Parents must fight against a new assault on virtues

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“’Tis virtue then, direct virtue, which is the hard and valuable part to be aimed at in education, and not a forward pertness, or any little arts of shifting.” 

The philosopher John Locke gave us that prescription in 1692, during the Age of Enlightenment. Our own age needs to take it seriously and be enlightened by it too.

I like to think that Locke would approve of a volume titled The Book of Virtues, which hit the bestseller lists thirty years ago. It was full of stories and poems illustrating virtues such as self-discipline and perseverance. My wife, Elayne, and I used the book to help raise our two children, as did .

This year brings a thirtieth anniversary edition of The Book of Virtues, which we have revised together and hope to use in helping to raise our grandchildren. The world has changed much in the last thirty years, in some ways for the better, but in others for the worse. One big problem is all the distraction from things that are truly worthwhile.

Bill Bennett and his wife, Elayne Bennett - plus a copy of their new book, "The Book of Virtues" 30th anniversary edition. 

Bill Bennett and his wife, Elayne Bennett – plus a copy of their new book, "The Book of Virtues" 30th anniversary edition.  (Simon & Schuster/Bill Bennett)

The world is now full of loud noise and flashing lights. Too many pings and rings on the cell phone. Too many games to play and programs to stream.

The problem is not only the volume and amount. It’s that much of the noise is pointless, base, and ugly. Casual cursing, pornography, graphic violence—even children can now get it all on their phones and tablets.

So much of what’s out there is designed to pull people down, not lift them up. It is an assault on the virtues. And it comes just when we need the virtues more than ever.

The old, timeless virtues give us resilience and equip us to deal with modern life’s problems. For example, virtues such as responsibility and loyalty help us deal with strains on family life. Work and perseverance are the virtues that will help bring up , which have seen the worst drop in thirty years. The virtue of friendship—real friendship, not the online kind—helps fill lives that feel empty. 

Such virtues are difficult to teach, attain, and keep. They are the “hard and valuable part to be aimed at,” as Locke said, in life and education. They are not compatible with so much noise and distraction. They require focus.

They also require time. People often complain they do not have enough time, but in fact, modern life often gives us more disposable time than ever. It seems like there is less time precisely because we fill it with so many of the distractions that did not exist thirty years ago.

It’s time to start turning off and tuning out these distractions. Give time and focus to what is actually important in life. Do : “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”

A good start is to turn off Netflix or the gaming screen and find a quiet place to read a story with a child. This is where good resources like The Book of Virtues come in. Stories about great figures such as George Washington and Mother Theresa, as well as classics such as Aesop’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” help young people learn about courage, compassion, and honesty. In a world so full of noise, there is more need than ever for mothers and fathers (and grandmothers and grandfathers) to sit in quiet places and read with children.

Teaching and attending to the virtues has always been hard work. It is not for snowflakes. That is why Locke wrote that education must aim at virtue above all, and that “all other considerations and accomplishments should give way and be postponed to this.”

Virtues grow with the quiet moral example of adults who spend time reading, talking, working, playing, and praying with young people. And, yes, sometimes watching a good movie. Virtues do not thrive in a world of people with their eyes and ears attached to cell phones or the internet all day long.

We need less noise, more focus.

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