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Making the Case for Moral Education in our Schools

Right versus wrong is not Relative or Situational but based on Concrete Moral Virtues

Recently in preparing for a lecture on moral education to my students, I came across an interesting essay titled Moral Education -- A Brief History of Moral Education, the Return of Character Education, and Current Approaches to Moral Education. It got me thinking about writing a blog on the issue of moral education -- where we've been and where we should go in the future to develop a more ethical society and restored our collective moral compass.

Moral education refers to helping children acquire those virtues or moral habits that will help them individually live good lives and at the same time become productive, contributing members of their communities. In this view, moral education should contribute not only to the students as individuals, but also to the social cohesion of a community.

Since the 1960s a schism has developed between what should and should not be taught in our schools with respect to moral education. Ushered in by the era of “Do Your Own Thing,” critics of moral education adopted the point of view that teachers should not be telling students what is right and what is wrong, and religious values went out of the door. Instead, the emphasis shifted to “values clarification.”

The focus of values clarification, rests on the assumption that students need practice choosing among moral alternatives and that teachers should be facilitators of the clarification process rather than indoctrinators of particular moral ideas or value choices. This approach, although widely practiced, came under strong criticism for, among other things, promoting moral relativism among students and a situational ethic. While currently few educators advocate values clarification, its residue of teacher neutrality and hesitance to actively address ethical issues and the moral domain persists.

For the past several decades values clarification programs have been widely used in public schools. In this approach, teachers help students “clarify” their values by having them reflect on moral dilemmas and think through the consequences of the options open to them, choosing that action that maximizes their deepest values. It is unjustifiable for a teacher to “impose” his or her values on students; this would be an act of oppression that denies the individuality and autonomy of students. Values are ultimately personal; indeed, the implicit message is that there are no right or wrong values. Needless to say, this is a deeply controversial approach—and is now widely rejected.

A second alternative approach that better fits the kind of moral education needed but still falls short of the mark is cognitive developmental moral education. In contrast to values clarification, cognitive moral development is based on Lawrence Kohlberg's six sequential stages of moral development, which potentially individuals could achieve. Each stage represents a distinctive way an individual thinks about a moral situation or problem. Teachers are encouraged to engage students from an early age and throughout their schooling in discussion of moral issues and dilemmas. In the later years of his life, Kohlberg was urging educators to transform their schools into "just communities," environments within which students' moral stage development would accelerate.

The fault in each of these methods is they fail to address the individual and what it takes to become a good person that goes beyond the perspective of just communities. What’s needed is character education. Character with its emphasis on forming good habits and eliminating poor habits leads to the early formation of good habits and is widely acknowledged to be in the best interests of both the individual and society.

In addition, character formation is recognized as something that parents begin early, but the work is hardly completed when a child goes to school. Implicit in the concept of character is the recognition that adults begin the engraving process of habituation to consideration of others, self-control, and responsibility, then teachers and others contribute to the work, but eventually the young person takes over the engraving or formation of his own character. Clearly, though, with their learning demands and taxing events, children's school years are a prime opportunity for character development.

The overwhelming percentage of efforts within public education to address the moral domain currently are part of character education programs. The term program suggests, however, discrete initiatives that replace an activity or that are added to the school's curriculum (e.g., a new reading program or mathematics program). And, although there are character education programs available, commercially and otherwise, most advocates urge the public schools to take an infusion approach to educating for character.

In general, an infusion approach to character education aims to restore the formation of students' characters to a central place in schooling. Rather than simply adding on character formation to the other responsibilities of schools, a focus on good character permeates the entire school experience. In essence, character education joins intellectual development as the overarching goals of the school.

Further, character education is seen, not in competition with or ancillary to knowledge- and skill-acquisition goals, but as an important contributor to these goals. To create a healthy learning environment, students need to develop the virtues of responsibility and respect for others. They must eliminate habits of laziness and sloppiness; self-indulgence and self-interest; and a weak or nonexistent work ethic.

What’s needed is for schools to inculcate values and virtues that have stood the test of time including: honesty and trustworthiness, which are the basis for principled behavior (i.e., integrity); respect; responsibility and accountability; caring and empathy; and civic virtue. In other words students should be taught to acquire habits of self-control, diligence, and the pursuit of excellence. The infusion approach is based on the view that the good habits that contribute to the formation of character in turn contribute directly to the academic goals of schooling.

An important element of the infusion approach is the language with which a school community addresses issues of character and the moral domain. Teachers and administrators committed to an infusion approach use the language of virtues and speak of good and poor behavior and of right and wrong.

It’s time for all educators of good will, and society in general, to recognize that the curricula of our schools should not only contain a "core curriculum" -- the core knowledge of our culture -- but also our moral heritage.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 16, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a Professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.

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