New morality must mix standards and tolerance

School's out, summer's come, and there's space for reflective thought. So when a small group of Colorado public schoolteachers gathered here last week for the Governor's Institute for Educators, what kinds of public issues were they reflecting upon? Again and again, in conversations in and around the formal meetings, one concern surfaced: the sense that, more than ever before, they were seeing a breakdown in public and private morality.

Given recent events, that's not surprising. As educators, they're understandably troubled by the examples set by television evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, former Sen. Gary Hart, Wall Street mogul Ivan Boesky, and some of the cast of characters in the Iran-contra hearings. Where have all the standards gone? they wonder. What went wrong?

History is never as simple as our generalities about it. But if those generalities shed light on the present - on a concern for morality so widespread that it made the cover of Time magazine not long ago - they serve a useful purpose. What, then, can history teach us about our present-day morality?

Speaking broadly, one might note that the past century has seen a shift from standards to tolerance as the guiding moral principle.

The 19th century was a period of firmly held standards. Parents and teachers told children what was right and wrong, and children responded: That was a large part of the educational process. Western nations prospered, confident in the standards that had produced such unprecedented concentrations of wealth, power, and success.

The downside, however, was a lack of tolerance: Charles Dickens, in ``Hard Times,'' gave us the sobering portrait of Mr. Gradgrind, the teacher who cared for nothing but black-and-white ``facts.'' Meanwhile, the European nations, colonizing what they saw as a heathen world, were running roughshod over any cultural or religious system that did not square with their own standards.

A century later, the weathercock has swung completely about. The catchword today is not ``standards'' but ``tolerance,'' a new-found respect for others' views and values. The noble idea of tolerance underlies our sense of racial equality, the concern for human rights, the interest in helping developing nations, and an increased willingness to see the world from another's vantage.

Yet tolerance, too, has a downside. It sometimes seems to flourish in direct proportion to a lack of standards. Where there is no inner measure of right and wrong, after all, everything looks equally acceptable, nothing gives offense, and tolerance is easy.

The result is often a m'elange of unsorted ideas, where the deepest issues are the most confused. Our ancestors, for example, would hardly have recognized the mental chowder - cooked up from bits of Zen, psychotherapy, Hinduism, Christianity, and theoretical physics - that sometimes passes for religion today.

If that's a fair broad brush of the past century - if what we've seen is a 180-degree shift from a high regard for standards to a broad commitment to tolerance - then it's worth asking where we go from here. ``Backwards!'' some holler - especially those on the far right in politics and religion. Their call for a renewal of standards - in education, in public life, in the arts, in the workplace, in the home - is increasingly urgent.

And it might be increasingly compelling, were it not for one factor. What's missing in this call is the very thing that underlies some of our strongest accomplishments in this century: our elevation of tolerance, pluralism, and respect for others as essential canons of human behavior.

The task for the future? It's one of synthesis. Reclaiming standards, we must not lose our tolerance: Backpedaling into a quasi-colonial nostalgia simply isn't enough. But neither will it do to slop along in a moral mush that fails to distinguish the important from the unimportant, the essential from the trivial, and the right from the wrong.

The job ahead - for educators, for public officials, for all of us - is to weave a 21st-century morality out of the twin threads of standards and tolerance.

That won't be easy: History is not long on examples of nations that have achieved such a balance. But the task is imperative. How else, after all, are we to repair the breach in public and private morality and still maintain a society worth living in?

A Monday column

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