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There are essentially three forums in which our values are transmitted from one generation to the next. They are the family, the school,50 and the church. In Western Civilization at the present time, all three are clearly recognized as now being "in trouble." Disintegration of the family is widely decried. The majority attend church less than once a month, or even not at all, and the majority of those who do fill the pews do so only out of a sense of obligation to someone else,51 not out of their own convictions. Problems with the school system receive the most attention in the public media. However, all commentators agree that those problems are intractable unless you can also involve the family of the student in the learning process and provide a source of moral teaching, which the schools in the United States are prohibited from providing, at least at the present time. The prohibition on moral training, and the focus on creating workers for industry, have led our public schools to eliminate most elements of a "classical" education, in large part because a "classical" education is seen as creating individuals who will not possess the necessary characteristics of a relatively docile work force and/or body politic. But we are presently reaping the results of allowing our public schools to create an amoral mass of humanity in our own back yards. The concept of reaping what you sew applies at its strongest to our system of public education.
The Catholic Church and the Christian "Right" have both long recognized this fundamental limitation in the public school system, and they attempt to solve the problem by creating a system of private schools which ensure that all three forums properly combine to transmit cultural values to the next generation. Unfortunately, less than ten percent of school age children attend these private schools, and it is clear that, while that ten percent can easily provide a lot of activist leaders of the future, they are going to be outnumbered in a big way by the ninety percent who do not share their value systems. Only parents who are strongly motivated in the first place are going to make the kinds of sacrifices which are necessary to support one or more children through a private school education.52 The apathetic majority turns out more criminals than citizens.
The inner city, where neither Catholic private schools or the so-called "alternative" schools of the Christian "Right" are affordable for most residents, suffers the most from the resulting lack of transmission of morality to the young. The problems begin with a welfare culture that has encouraged single (female) parent families with lots of kids. The lack of male leadership has long been recognized as a source of problems for at least the young males of the inner city. So, where do these males turn for role models? Just out the door of most inner city residences is a gang culture that just sits there, waiting to suck in each young male that pokes his nose out of his door. In the inner city, you either join the local gang or resolve yourself to dodging gang members until such time as you can somehow escape the 'hood into either college or a decent job. The real tragedy is that only a few actually make it out.
But, while the inner city is usually held up as a "bad example" of what will happen everywhere "if something is not done,"53 it is clearly not just the inner city which is suffering through a moral decay. The moral decay is much more obvious if you talk to the old people in the suburbs. A few decades back, most of them would not have bothered to lock their houses unless they were going away on a vacation. In this same neighborhood today, my locked car was recently burglarized, in my own driveway, while I slept inside my locked house. Not long ago, there was a weekly street fair here on certain evenings in the Summer. But there was some gang trouble, and it was canceled. The sponsors were afraid of getting sued if they did not provide a level of security which they could not afford to pay for.
The real difficulty is that, as our civilization decays under our noses, that very decay so mitigates the "good" messages which we do transmit to our young that those messages become muddled and mangled beyond recognition. How do you teach a youngster about the consequences of crime when the police tell that same youngster that there is less than one chance in a hundred of catching the crook who stole that kid's bike? In this manner, the moral degradation of our civilization, without obvious consequences to the perpetrators of the depravity, teaches our youngsters that it is not the crime which actually matters; it is getting caught that matters. The problem is the worst for young criminals. You put a kid in "jail," by placing him in a "Juvenile Hall" which probably treats the kid far better than he or she gets treated at home. This is "punishment" which is designed to motivate the kid not to commit any more crimes? Again, it is the mixed messages. Any time there is a mixed message, you allow the recipient of the mixed message to construct their own meaning for the message. How many kids see time spent in "Juvenile Hall" as a reward? What does such a "reward" teach those kids about crime? Is this crazy, or what?

