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Jewish World Review May 25, 2000 / 20 Iyar, 5760

George Will

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Forget Values, Let's Talk Virtues -- EASTON, Pa. –– Here at Lafayette College, as elsewhere in our Republic, the birth of which was nobly assisted by the man for whom the university is named, today's peace and prosperity allow, indeed seem to demand, a preoccupation with the problem of teaching what are nowadays called "values." Talk of values is a new, and regrettable, vocabulary for discussing a recurring American concern.

When the Marquis de Lafayette returned to America in 1824, his extended tour catalyzed the young Republic's unease about what it sensed was a decline from the pinnacle of virtue achieved by the Revolutionary generation that was then passing. Then, as now, the nation was feeling its oats economically, but also was feeling queasy about whether its character was as strong as its economy, and thus about whether prosperity constituted progress.

Today it would be progress if everyone would stop talking about values. Instead, let us talk, as the Founders did, about virtues.

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb rightly says that the ubiquity of talk about "values" causes us to forget how new such talk is. It began in Britain's 1983 election campaign, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher jauntily embraced the accusation, which is what it was, that she favored "Victorian values."

Time was, "value" was used mostly as a verb, meaning to esteem. It also was a singular noun, as in "the value of the currency." In today's politics, it is primarily a plural noun, denoting beliefs or attitudes. And Friedrich Nietzsche's nihilistic intention--the de-moralization of society--is advanced when the word "values" supplants "virtues" in political and ethical discourse. When we move beyond talk about good and evil, when the language of virtue and vice is "transcended," we are left with the thin gruel of values-talk.

How very democratic values-talk is: Unlike virtues, everyone has lots of values, as many as they choose. Hitler had scads of values. George Washington had virtues. Who among those who knew him would have spoken of Washington's "values"?

Values-talk comes naturally to a nonjudgmental age--an age judgmental primarily about the cardinal sin of being judgmental. It is considered broad-minded to say, "One person's values are as good as another's." It is nonsense to say "One person's virtues are as good as another's."

Values are an equal-opportunity business: They are mere choices. Virtues are habits, difficult to develop and therefore not equally accessible to all. Speaking of virtues rather than values is elitist, offensive to democracy's egalitarian, leveling ethos.

Which is why talk of virtues should be revived. De Tocqueville, who toured America not long after Lafayette did, noted that although much is gained by replacing aristocratic with democratic institutions and suppositions, something valuable is often lost--the ability to recognize, and the hunger to honor, hierarchies of achievement and character. So democracy requires the cultivation of certain preventative virtues that counter certain tendencies of democracy.

So says professor Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard's conservative (who because of his opposition to grade inflation is known there as Harvey C-minus Mansfield). He notes that a theme of American literature, writ large in the works of Mark Twain, is the effects of democracy on the higher qualities of people. To counter democracy's leveling ethos, with its tinge of resentment born of envy of scarce excellence, universities, Mansfield says, should teach students how to praise.

Students should learn to look up to the heroic--in thought and action, in politics and literature, in science and faith. After all, the few men and women who become heroes do so by looking up, and being pulled up by a vision of nobility. Which makes a hero quite unlike a "role model." A very democratic notion, "role model": It is something anyone can successfully emulate.

Here, then, is higher education's special purpose in a democracy. It is to turn young people toward what is high.

A wit has said that in the 19th century England's ruling class developed the system of elite secondary schools for the purpose of making sure that Byron and Shelley could never happen again. The proper purpose of American higher education is not to serve as a values cafeteria, where young people are encouraged to pick whatever strikes their fancies. Rather, the purpose of higher education for citizens of a democracy should be to help them identify that rarity, excellence, in various realms, and to study what virtues make it excellent.

These thoughts for commencement season are pertinent to the political season. Whenever you hear, as you frequently will this year, politicians speaking of "values," you are in the presence of America's problem, not its solution.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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