During a recent brief family visit to Washington, D.C., I found myself at the playground — actually, the "outdoor play and learning environment" — of Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School. The school, which goes from pre-kindergarten through 4th grade, has a 17,000-volume library, after-school classes in Mandarin, Spanish, and French, and tuition of about $36,000 a year.
What I found particularly interesting was the gateway to the rustic, vast, and state-of-the-art playground. It opened in 2013. Etched into the concrete were four words.
Responsible. Kind. Honest. Respectful.
Now, it's certainly possible that the school pays lip service to those values but doesn't always embody them. It's also possible that some parents may react by saying, you know what, let me handle that stuff, and let the school just focus on reading, science, math, and art.
It may be that private schools or institutions are more comfortable with values-talk than public schools are. I've been to a lot of government-sponsored playgrounds at public parks and public schools and I can't recall any of them with entryways like the Beauvoir one. It may be one reason parents are willing to plunk down the $36,000 a year. The Boy Scouts are also big on this sort of language: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."
This gets at something mentioned in my post the other day about the David Brooks and Matthew Continetti columns. Artistotle wrote about the importance of cultivating virtue among citizens. Samuel Adams was huge on this stuff. As governor of Massachusetts, he made a plea for moral education, expressing hope that "our children and youth, while they are engaged in the pursuit of useful science, may have their minds impressed with a strong sense of the duties they owe to their God, their instructors, and each other." George Will made it the topic of his first book, Statecraft as Soulcraft (a New York Times review by Michael Sandel is here.)
James Q. Wilson discusses this in his "American Government" textbook, mentioning Aristotle and Samuel Adams in a section on "Government and Human Nature." Wrote Wilson and his co-authors, "to James Madison and other architects of the Constitution, the deliberate cultivation of virtue would require a government too strong and thus too dangerous to liberty, at least at the national level."
I am sympathetic to Madison's skepticism, and even Madison could have never imagined the size of our current national government. But if the national government isn't going to cultivate a virtuous citizenry, then you need someone else — families, schools, Boy Scout troops, sports coaches, religious institutions — to do it. Otherwise we may still wind up with a too strong government too dangerous to liberty, in part because the citizenry lacks the virtues of thrift or responsibility.
All of which is a long way of saying I found the Beauvoir playground entrance to be inspiring and encouraging, a hopeful sign. It can be difficult to discuss virtue in the context of politics or Washington without coming off as a schoolmarm or a scold. But a lot of what passes for politics and policy debate these days is really argument about character and virtue and values, or the absence of them.