Let us look for a moment at the sources of the messages which are transmitted by these traditional vehicles. In other words, let us look at our ideals.
The following is a profoundly idealistic philosophical statement, which we used to require our children to memorize, and which lies at the philosophical base of everything which is the United States of America:

As citizens of the United States, we should all recognize that passage. But how many of us recognize it as being a statement of broad philosophical principles? If you check back to the definition of "philosophy" in Book VI, Section B, you will come to recognize it as such, but were you taught this as a child? Probably not. And did anyone ever discuss what it actually meant to the original authors and signers? Again, probably not.
It begins with epistemology: "We hold these truths to be self evident." Of course, any decent philosopher would immediately recognize that they are NOT self evident, but they sure seemed self evident to those gentlemen in Philadelphia who were responsible for those words. Why this difference? Well, it boils down to assumptions: a philosopher knows that you may not assume anything; the above quotation assumed a common heritage which all of the men who signed that document shared, and that heritage was an integral part of the declaration reproduced above.
The lesson here is this: when you praise some statement of principle, you are at the same time praising every assumption upon which that statement is based; and when you ridicule some statement of principle, you are at the same time ridiculing every assumption upon which that statement is based, although you may ameliorate this effect if you stop to identify exactly where the author of the statement took a wrong turn.
A second lesson is that whenever you choose some expression of an ideal to hold up as a good example, and to transmit that ideal to our children, you must be careful of the hidden message transmitted by the underlying assumptions upon which that expression is based. Any expression of any philosophical ideal will always carry with it large portions of the underlying philosophy, without which the ideal is worthless.
Of course, many have pointed out that the words "all men are created equal" did not mean to their author anything near to the meaning which we ascribe to those same words today. First, it was never intended to include women. Second, it did not include either black slaves or Indians. None of those were "men" in the sense in which that word was understood by the author of the above declaration. Gradually, over a period of time, we have retroactively altered the meaning of those words, quoted above, so that "men" now means "people," and the concept of "people" includes all Homo Sapiens creatures, "regardless of race, creed, color, etc."
So, our next lesson is that words are slippery; meanings can change over time, or words can be taken out of their cultural context, which in and of itself can distort their meaning. And this involves an idealistic expression originally written in English. Can you now imagine the horrible transformations which are possible when translations to and from other languages are involved?
There is much less of a problem if the reader of any philosophical statement has a good grasp of the entire field of Philosophy. In that case, the reader is usually much better prepared to place any statement into context automatically, and to interpret it as the author had intended it to be interpreted.
So, what are we really teaching our children when we spring these philosophical edicts upon them out of context? Whatever it is, it is probably not what we intended to teach them. In fact, two teachers, teaching from this same text, can put such different interpretations on those texts that they will impart very different meanings to their respective students. It is for this reason that the long ago schools for the ruling class began their curriculum with Philosophy, rather than saving it for an elective college class.
The bottom line on this discussion is that we ought to re-think even the most basic of our traditional methods of transmitting our cultural heritage to our children because it is highly likely that we are not transmitting the values which we think we are. If we transmit ideals in a way that allows the true meaning to be guessed at, we have failed. If we transmit ideals with buried assumptions which are not part of our value system, we have failed. Finally, we would probably all be better served if we returned to an explicit transmission of Philosophy as a subject, rather than assuming that it will be assimilated by our children as they are growing up. The results which we presently see around us are clear evidence that what we have been doing in this regard is wrong. The argument in which our society is now engaged amounts to an argument over what to put in place of a clearly broken system. Whatever it is that we eventually decide, we must take care to ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease.

