A Publication of WTVP


by John F. Gilligan | Illustration by Scott Shepler |
Gilliagan August Art Final

The decline of self-discipline in American culture is an alarming trend with predictable and potentially disastrous consequences

One of the greatest painters during the Renaissance, rivaling even Michelangelo, was the shortlived Raphael, who died at age 37. Between 1508-11, he painted the School of Athens, located in the Vatican. The two most well-known philosophers of Western civilization, Plato and Aristotle, make the centerpiece.

Other philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists from ancient Greece surround them, but only a few can be clearly recognized: Pythagoras, Archimedes and Heraclitus. The focus and interpretation, of which there are several, is on the more youthful Aristotle and aging Plato.

Aristotle, Plato’s former student, stands with his arm extended horizontally with the palm facing down. Plato’s arm, like a Boy’s Scout salute with the index finger, is pointed to the heavens. They gaze at one another. The different gestures mark a radical difference in their beliefs about education.

Western civilization has always integrated discipline and education as two sides of the same coin

Plato argued that contemplation upon the true, good and beautiful brings understanding, knowledge, wisdom and virtue. Get real, gestures Aristotle. That’s not how things work in the real world. Contemplation alone will never get you there. Without discipline, which refers to the practice of right habits, excellence can never be achieved, said Aristotle. Forging the right habits comes first; understanding why may take years.

The entire history of Western civilization has always integrated discipline and education as two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. It was the hallmark of Western education that originated in Greek culture and was quickly absorbed by the Roman Republic.

Even though the Roman Empire collapsed (AD 474) and split into different kingdoms, dukedoms, duchies, principalities, regional languages and local dialects, education permeated their cultures, especially in western Europe. Monasteries, known for their discipline, became educational centers during the so-called Dark Ages. But by the early Middle Ages, in the 800s, Charlemagne had established a culture of learning throughout his kingdom. The University of Bologna, the world’s first institution of higher learning, was founded in 1088. Other universities across Europe quickly followed.

There was a hunger for learning and education. Known as the Renaissance, from 1350 to 1600, it spread across Europe like wildfire. The Age of Science was emerging and its steady advancements in modern technology now dominate the world. None of this was accomplished without a culture of discipline, study and work.

This is usually acknowledged everywhere, but without daily practice, discipline quicky withers. Ancient history records its wisdom. The Book of Proverbs is loaded with warnings: “Discipline your children while they are young enough to learn, 19:18; When you stop learning, you will soon neglect what you already know, 19:27; The parent who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”

Families beget societies. And it’s culture that ultimately constrains excessive social proclivities. Like food that nurtures our bodies, so too for culture. Yet we find America in a cultural meltdown. No one has better summed it up than William Butler Yeats: “The center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The value of education is a given, but the culture to foster it is deteriorating. Reading, writing and arithmetic are on a downward spiral. It’s a national crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, but it has been well underway for decades. Our fundamental institutions — home, school, community and public bodies — have lost the ability to discipline themselves.

Statistics reported plummeting 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores in 2022

According to 2017 Pentagon data, 71% of Americans age 17–24 are ineligible to serve in the United States military. The main causes are inadequate education, criminality and obesity. All this speaks to a cultural breakdown of declining self-restraint, which is readily observed in our nation.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported plummeting 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores in 2022. Only 33% of 4th grade and 31% of 8th grade readers were proficient. Math proficiency likewise declined: Just 36% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders met basic standards. This hardly speaks well for the future of the United States of America.

Either we come together as fellow Americans to solve the crisis, or the nation falls to ruin.

We can expend our political, social and economic energies on a myriad of arguments, debates, policies, laws and funding. But without self-restraint in our homes, communities, schools and political bodies, cultural decline will continue without end. We have found the enemy, and it is us. America will either take possession of itself or lose it.

As Aristotle taught long ago, the virtue of self-discipline first begins in the home.

John F. Gilligan

John F. Gilligan, PhD

is a clinical psychologist and president emeritus of Fayette Companies. He lives in Groveland