Fear of words unspoken


“Talk Scheduled at Catholic School in Bronx Promotes Fear of Anti-Gay Message.”

So read a headline in the New York Times back in November. The half-page article sounded an alarm that the scheduled speaker, a priest, just might give parents – and, through them, children – an understanding of good and evil that is plainly unacceptable to the Times and probably injurious to the child and society. The article was more an essay than reportage and, perhaps, a prototype of contemporary journalism on issues respecting personal behavior. The relevance of this professional bent for the promoters of school choice deserves a word.

Imagine the mind of the Times writers as they blow the cover on this looming mischief. What an exposé – Catholics are conspiring to discourage sodomy! Though this threatening message was to be delivered only to parents, the journalists know that some vulnerable gay child is sure to be injured emotionally in the fallout. Indeed, the particular priest scheduled to speak “has long been involved with the Courage organization, a spiritual support group to encourage men and women to remain celibate.” If there were concerns that this organization was pushing further, instead pursuing an unstated strategy of reprograming gay students, the writers provided no clues.

Hence, we were left to imagine this fear: A priest intended to “encourage” chastity. Such a threat; beware the Inquisition! Happily the reporters told us to take heart: “More than 200 people” signed a Facebook petition to cancel the meeting. Such a big number (and how many of them parents)? It is worth noting that the journalists failed to ask those parents they did interview just what it was they had expected when they freely chose a Catholic high school – nor, why they did not now simply transfer to P.S. 209 and save the tuition while getting the message they want.

Flagship journalism frequently feels this obligation either to diminish or dominate public (or, here, even private) discussion of certain moral issues that the editors and writers consider settled. Among these is consensual sex. What one does with his body by choice is, by definition, okay. All opinion to the contrary is irrelevant; hence the threatened expression by this would-be Bronx speaker should be treated like any public nuisance – as a threat to be exposed and denounced. He may have the legal right to speak, but to exercise First Amendment rights in this manner, seeking to discourage gay sex, is at best de trop and, at worst, dangerous to children. It should be hissed from the stage. Bless those 200 Facebookers.

The prevalence of this attitude among these bright minds is suggestive for the politics of parental choice. First, this bent is not likely to diminish soon, partly because it arises from well-intentioned ignorance and long-engrained habits.

These “enlightened” sources appear unaware even of the crucial distinction emphasized in Catholic schools between the goodness or evil of a certain act on the one hand, and the moral state of the actor himself on the other. The actor may well intend what he believes to be good, mistaking the error of the objective behavior intended. In most moral theory – whether secular or theological – the actor’s good intention is crucial to his own moral state quite apart from the objective evil of his act.

Unaware of this basic distinction between act and actor, the Times first informed us that “past Vatican messages … included equating homosexuality with evil.” If you “are” gay, you are bad. But, insist the writers, the new pope abandons all this, becoming, as the Times would have it, a defender even of homoerotic behavior. After all, the pontiff recently declined to judge the gay actor who “searches for the Lord and has a good will.” The Times – itself apparently in a state of invincible ignorance – allows us to suppose that Francis here has declared the objective innocence of consensual homosexual behavior.

In the design of proposed statutory programs, those of us who pursue school choice may well have to accept and take into account this profound intellectual coma of the press as a fact of life. NYT may never grasp that the teaching of celibacy is, in itself, no insult to the gay teenager who may in fact need moral reality and “encouragement” more than the whisper he gets to “do your own thing.” From what we are told of how the Courage organization was supposed to structure its message to the school’s parents, the message of celibacy to gay children was to be scarcely different in kind from the discouraging of fornication and adultery. Of course, to the Times at least the former can seem merely a medical issue.

Recognition of the endurance of such journalistic miscues about morality could serve a positive public purpose. They stand as a warning to friends of parental choice that, in designing newer, freer, more democratic systems of schooling, one enduring political concern will be the extent, if any, to which the school that is freely chosen by parents will need to forego teaching some elements of its moral curriculum in order to participate. Like it or not, there will be a voter’s concern (I share it) that a school could be simply too outré or, somehow, sinister in its moral teaching to deserve public financial support of its parents. Whatever citizens see as good or evil content in any curriculum will put votes at stake. Shabab schools will not be allowed to participate.

There is deep irony in this contemporary misperception of the supposed aberrant and unpredictable content of private compared to public moral schooling, one that seems shared by most professional commentators. Of course, there is no simple metric of what counts as divergence from a mainstream curriculum or even what such a model might contain; but the scene that I seem to behold is rather different from that which terrifies the Times and many voters. Historically, and today, private schools have been only modestly diverse in their teaching of the morality of specific behaviors. The Ten Commandments have been a common starting place, distinguished to a degree by various local community and church codes respecting drink, dress, sociality, religious expression and civic mission. Private high schools do, at the extremes of human behavior, tend to pass judgment upon particular forms of wealth distribution, racial relations, environmental policies, animal rights, sexual behavior and divine worship. But, in all this, the commonality among them strongly outweighs the diversity. This is bolstered by the greater freedom of the private sector to exclude teachers whose moral message tends to the unusual. Such cases imperil both the school’s intended message and the loyalty of its parents. Hence, schools actually prefer to appear centrist, at least in respect of behavior.

As I observe the moral conceptions actually taught and practiced in public schools, they have tended to be a good deal more diverse than the private sector – unpredictable even from room to room. This seeming paradox affecting formally legislated systems should not surprise us. Reigning ideas of free expression and individualism plus local custom, tenure, union protection and – most of all – the very diverse convictions of individual teachers together make the public school moral curriculum a bit of a bingo game. One must grasp that half a century of John Dewey plus the federal judiciary has made any common moral message to children a difficult enterprise. I won’t extend the point with tales of Berkeley and a half dozen other public systems known to me and my own children. The reality is evident enough in the contemporary efforts to create a “core curriculum,” an enterprise which bids fair to include little enough about morality. Nor could it. Insofar as the subject is even tolerated, moral talk is (and must be) diluted in deference to student “self-fulfillment,” with perhaps a smuggled and unpredictable subtext of real norms of behavior largely determined, taught and enforced by individual teachers whose own moral codes are a reality that public school hiring committees and principals can only superficially probe. It is hardly surprising if the codes taught in the private religious sector are in fact more uniform and nearer the center of general opinion.

I will not here revisit the problem of the precise wording of those moral conceptions that would be either required or excluded in a comprehensive legislated system of school choice in the private sector. That thorny business I have addressed elsewhere (several times with Stephen Sugarman). Nor will I let slip my private view of the objective morality of gay sex – the subject that prompted the Times’ essay and, in turn, my own. Let’s leave it at this: the pope got it right. The goodness of the person is a separate matter; his moral state cannot be judged.

As a subscriber I do hope the NYT begins to recognize the civil ordinariness of parents – rich and poor – who prefer private schooling with its possibly boring and predictable moral message.