The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, edited by William J Bennett, New York: Simon & Schuster, 831 pages, $27.50
At some point in my late teens, my father confided that he was sorry that my siblings and I—and children in general—were forced to "grow up so soon these days" (this was in the early '80s). He wished, he said, that kids could be better protected from the rough-and-tumble problems of the adult world, as they had been when he was young.
I remember thinking: What the hell is he talking about? Here was a guy who was born (at home, by a midwife!) into truly marginal social and economic conditions in New York City in 1923; who almost died of rheumatic fever and saw friends crippled by polio; who came of age during the Great Depression; who started working at age 12 to help support his family; who once stood in line for hours when a department store offered free winter coats to needy children; whose adolescence was spent moving to shabbier and shabbier apartments in worse and worse slums; whose social milieu consisted of broken homes and drunken or absent fathers; and whose own youth ended definitively when he landed at Normandy beach as part of the D-Day invasion. And here he was, telling me—a kid raised in the taken-for-granted luxury we obfuscate with the term "middle-class"—that my peers and I had seen too much, too soon. I came to the logical conclusion that my father was senile.
A dozen or so years later, I'm certain my old man was not senile. And as my first child approaches his first birthday, I think my father might even have been right about the changed nature of childhood. Or, rather, I have a better understanding of what he was talking about. I've come to realize that as a parent you view the world of your child through the eyes of a stranger in a strange land. Even as you attempt to guide and protect your charge through the streets of New Babylon, you realize that you do not really speak the language, know the rituals, or comprehend the customs of the world in which your child will live. It is flush with dangers—and opportunities—that you never encountered. By contrast, the world of your own childhood is terra cognita and, by default, a less-foreboding place. Unfortunately, most of what you learned growing up is by necessity outdated, outmoded, and obsolete.
What, then, can a parent teach a child that will be of any enduring use or relevance? This is the question that explicitly informs William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues, a "compendium of great stories, poems, and essays from the stock of human history and literature" which bills itself as a "'how-to' book for moral literacy." For Bennett, the first job of adults is to educate youth in "the traits of characters we most admire." "[Children] must," writes Bennett in his engaging, eminently sensible introduction, "achieve a minimal level of moral literacy that will enable them to make sense of what they see in life and, we may hope, help them live it well." He is, in short, talking about general principles which, though learned under specific circumstances, allow an individual to make meaningful, conscious decisions in new and obscure situations.
A couple of years ago, such talk would have branded Bennett a conservative crackpot, a Reaganite leftover who mistook Father Knows Best for reality. But nowadays, The Atlantic Monthly certifies that "Dan Quayle was right" and elected officials—especially Bill Clinton—want to talk about "values" and "virtues." Judging from the critical and popular reception The Book of Virtues has received, people are interested in the conversation. Earlier this year, The New Republic suggested Bennett's book "compels respect," a sentiment apparently shared by readers writ large: As of mid-September, The Book of Virtues had spent 38 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and showed no signs of dropping off.
Not just the cultural climate has changed, however. This is a kinder, gentler Bill Bennett, certainly not the drug czar who once flirted with notions such as publicly hanging drug dealers and shooting down planes suspected of carrying drugs. It may just be possible that Bennett is lurching towards a grudging, pragmatic libertarianism. Especially over the past year or so, he has been outspoken on the need to shrink the state and to rely on non-coercive means of achieving a particular sort of society (as Bush's drug czar and Reagan's secretary of education, he often favored expanded roles for the government).
"There are real limits to what the state can do, particularly when it comes to imparting virtue and forming character," writes Bennett in the 1993 edition of his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. In this sentiment, he moves beyond traditional conservatism which, as F.A. Hayek pointed out, "is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with…who wields them."
Having occupied the seat of power himself, Bennett seems now to understand that big government, whether "conservative" or "liberal" in bent, undermines social order. "There is a role for government," Bennett recently told the Los Angeles Times Magazine, "but it has become the place of first resort for every problem….It seems to me we ought to devolve government, get [its functions] to the state level, the local level, to communities and non-government entities, and right on to the logical extension—to the people themselves." Accordingly, Bennett has withdrawn from the political arena—he recently declared he will not seek the GOP presidential nomination—and has opened up shop in the marketplace of ideas.
