Children’s books used to relate tales of heroes and villains. They presented a Manichaean world in which good triumphed over evil. Children might be scared, but they were assured that the forces of light could easily be distinguished from the forces of evil. Well, that scenario of yesteryear has been replaced by a very different condition today.

The 1994 Newberry medal for the “best” children’s book went to Lois Lowry for The Giver. This is a tale about a hypothetical community in which issues of suicide, euthanasia, and mental telepathy are emphasized. Characters in this novel reside in a controlled community with narrowly defined roles of birthmothers, caretakers, nurturers, laborers, and givers. The government determines the number of children per family. In the House of the Old, leaders decide when a person is to be released (read: put to death). At the Ceremony of Release, there is a toast, and a goodbye speech given by the person released. When twins are born, only one is allowed to live. Invariably, the smaller twin is “released” with a lethal injection. On one occasion, a 12-year-old objects to the practice, but he is mollified by a Giver who points out that her daughter asked to be released ten years earlier and was given a syringe to inject herself.

In one California school system, several parents complained about the use of this book in an elementary school, charging that it was insensitive to the value of life. These parents were told that “public education may not be the best choice for them.” I agree. What conceivable benefit is there for youngsters in a book of this kind? Are ten-year-olds prepared to make judgments about euthanasia?

Clearly, what once inspired, now inflames. What was once the axial standard for moral behavior in Horatio Alger, Toodle, The Little Engine That Could, has been converted into amorality. After all, teachers and librarians now ask whether, in this complicated world, we even have a right to tell children how to conduct themselves.

My reply is that you have a right and an obligation to do so. Teachers have an obligation to select books that provide a moral basis for good behavior. Homer is a better guide for the future than Ms. Lowry, and no matter what the rationalizers say, virtue must be cultivated. The good must defend itself not merely against the bad, but against the indifferent, the complacent, and the relative.

If the myths in our culture are derived merely from the pragmatic, then “anything goes” is the lyric for social discourse. Children cannot be expected to make philosophical judgments without a grounding in what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. To assume, as contemporary pedagogues do, that students can arrive at sensible judgments through the exchange of opinions about controversial issues is wrongheaded. Critical-mindedness docs not occur in a vacuum. Students must have a knowledge of morality in order to make moral decisions.

Unfortunately, the democratic idea that the free exchange of opinion will inevitably yield truth is betrayed by a different reality. The free exchange of intelligent opinion may lead inexorably to truth, but only if the opinions have value. In our era, we have debased this notion with a belief in all opinions and a reliance on the pedagogical idea that any controversial notion should be the subject of class discussion. Is it any wonder Johnny can’t read, Mary can’t add, and neither can distinguish between right and wrong?