Schools should stop telling children to be nice and start teaching them to be good.
So writes Diana Senechal at DoubleX. Reviewing Charles Murray’s recent book Real Education, she seizes on an unremarked upon quote in which the controversial author observes that schools “tell children to be nice but not how to be good. It tells children to be happy but does nothing to help children think about what happiness means.” When Murray is right, she notes, “he is awfully right.”
Being nice is something of a bromide in education. It’s enshrined in KIPP’s “Work Hard. Be Nice” slogan, and is the focus of a lot of group activity that revolves around “pleasant, uncontroversial subject matter” with familiar social messages “Being good is more complex than being nice,” Diana observes. “It requires that we recognize our own faults and complexities; that we forgive each other; that we say what we think; that we make difficult decisions and face the consequences.”
When we read literature and history, we begin to glean what it means to be good. We see how people with the best intentions can fail; how people struggle with conflicting desires and values and make the best choices they can; how people overcome their limitations when put to the test. From works like Antigone, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Chekhov’s short stories, we learn about selfishness, cruelty, cowardice, and confusion, as well as grace, generosity, and patience. We come to see elements of all these traits in ourselves.
When the curriculum has substance, “students learn not only how to behave, but how to think and feel deeply,” Diana writes. ”They come to understand what humans are made of, what choices we have, and what reason, artistic gift, and imagination can do.” By contrast, when the emphasis is on group work for its own sake, ”it becomes more important for students to work together than to learn something important.”
If we only teach children to be nice, they will be at a loss when life calls for more than niceness. They will be at a loss when faced with problems—intellectual, practical, or emotional—that they have to solve on their own. And when the niceness wears out, they will reach for the next thing they know, the knee-jerk reaction. Murray is right: There is a wide gulf between being nice and being good—and while no curriculum can produce goodness, an excellent curriculum can give students a vision of what it might be.