University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   

Address of Jacques Maritain

April 25,1958

Regents Convocation of The University of the State of New York

Regent Hurd, Mr Chancellor, Mr President, Regents of the University of the State of New York, and Distinguished Audience,

I fully appreciate the honor of speaking at this luncheon -- not without, let me say, some fear and trembling, for I am sure that you are much more competent than I am in the educational problems which will be the topic of my talk.

But Chancellor Brosnan was kind enough to suggest that I might have a few words to say on the moral and spiritual aspects of education. This is a far from simple subject matter.

Ever since the time of Socrates and Plato the problem: "Can ethical behavior be taught?" and "How to teach ethical behavior?" has been the ordeal of teachers. Socrates and Plato believed that virtue is knowledge; Aristotle answered that knowledge is of little avail for virtue, and that virtue is not a matter of teaching. And this is quite true, on the whole.

Hence the paradox of schools, colleges and universities: they have to help young people to become men and women worthy of the name; now, what is most important in relation to such a goal, if not right moral conduct? Yes, but right moral conduct is not a matter of teaching. Then, must we say that the educational system should not be concerned at all with moral education, and should leave to other and more fundamental agencies, namely the family and the churches, all the responsibility for preparing the same pupils to act and behave in the right way, according to the demands of justice and love?

Such an answer would be in tune neither with truth nor with the spirit of this country. American education, in actual fact, has always stressed with good reason the moral talk which devolves upon the school system -- though now and then, let me say, some theorists in education put the emphasis a little too much on good citizenship and well adjusted social behavior, and a little insufficiently on justice and love, and on integrated knowledge as well -- while some other theorists, like G. Stanley Hall, thought that the instincts of the child should be given free rein, in order for him naturally to. pass from the stage of savagery to the civilized stage . . .

At this point, and as a preface to our discussion, it is relevant, I believe, to lay stress on two basic assertions which have been recognized for centuries. In the first place: the direct and primary responsibility of the school is not moral, but intellectual in nature -- namely, responsibility for the normal growth of the intellect of the students, the acquisition by them of articulate and sufficiently universal knowledge, and the development of their own inner intellectual capacities. The school has primarily to teach them how to think.

In the second place: the responsibility for moral education rests directly and primarily on the family on the one hand, and on the other hand on the religious community to which the family of the young person belongs. I would like to add, parenthetically, that for the student of human civilizations it is clear that morality in mankind is inherently tied up with religion and faith. Of course, there can be "good pagans", and "good atheists". Yet -- and as far as the deep-seated options which sometimes escape consciousness are concerned, one may wonder whether these good pagans and good atheists are not in actual fact pseudo-pagans and pseudo-atheists rather than real pagans and real atheists. In any case, from the point of view of the intellect, there is no primary and unshakeable foundation for the unconditional character of moral law and moral obligation, except God. So it is that, as was said in the Regents' Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools, "Belief in and dependence upon Almighty God was the very cornerstone upon which our Founding Fathers builded". As a result, it appears that the facilities offered by the school system for the religious training of pupils (outside the school premises, in the case of state-controlled schools) are an imperative requirement of the common good.

But enough of this parenthesis. Now the point I would like to insist upon is that, if the first responsibility of the school deals with the intellect and with knowledge, and if the first and direct responsibility for moral education belongs to the family group and the churches, nevertheless the responsibility of the educational system in this regard is, however indirect, no less needed and necessary. I said a moment ago that, according to Aristotle, knowledge is of little avail for virtue. Aristotle's statement is true in this sense that to know what courage or self-control is is not enough to act courageously or exercize self-control. But knowledge is a general pre-condition necessary for virtue, a general pre-condition necessary for decent, generous and upright moral behavior, in this sense that no right human life can have solidity, stability and duration without a vision of the world in which firm convictions about moral and spiritual values appear rationally founded, and the validity of the old Platonic maxim: "It is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it" is clearly seen.

Now, -- and by the very fact that school and college education must teach students how to think truly and comprehensively -- is it not the job of school and college education to develop such a vision of the world and such firm convictions about moral and spiritual values, -- in other words, such an integrated knowledge destined to grow into real wisdom? Thus it is that, though school and college education has essentially to do with the intellect and with knowledge, it exercizes at the same time an indirect, but crucial impact on the health of the will, and has a basic moral task to perform. This task -- which deals with the intellectual foundations of moral life, and with the development of the sense of those realities which are spiritual in nature, like truth and beauty -- this moral task of education is growing today, it seems to me, more and more important, as mankind is confronted with materialist or positivist philosophies which make moral standards completely relativized, and with the "other-directed" or sheep-like cast of mind which our industrial and technological civilization tends to develop. If such a cast of mind, for which the only essential thing is adjustment to environment, were to take the upper hand, human morality would come down, for example, to conscientiously choosing as ethical standard the average behavior described in the Kinsey report, and we would forget that there can be no society of free men without the ferment of personal consciences which do not adjust to environment, but resist environment, and prefer to obey the law of God rather than the law of men.

In connection with the preceding considerations I would like to submit a few remarks,

In the first place I would like to insist that the development of the sense of spiritual realities and spiritual values, and that effort toward integrated knowledge, and wisdom, which are usually associated with the notion of the humanities, are not the privilege of a category of discipline as against the others. To my mind, genuine humanities and genuine liberal arts embrace not only mathematics but physics and all natural sciences, and what is called today human sciences, and even technology, as well as literature, fine arts, history and philosophy. For the only thing which really matters here is the universal inspiration which permeates the teaching.

