by the laxities of right-minded neighbours in matters the right and wrong of which is patent to ourselves; but probably our own moral eccentricities are equally startling to our friends. The blame rests on our faulty moral education, which has hardly made us aware of fallacious thought and insincere speech; we believe that Latin and Greek must be taught, but that morals come by nature. A certain rough-and-ready kind of morality, varying with our conditions, does come by heredity and environment; but that most delicate and beautiful of human possessions, an educated conscience, comes only by teaching with authority and adorning by example.

Children born neither Moral nor Immoral.––It is curious how educated people are still at sea as regards the moral status of children. Some time ago I was present at an interesting discussion, among the members of an educational society, on the subject of children's lies. It was interesting to notice that the meeting, consisting of able, educated people, divided itself into those who held that children were born true and those who held that they were born false; it did not occur to anybody to recall his own childhood, or even to reflect on his own condition at the present moment. The question lay between children being born moral and born immoral. Nobody reflected that every human being comes into the world with infinite possibilities for good; and, alas! infinite possibilities for evil; possibly with evil hereditary tendencies which may be rectified by education, or with good tendencies which his bringing-up may nullify.

Moral Teaching.––We need go no further than the Ten Commandments and our Lord's exposition of the moral law to find corrective teaching for the spasmodic, impulsive moral efforts which tend to make up our notion of what the children call 'being good,' and nowhere shall we find a more lucid and practical commentary on the moral law than is set forth in the Church Catechism. It was the practice of a venerable Father of the Church, Bishop Ken, to recite the 'duty towards God,' and the 'duty towards my neighbour' every day. It is a practice worth imitating, and it would not be amiss to let all children of whatever communion learn these short abstracts of the whole duty of man.

Of the Poets.––The poets give us the best help in this kind of teaching; as, for example, Wordsworth's

Ode to Duty:––

     "Stern lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
     The Godhead's most benignant grace;
     Nor know we anything so fair
     As is the smile upon thy face;
     Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
     And fragrance in thy footing treads;
     Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
     And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are
     fresh and strong." 

Or Matthew Arnold's lines on Rugby Chapel––

     "Servants of God! or sons
     Shall I not call you? because
     Not as servants ye knew
     Your Father's innermost mind,
     His, who unwillingly sees
     One of His little ones lost
     Yours is the praise, if mankind
     Hath not as yet in its march
     Fainted, and fallen, and died!"

Or this, again, of Tennyson––

     "Not once or twice in our fair island story
     The path of duty was the way to glory:

     He, that ever following her commands,
     On with toil of heart and knees and hands,
     Thro' the long gorge to the far light, has won
     His path upward and prevail'd,––
     Shall find the toppling crags of duty, scaled,
     Are close upon the shining tablelands
     To which our God Himself is moon and sun."

Or Matthew Arnold's Morality––

     How, "Tasks in hours of insight willed
     Can be through hours of gloom fulfilled."

Possibly we could hardly do better than lead children to reflect on some high poetic teaching, adding love to law and devotion to duty, so that children shall know themselves, by duty as by prayer,

     "Bound by gold chains about the feet of God."

In the matter of the ideas that inspire the virtuous life, we miss much by our way of taking things for granted.

Ethical Teaching of the Middle Ages.––The medieval Church preserved classical traditions. It endeavoured to answer the Socratic inquiry: "What ought we to do and what do we mean by the words 'ought' and 'doing' or 'acting'?" and it answered, as far as might be by way of object-lessons, visible signs of spiritual things signified. In the Arena Chapel at Padua, we have Giotto's Faith and Infidelity, Love and Envy, Charity and Avarice, Justice and Injustice, Temperance and Gluttony, Hope and Despair, pictured forth in unmistakable characters for the reading of the unlearned and ignorant. We have the same theme, treated with a difference, in what Mr. Ruskin calls the 'Bible of Amiens,' [Amiens Cathedral] where we may study Humility and Pride, Temperance and Gluttony, Chastity and Lust, Charity and Avarice, Hope and Despair, Faith and Idolatry, Perseverance and Atheism, Love and Discord, Obedience and Rebellion, Courage and Cowardice, Patience and Anger, Gentleness and Churlishness,––in pairs of quatrefoils, an upper and a lower, each under the feet of an Apostle, who was held to personify the special virtue. But we know nothing about cardinal virtues and deadly sins.

We have no Authoritative Teaching.––We have no teaching by authoritative utterance strong in the majesty of virtue. We work out no schemes of ethical teaching in marble; we paint no scale of virtues on our walls, and no repellent vices. Our poets speak for us, it is true; but the moral aphorisms, set like jewels though they be on the forefinger of time, are scattered here and there, and we leave it serenely to happy chance whether our children shall or shall not light upon the couple of lines which should fire them with the impulse to virtuous living. It may be said that we neglect all additional ethical teaching because we have the Bible; but how far and how do we use it? Here we have indeed the most perfect ethical system, the most inspiring and heart-enthralling, that the world has ever possessed; but it is questionable whether we attempt to set a noble child's heart beating with the thought that he is required to be perfect as his Father which is in Heaven is perfect.

