Civic virtue and civic life are in two senses really a very timely topic. Most of you will have recognized that just two days ago a couple of state legislators announced that they would be sponsoring the Utah Civic Education Initiative requiring students to pass a civics test in order to graduate from high school. Setting aside the merits that I just don't know enough about, it certainly is a recognition of the need for civic virtue in our society and the relationship between that and public education. It's a recognition that in order to live in a free society, citizens really have to possess the right kind of attitude toward government in order to remain free. It's an attitude which prompts obedience to the law, not because you're afraid that you'll be caught or prosecuted but because you view it as your moral duty in order to obey the law. The attitude has been used several times since is that for people to obey the unenforceable and that in order to have a free society that has to work.
So it's timely in that sense that this is a topic right here in Utah right now. But it's also timely because there is evidence that there is greater need for this attitude and that it is missing in today's society. Just to give you one example from a lawyer's standpoint, one commentator observed, "When self-discipline has eroded, societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individual breeds external control by governments. At best, the police and criminal justice systems are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we've become.”
In other words, the more laws you have, the more of a sign that things are not working the way they should work. And that I note and was reminded of yesterday in a different setting that last year in the federal register there were 80,000 pages of regulations from the federal government. That's a lot. And it says something about the timeliness of this topic and the need to evaluate ways in which we can do better.
The topic is not only timely but it's also in one sense timeless, at least in the American experience. The connection between civic virtue and public education was recognized early on by those who founded this country and by the constitutional system that we have. In the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, many of you will know, it said this: "Morality being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” In other words, there is a link between the morality that is necessary to a good life and public education and was recognized early on.
It's fitting in one sense that this conference takes place at this university which combines education and religion which really both have a role to play in the development of civic virtue. It really is one way of fulfilling our mission statement at BYU. One of the things that we aspire to do is to help our students understand important ideas in their own cultural tradition, as well as that of others. And this is an excellent example of helping them understand something that is critical to American society and critical in my own view to spreading what I think is America's greatest export: a form of government in which people really can be free as they have the civic virtue.
Williams, Walter. "Laws Are a Poor Substitute for Common Decency, Moral Values,” Deseret News,
Apr. 29, 2009, A15.