The great question, I believe, is to focus the teaching, in high schools and in colleges, on the creativity of the human mind, and the boundless resilience of its spiritual power; it is to make the students as fully aware as possible of this creativity, to which no electronic brain can ever reach, and of the steady effort through which mankind advances in its quest for knowledge, in the conquest of material nature, and in the variegated manifestation of the potentialities hidden in man.

From this point of view it appears necessary, to be sure, to know the results of the works of the mind, but still more important to know the ways through which these results were achieved, and the ceaseless process of discovery went on. Such an approach may apply to all the matters of the curriculum; it reveals everywhere the supra-material fecundity of the imagination and the intellect at work together. In such a perspective science and poetry are at one; humanity appears as a single being growing from generation to generation, thanks to the inner quickening spirit it has received from God; and we realize that becoming capable of a bit of genuine spiritual experience and cognitive or creative intuition matters more, for the education of a young person and for the common good, than memorizing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and all the text-books of the world.

In the second place, I would like to observe that it would be poor psychology to believe that the mental atmosphere and the world of images in the midst of which the minds of children, and of adults as well, but especially of children, breathe and feed, has no impact upon their moral development. So, for instance, it is clear, in my opinion, that those comics which appeal to the most vulgar animal instincts, and nourish children with images of violence and brutality tend to make the level of common morality lower and lower.

Yet it is not on the negative aspect, it is on the positive aspect of the picture that I wish to insist: I mean to say, on that endeavor to offer to the children of man genuine images of grandeur and heroism which is, to my mind, one of the great tasks of education in the moral field.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson has shown, in his book The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, that mankind cannot do without what he calls the appeal of the hero, -- the attraction exercized by the great figures who act on us by their example, having led, in love and dedication, a life superior to our ordinary lives. The need to have a moral ideal embodied in a concrete human being who shows us the way is one of the basic needs of our moral growth. It is normal for a young person to feel enthusiasm for a hero or a saint of his or her choice, and to cling to him, and to dream of him and try to imitate him. This hero, whom we love and who draws us above ourselves, is for us a real master in moral life.

I believe that in providing children and young persons with a moral atmosphere of grandeur and heroism the school and the high school can accomplish a duty in which many families are now failing. I am thinking of classes in which teacher and students would study and discuss the lives of the heroes of mankind, -- all those who have been heroically dedicated to a great intellectual or human mission, in all times and in all countries of the globe, and in every domain in which love and self-sacrifice can be at work. Here again may I be permitted to refer to a pronouncement of the Regents? In their Statement on America's Moral and Spiritual Heritage, they wrote: "Biography will keep before pupils inspired examples of character, and encourage them with the habitual vision of greatness." At each grade such teaching can easily be adapted to the mentality peculiar to the age of the pupils. And I think it can arouse in them a lively interest, and can exert a salutary influence on them: not only would they have, thus, an opportunity to become personally acquainted with heroic examples, but they would become aware of the immense effort of good will and generosity through which mankind and civilization have developed; and they would become familiar not only with the great figures of their own national history, and with the moral convictions and spiritual flame that animated them, but also with the great figures and heroes of world history.

With my third remark I am afraid I may appear a confirmed old-fashioned European, yet this would be perhaps no necessary proof that I am wrong. My contention is that there are many excellent things in modern methods and so-called progressive education, but that the idea of making the school into a paradise of freedom, untrammelled happiness and doing as you please for children is no better for their psychological and moral welfare than the old and nefarious idea of education by the rod. Modern psychology has become aware of the fact that it is a basic need of the child himself to feel both protected and guided by somebody invested with unquestionable authority, -- and this first of all in the family, of course, but also in the school. The frustration of such a need leaves the child in a vacuum which invites neurosis and anxiety; it is, to be sure, the worst of those frustrations which today's parents are so desperately eager to avoid.

It is true that a teacher teaches a human subject, Tom or Mary, and that his authority must always be intent on encouraging the child and appealing to his or her own power of insight and understanding. But it is no less true that he teaches an object -- mathematics or grammar -- and has primarily to make the human subject capable of freely and eagerly submitting to the object and the requirements of the object; he has to teach his pupils the exacting ways through which they prepare for an adult life where they will be obliged to make the best of situations not of their choosing, and to do not as they please but as they ought.

And I think that in making serious demands of this sort from young persons, the school develops the kind of climate which is the most appropriate to foster, indirectly and in a quite general way, those moral virtues which are not a matter of teaching, and which are rooted in the free initiative and effort of the human individual.

May I be permitted to make a final point -- somewhat utopian -- by way of conclusion?

The school is not only, according to its essential function, a place of teaching; it is also a kind of social community, or small republic, in which students and teachers live and work together. From this point of view I am wondering whether, -- in order better to compensate for what is too often lacking in families with respect to perhaps moral education, it would not be desirable to make use of the good will of the best and most reliable pupils, and to have them grouped in self-organized teams intent on improving the work and discipline of their own members, as well as their sense of fairness, justice and good fellowship in their mutual relations.

Such a collective responsibility might, I believe, develop in young persons genuine moral experience, and the actual seeds of some basic, elementary moral dispositions. The kinds of workshops in moral life constituted by the teams in question might not only make the common school discipline more alive, but also provide the students with more effective beginnings of a real formation of the will.

The value of self-organized teams of young people concerned with improving the behavior of the community has been tested with success in a certain number of particular cases. Yet I have no idea whether and how it might be put to work in public schools with large student populations. So it is only in a tentative way, and as a quite humble suggestion, that I ventured today to outline this idea.

I thank you most cordially for your patienc and for your generous attention.