High Ideals.––It is time we set ourselves seriously to this work of moral education which is to be done, most of all, by presenting the children with high ideals. 'Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime,' and the study of the lives of great men and of the great moments in the lives of smaller men is most wonderfully inspiring to children, especially when they perceive the strenuousness of the childhood out of which a noble manhood has evolved itself. As one grows older no truth strikes one more than that 'the child is father to the man.' It is amazing how many people of one's own acquaintance have fulfilled the dreams of their childhood and early youth, and have had their days indeed 'bound each to each in natural piety.'

Value of Biography.––The Bible is, of course, a storehouse of most inspiring biographies; but it would be well if we could manage our teaching so as to bring out in each character the master-thought of all his thinking. The late Queen has done this with singular tact and power in the Albert Memorial Chapel, where, as we know, Prophets and Patriarchs are presented, each showing in action that special virtue or form of endeavour which seemed to her the keynote of his character. This is a happy effort to revive the mediæval object teaching of which I have already spoken. The same thing occurs again in the School of Song of the Edinburgh Cathedral, where Mrs. Traquair has frescoed the walls to illustrate the Benedicite, where 'holy and humble men of heart,' for example, is illustrated by three men of our own day of different schools of thought––Cardinal Newman is the only one I recollect. The force of this kind of master-idea, and the unity it gives to life, cannot be better illustrated than by the perhaps apocryphal 'I will be good' of our late beloved Queen. There are few children in the kingdom whose hearts have not thrilled to the phrase. Perhaps she will one day know how much was done to give moral impulse to this great Empire by that simple child-like promise so abundantly fulfilled.

Of Patriotic Poems.––Next in value to biographies from the point of view of inspiration are the burning words of the poets,––Tennyson's Ode to the Iron Duke, for example. Perhaps no poet has done more to stir the fire of patriotism amongst us than Mr. Rudyard Kipling: "We learn from our wistful mothers to call Old England 'home,'" opens the door to a flood of patriotic feeling; as indeed do the whole of the poems,

The Native-born and The Flag of England:––

     "Never was isle so little,
     Never were seas so lone,
     But over the scud and the palm trees
     The English flag has flown."

From another point of view, how this (of Browning's) makes the heart quick with patriotic emotions!––

     "Buy my English posies,
     Kent and Surrey may,
     Violets of the undercliff
     Wet with Channel spray, 

     Cowslips of the Devon combe,
     Midland furze afire;
     Buy my English posies
     And I'll sell you heart's desire."

Mottoes.––In the reading of the Bible, of poetry, of the best prose, the culling of mottoes is a delightful and most stimulating occupation, especially if a motto book be kept, perhaps under headings, perhaps not. It would not be a bad idea for children to make their own year-book, with a motto for every day in the year culled from their own reading. What an incentive to a good day it would be to read in the morning as a motto of our very own choice and selection, and not the voice of an outside mentor: 'Keep ye the law; be swift in all obedience'! The theme suggests endless subjects for consideration and direct teaching: for example, lives with a keynote; Bible heroes; Greek heroes; poems of moral inspiration; poems of patriotism, duty, or any single moral quality; moral object-lessons; mottoes and where to find them, etc.

The Habit of Sweet Thoughts.––Moral habits, the way to form them and the bounden duty of every parent to send children into the world with a good outfit of moral habits, is a subject so much to the front in our thoughts, that I need not dwell further upon it here. The moral impulse having been given by means of some such inspiring idea as we have considered, the parent's or teacher's next business is to keep the idea well to the front, with tact and delicacy, and without insistence, and to afford apparently casual opportunities for moral effort on the lines of the first impulse. Again, let us keep before the children that it is the manner of thoughts we think which matters; and, in the early days, when a child's face is an open book to his parents, the habit of sweet thoughts must be kept up, and every selfish, resentful, unamiable movement of children's minds observed in the countenance must be changed before consciousness sets in.

Virtues in which Children should be Trained.––One more point: parents should take pains to have their own thoughts clear as to the manner of virtues they want their children to develop. Candour, fortitude, temperance, patience, meekness, courage, generosity, indeed the whole role of the virtues, would be stimulating subjects for thought and teaching, offering ample illustrations. One caution I should like to offer. A child's whole notion of religion is 'being good.' It is well that he should know that being good is not his whole duty to God, although it is so much of it; that the relationship of love and personal service, which he owes as a child to his Father, as a subject to his King, is even more than the 'being good' which gives our Almighty Father such pleasure in His children.


12The Parents' National Educational Union