And what are the "virtues" that Bennett is hawking? They are "certain fundamental traits of character…[for which]…the vast majority of Americans share a respect…honesty, compassion, courage, and perseverance." (He also includes self-discipline, responsibility, friendship, work, loyalty, and faith.) Each of the book's 10 chapters is devoted to a different virtue and includes a wide range of simple and more sophisticated material. For instance, the "Responsibility" section includes the poems "The Three Little Kittens" and "Little Orphan Annie" as well as Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham City Jail" and C.S. Lewis's "Men Without Chests."
Bennett supplies a general introduction about each virtue and a few lines explicating each particular selection. He skirts the issue of whether literature is an efficient teacher of morality—think of the English Romantics, who read Milton's Paradise Lost and walked away singing Satan's praises—by stressing instead the process of moral interpretation. "People of good character are not all going to come down on the same side of difficult political and social issues," writes Bennett. "Good people—people of character and moral literacy—can be conservative, and good people can be liberal."
The Book of Virtues is surprisingly diverse in its readings—sources range from the obvious (stories from the Old and New Testaments, children's verse by Hillaire Belloc, tales by Aesop and the Brothers Grimm) to the unexpected (African and American-Indian folk tales, writings by and about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, a testimonial by Babe Ruth). Bennett also includes didactic doggerel designed to teach children manners and morals (e.g., "Table Rules for Little Folks") that will no doubt stick with young children and amuse older, ironical ones.
Bennett displays an unexpected but welcome creative streak in his choices. In the "Courage" chapter, for instance, he reprints British explorer Ernest Shackleton's advertisement for volunteers for an Antarctic expedition: "Men Wanted For Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." There's even room in this big tent for gay and lesbian writers—albeit very canonical ones (Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather) whose works don't betray their personal proclivities. Such eclecticism drives home the point that virtue and morality are to be found everywhere.
One could quibble with Bennett's selections—is "The Charge of the Light Brigade" really an example of "responsible" behavior?—and his annotations—is "The Three Little Pigs" really a story "about working smart"? But such criticism misses a larger, more important detail: The pieces, contextualized as they are, provoke a dialogue and discussion between parent and child, reader and text. This is really the point of The Book of Virtues. In any case, Bennett notes that his book "is by no means a definitive collection of great moral stories." He wears such humility—certainly a virtue in itself—well.
If anything mars The Book of Virtues, it is Bennett's occasional references to a vaguely defined "common world, a world of shared ideals." Not surprisingly, he hearkens back to a more-noble, pre-TV-age past (the 1950s? the 1850s?) when people apparently agreed on everything. This is an echo of Bennett's conservatism—like all conservatives, he prefers the past mostly because it is the past. But the strength of his collection is not that it recaptures an actual historical period when kids and their parents were indeed morally superior.
Rather, what is most appealing about The Book of Virtues is the idea that children need to learn ethics the same way they learn to walk: slowly, and in a room free of sharp edges. "The reader," notes Bennett, "may notice [The Book of Virtues] does not discuss issues like nuclear war, abortion, creationism, or euthanasia. This may come as a disappointment to some. But the formation of character in young people is educationally a different task from, and a prior task to, the discussion of the great, difficult, ethical controversies of the day. First things first. The tough issues can, if teachers and parents wish, be taken up later. And, I would add, a person who is morally literate will be immeasurably better equipped than a morally illiterate person to reach a reasoned and ethically defensible position on these tough issues."
Indeed, first things first. Let children first learn that George Washington admitted to chopping down the cherry tree and that honesty is the best policy. Then let them puzzle over the fact that Mason Lock Weems's paean to truth-telling is itself made up and that virtuous living is not a simple, clear-cut matter. As they grow up, their world will become increasingly complex. In its finest moments, The Book of Virtues acknowledges there is no street map to the Babylon in which our children will live. The best we can offer them is a compass.