Speaking the Truth to Our Children

by Olin Robison

Dr. Robison is president of Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont.

He adapted this article from a speech given at the 20th Religious Liberty Conference of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., in October. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 3, 1986, pp. 1091-1093. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is wishful thinking to believe that the educational system can assume the responsibility of passing to the next generation the central and binding values, as well as the moral and ethical concepts, that set us free to be who we can be.

Some years ago a young woman who had confessed to cheating on an exam came by my office to say that she didn’t think she should be suspended because she hadn’t meant any harm. I said: "Mary, there’s not an awful lot I can do about it. The institution has certain standards, and I would have thought that you did, too." She replied: "Dr. Robison, I’m sure I have standards. I just don’t know what they are."

She didn’t know it, but she spoke for an entire society. We claim to have high moral and ethical standards, but we just don’t always know what they are.

Soon after he became secretary of education, William Bennett announced that he believed students were being "ripped off" by American colleges and universities. "Most colleges promise to make you better culturally and morally," he said, "but it is not evident that they do so. They are not delivering on their promises."

I found his claim more than a little bit outrageous, so I wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe in which I argued that colleges may do many dumb things, but promising to improve people morally is not one of them. "Our goal, Mr. Bennett, is more modest," I wrote.

It is to provide a climate, an environment, in which the most exemplary values can flourish and the less desirable attributes have a harder time of it. We hope to make our colleges and our society more hospitable to generosity of spirit and dedication to honest and disciplined inquiry.

Any educator knows that few people actually change their ethical and moral values in college. On the campus we work with what we get. In most things we reflect the values of our society.

There is no prospect of graduating young adults who are morally strong, ethically concerned and generously dedicated to the public good unless one admits 18 year olds who already possess those qualities. Frankly, the only realistic goal I see is that we provide an environment in which the best of these inclinations can mature and flourish and the less worthy characteristics do not.

It is wishful thinking to assume that the educational system can assume the responsibility of passing to the next generation the central and binding values, as well as the moral and ethical concepts, that set us free to be who we can be. Schools and colleges can impart civic responsibility, an appreciation of the law, and intellectual and social skills, but there is no consensus in the academic community to support any role beyond that.

The teaching of values in our society is not primarily the responsibility of our schools; it is primarily the responsibility of parents and churches. Perhaps one of the reasons that we are now asking schools to teach values is that we have failed to teach them ourselves.

There is good reason for our ineffectiveness: we don’t know what we want. Though we are eloquent in our discontents, frustrations, allegations of failure and prophecies of doom, we are tongue-tied and inarticulate about what we want.

It is not that we are uncaring—far from it. But people have work to do, livings to make, children to raise, and pressures and demands that sap their energies. Thus, it isn’t surprising that most of us search for a sane voice to put words around those issues that we know ought to concern us.

Where can we find the voice of sanity, clarity, conviction and vision in a society that reduces all messages to sound bytes and bumper stickers, billboards and lapel pins? Who will sound the call for mental work and disciplined choice when so many labels are available to declare choice and position without having to think? Who will make us think, when it is so easy not to?

I have a neighbor and colleague who is an accomplished poet. His constant message to his students is: "First you must find your voice. Without a distinctive voice, what you have to say will not be heard."

Our distinctive voice is in the rich tradition that we have inherited and of which we are the custodians. Only there can we find the substance and language in which to express whatever we have to say.

If we have something to say about the timeless enemies of the human condition—injustice, ignorance, bigotry, exploitation, hunger, war—we will fail if we try to sound like every other voice in the public realm instead of using our language and tradition.

When we buy into the language of the day, we also swallow the values that shape the language. For instance, ours is a society obsessed with the adversarial model of human relations, and we have bought into it. Rare is the sermon without sports metaphors. We talk of winners and losers, we equate worth with winning, and in the end we wind up telling our children in a thousand ways that winning is what matters. Shame on us!