One significant new source of cultural transmission is the new forms of mass media, including movies, television, newspapers, and even the book industry. Only the book industry has a real predecessor, and before Western Civilization invented the idea of a mass printing press, receiving a book was a rare event for the very wealthy only. This is true because each book had to be laboriously reproduced by hand calligraphy and also individually proofread to ensure that the copying was accurate.
Of course, the movies and television did have their predecessors in other cultures. The plays of ancient Greece are preserved to some degree, and while presentations of them are quite rare, it is still possible. Each of these plays is cited as a source of great literature, and it is clearly an example of how any entertainment media can be used to transmit cultural values to its audience. Of course, the question is: "Whose values?"
I have waited until the end of this Section to address the entertainment media. It is currently quite fashionable to bash the media for the depravity of moral values in modern times. However, the media is merely the reflection of the public at large. If the public at large did not want to pay to see depraved moral values up on the big screen at the movies, very few films about depraved moral values would get made, and those that were made would not play at many theaters or for any significant amount of time.
As the wag points out, "You are what you eat." So, why is this not true for the media? Well, in some sense it is probable that it is true. I suppose that depraved movies could tend to reinforce the depravity which already exists in the viewers. But I can swear from personal experience that I am quite unlikely to view a movie which is about a subject I do not care for. Virtually everyone who enters a movie theater knows, in advance, the general theme of the movie they are about to view. What else attracts them to buy a ticket? So then, is it not true that people who desire to view depravity will go to a movie which depicts that very depravity?
It is thus important not to mix up cause and effect. The media is not the CAUSE of moral depravity. The depravity displayed by the media is an EFFECT of a depraved public at large. Thus, an increasing quantity of depraved movies, and an increasing level of depravity in the movies which are made, are symptoms of an increasing depravity in the general population. The cure is to treat the sickness which permeates the populace, which in turn is best done by addressing the moral values of the children. So long as we teach our kids "not to rat" on their fellow students, as a supreme moral value, we will continue to raise the esteem of gang culture in the eyes of the populace at large. For so long as a "snitch" is seen as the true moral reprobate, we will continue to nurture criminal tendencies in our young.
All of this boils down to the "Law of Unintended Consequences," which holds that, in this case, you must be careful what you teach the young, because of the risk that they will pick and choose which of your teachings to take to heart. Accordingly, in this era of almost totally mixed and muddled messages, we should not be at all surprised that our own young turn out so badly. In actuality, we should be surprised that so many of them turn out so well.
Of course, the fact that so many do turn out so well argues that the corrupting influence of the mass media is not as strong as we would believe it to be. As the usual argument goes, just watching a story about a brutal murderer does not make me want to commit a brutal murder. It is only when I am somehow convinced that it is "all right," according to our cultural values, to commit that murder that my "victim" is endangered.
Thus, it is not strictly the content of any cultural presentation (and for this I include all forms of media) which has the ability to corrupt the audience. It is, instead, the cultural message which has the potential for corruption. Thus it becomes important to transmit the correct moral message with each piece of content. If we show a violent and senseless murder, it is extremely important to transmit the moral message that this kind of violent and senseless murder is "wrong." But we can make the slightest change in the circumstances, perhaps altering the "victim" to be an enemy of the state and the "killer" to be an agent of the state, and now the exact same act becomes morally "right."
No present or proposed rating system includes any methodology for evaluating whether the message transmitted by any given presentation is pro-cultural or anti-cultural. Merely rating a presentation for a particular age group based upon either the level of violence, the language, or the erotic content says absolutely nothing about whether the audience member who experiences that presentation will be morally uplifted or, in the alternative, encouraged towards moral devolution. In other words, the rating system measures the wrong things.
If a given presentation is morally uplifting, no matter its content, it ought to be viewed by anyone capable of understanding it, no matter how young. On the other hand, if a given presentation is the opposite of morally uplifting, and would actually encourage the commission of morally despicable acts, it ought to only be viewed by those with special permission, or at least those who are regularly tested for devolution of their moral values. The last thing in the world that any civilization ought to do is to allow its citizens to teach themselves to be morally corrupt.


50 Because our modern concept of universal public education is relatively new, the majority of people throughout the majority of history only received values through their family and church.

51 We still believe that children ought to be raised as part of a church, in spite of the fact that most of us do not actually believe in the church ourselves. Thus, many adults attend church out of a feeling that their children ought to go, as opposed to a feeling of sincere belief by said adults. The true fallacy in this is to believe that the children do not notice this hypocrisy, and that their true beliefs do not take into account this hypocrisy.

52 Remember, these parents still pay taxes, in some way or another, to support the public schools which they are not using. At this writing, it is still illegal to pay any part of private school tuition with public funds.

53 Unfortunately, damn little is done. Doing something positive to solve the problems of the inner city is usually the "low man on the totem pole" when it comes to budget priorities. Again, we have decided to pay for the "pound of cure," in the form of huge new prisons, as opposed to paying for the "ounce of prevention," in the form of a realistic social program to prevent inner city youngsters from turning out bad in the first place.

54 When this was first written, the word "men" meant only "white males," and was specifically not intended to include women, black slaves, or Indians. It is an amazing transformation which our modern heritage has wrought: to transform the words "all men" into meaning "all mankind."

55 From the Declaration of Independence, published Thursday, July 4, 1776, as quoted from Volume 2 of the Annals of America (1968), published by Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc.

Copyright 1994-1999 by the Agnostic Church

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