On Friday, David Brooks had a provocative op-ed in the New York Times that made the argument that most efforts to teach moral behavior fail because the instruction is based on a misconception of human nature. Here are highlights:
A little while ago, a national study authorized by Congress found that abstinence education programs don’t work. That gave liberals a chance to feel superior because it turns out that preaching traditional morality to students doesn’t change behavior.
But in this realm, nobody has the right to feel smug. American schools are awash in moral instruction — on sex, multiculturalism, environmental awareness and so on — and basically none of it works. Sex ed doesn’t change behavior. Birth control education doesn’t produce measurable results. The fact is, schools are ineffectual when it comes to values education. You can put an adult in front of a classroom or an assembly, and that adult can emit words, but don’t expect much impact.
That’s because all this is based on a false model of human nature. It’s based on the idea that human beings are primarily deciders. If you pour them full of moral maxims, they will be more likely to decide properly when temptation arises. If you pour them full of information about the consequences of risky behavior, they will decide to exercise prudence and forswear unwise decisions.
That’s the way we’d like to think we are, but that’s not the way we really are, and it’s certainly not the way teenagers are. There is no central executive zone in the brain where all information is gathered and decisions are made. There is no little homunculus up there watching reality on a screen and then deciding how to proceed. In fact, the mind is a series of parallel processes and loops, bidding for urgency.
We’re not primarily deciders. We’re primarily perceivers. The body receives huge amounts of information from the world, and what we primarily do is turn that data into a series of generalizations, stereotypes and theories that we can use to navigate our way through life. Once we’ve perceived a situation and construed it so that it fits one of the patterns we carry in our memory, we’ve pretty much rigged how we’re going to react, even though we haven’t consciously sat down to make a decision.
To make this point more concrete, Brooks gives the example of a teenage couple in a parked car. What will influence their decision to have sex? Is it what the learn in sex education class either at school or church? Brooks says no:
When a teenage couple is in the backseat of a car about to have sex or not, or unprotected sex or not, they are not autonomous creatures making decisions based on classroom maxims or health risk reports. Their behavior is shaped by the subconscious landscapes of reality that have been implanted since birth.
Did they grow up in homes where they felt emotionally secure? Do they often feel socially excluded? Did they grow up in a neighborhood where promiscuity is considered repulsive? Did they grow up in a sex-drenched environment or an environment in which children are buffered from it? (According to a New Zealand study, firstborns are twice as likely to be virgins at 21 than later-born children.)
In other words, the teenagers in that car won’t really be alone. They’ll be in there with a whole web of attitudes from friends, family and the world at large. Some teenagers will derive from those shared patterns a sense of subconscious no-go zones. They’ll regard activities in that no-go zone the way vegetarians regard meat — as a taboo, beyond immediate possibility.
Deciding is conscious and individual, but perceiving is subconscious and communal. The teen sex programs that actually work don’t focus on the sex. They focus on the environment teens live in. They work on the substratum of perceptions students use to orient themselves in the world. They don’t try to lay down universal rules, but apply the particular codes that have power in distinct communities. They understand that changing behavior changes attitudes, not the other way around.
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Does Brooks' argument make sense? If Brooks is correct, doesn't this reinforce the importance of communities (including the faith community) in forming moral attitudes and behavior? Does it suggest that parents and the Church need to rethink how we approach the moral education of our children?