We in the church cannot speak clearly to our age because we have been seduced by its definitions of success. The church’s ideas of success are not markedly different from those of any other institution in our society. Our measures of accomplishment reflect rather than lead—and our children get the message.

I suggest that we turn to the Quakers for guidance, and accept their old and constant charge: to speak truth to power, adding to that charge the task of speaking truth also to privilege and comfort. Then we will have truth to speak to our children.

Ours is a society in which neither end of the political spectrum speaks much truth to anything. The liberals among us seem blindly committed to the limitless possibilities of good intentions. And the conservatives have lulled themselves into believing that good manners are the same thing as social conscience.

But how can we speak truth to power when we spend our energies in fighting the same battles with each other that the church has been fighting for centuries? How can we speak truth to power when we have abandoned the powerful language of our past and acquiesced in trivializing the powerful and revolutionary message of Christ into bumper sticker messages like, "Honk if you love Jesus."?

And who will speak truth to power when the White House itself, with great cynicism, conducts a deliberate disinformation campaign, lying to the American people, the press and the world? It was appropriate, they said, because their campaign was directed against Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. The implicit message is that lying is OK if it addresses an evil. Moreover, the White House response to the outrage of the press was to call for lie-detector tests to see who leaked the story.

Where is the prophet Nathan when we need him?

Who will speak truth to privilege in a society in which the disparities between the rich and poor grow more pronounced daily? Surely there is nothing on which the message of Jesus is more powerful, clear and direct than that privilege carries responsibility and that wealth is the ultimate seduction.

In which of our churches or colleges does the voice of the rich man not carry more weight than that of his less-affluent neighbor?

Who will say, "Of him to whom much is given, much is required"? Who in a free society will say that conferring privilege is a secular version of grace? Who will set our children free from the myth of privilege articulated by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof "When you’re rich, they think you really know."

Where is Amos when we need him?

Who will speak truth to comfort when it requires speaking to ourselves? Who will tell our young people that comfort as a goal is unworthy of the Christian tradition and of those who built this nation? Who will tell them that comfort dulls one’s sensitivity to the needs of others? Who will tell them that comfort takes the edge off that Puritan commitment to accomplishment that is their birthright? And who will tell them that comfort is the enemy of stamina and the companion of indifference?

Where are the prophets when we need them?

By speaking the truth to power, privilege and comfort we, by example, speak truth to our children, instilling in them the values of our rich tradition. In the process, we teach them that courage and the ability to make choices are not accidental.

They know that before winning the marathon, one has to start running. They know that, in order to be a great poet, one must first write poems, that great musicians blossom only after years of practice. Why, then, should we allow them to believe that, at some future moment of great ethical and moral choice, they can rise to the occasion if they’ve never had to face difficult choices before? One rises to moments of tough ethical choices only when one has made difficult decisions as a child, a teen-ager, a student. Responsible choices do not come accidentally.

On the day before the Watergate hearings began, Senator Sam Ervin happened to be at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where I was then working. That night I said, "Senator, we all look for a great deal from you tomorrow, it must be a tremendous weight." With no arrogance whatsoever, he looked at me and said: "Son, all my life I’ve been preparing for this moment. I am ready."

Each fall on parents’ weekend at Middlebury, I speak in the chapel. Almost every year when I’m fielding questions, some parent will stand up and say: "My son or daughter is having a very good experience here, and I really appreciate it. However, I’ve looked at your college catalogue, and I want to know why you don’t do more on the free-enterprise system. I don’t think you’re doing enough." There’s a rustle in the room. Not wanting to disturb the pleasant atmosphere of the weekend with a philosophical debate, I simply respond: "Why don’t you leave them alone? They’re going to grow up and be just like you."

Of course, that’s the problem—they’re going to grow up and be just like us. I don’t know if we want that or not. But if we’re to talk about education and values, then let us not pretend that the charge can be laid at someone else’s door before it is first laid at our own.