Experiments in Moral Education
by William Kilpatrick
Boston College

PWPA/ICUS Evening Speaker
Identity and Character
The Seventh International Congress of
Professors World Peace Academy

Washington Hilton and Towers
Washington D.C., USA
November 24-29, 1997
Official Event

About the Author

William Kilpatrick is a professor in the School of Education at Boston College where he teaches courses in moral education and adolescent psychology. He is co-author with Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe of Books That Build Character (Touchstone, 1994) and in the author of four other books: Identity and Intimacy (Dell, 1975); Psychological Seduction (Thomas Nelson, 1983); The Emperor's New Clothes (Crossway, 1985); and most recently Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong (Simon & Schuster, 1992) which Michael Medved has called "required reading," and which E.D. Hirsch has described as "a profound and important book." Kilpatrick also lectures frequently to audiences in this country and abroad on education topics, and he has been a guest on numerous radio and television interview shows. His articles have appeared in various periodicals ranging from Policy Review to Newsday, and his books and articles have been translated into several languages. His newest book, The Family New Media Guide, will be published by Touchstone Books in the Fall.

Experiments in Moral Education

William Kilpatrick

In my talk today I'll try to bring you up-to-date with some recent developments in the field of moral education in this country. This will be somewhat embarrassing for me because the newest thing in American moral education might not seem new to you. In fact, it might even seem old-fashioned. This is because American education took a long detour in the 1960's which turned out to be, not a detour, but a dead-end. Some of us are now trying to make our way back to the main road.

The main road is an approach to moral education called character education. It's an approach that emphasizes good example and encourages students to develop good habits of behavior. It means talking directly to children about right and wrong behavior, but it also has to do with creating a certain kind of school environment of ethos. And that means playing attention to discipline codes, dress codes, reward and recognition systems, service to the school, and service to the community. In this way boys and girls become accustomed to acting in ways that are good for themselves and good for society.

In the 1960's, however, American educators thought they had discovered an alternative to the hard work of character formation. But as it turned out, the approach they developed actually seems to undermine morality in children. Much of my talk today will focus on that approach and on why it is harmful. I think this may be most helpful to you because that failed brand of moral education - I'll call it "decision-making" - is the one that is most likely to be exported abroad. I say this because I am constantly amazed in my trips to other countries to discover that educators abroad are most eagerly embracing the worst trends in American education.

Although this decision-making approach is now under attack in the United States as simply another failed fad of the 60's, it will, nevertheless, be presented to oversea's audiences as the latest and newest advance. Part of my goal today is to suggest to you that it is in reality an outdated method with the potential for causing much harm - in short, an American export that bears close examination.

What kind of harm has resulted? Here's an example.

A few years ago the Rhode Island Rape Crises Center conducted a nationwide survey of 1,700 sixth to ninth grade students concerning their attitudes about rape. One of the astonishing findings was that 65% of the boys in the study thought rape was acceptable under certain circumstances. One of the circumstances being if a man spent money on a woman - twenty dollars was the amount. Equally surprising, is the fact that many of the girls agreed, that, yes, rape was acceptable in certain situations.

Now, one response to this study might be to ask "Why don't they have courses about values in school?" "Why don't they have courses in sex education?" The answer, of course, is that they do. We've seen explosion in such courses over the past two decades. In recent years an enormous amount of money and resources has gone into values education and sex education. And that raises a suspicion. Because there finally comes a point at which you have to wonder if these programs aren't actually contributing to the problems that they're supposed to solve.

Why can't Johnny tell right from wrong? Because we're not teaching him the difference between the two. Because we're relying instead on an experimental approach - an experiment in having children construct their own morality. The experiment goes by different names: "values clarification," "moral reasoning," "decision-making," "critical thinking," and "life skills." But whatever the label, the assumption is the same: Adults don't have the right to say what's right and wrong. In one form or another - sometimes as a course in itself, sometimes as a strategy in sex education or drug education courses - this decision-making method has set the tone for moral education in our schools.

Now, it's instructive to note that we don't use this approach in other areas of education. For example, we don't allow youngsters to decide for themselves whether or not they'll attend school in the first place. And in chemistry class we don't allow them to decide for themselves what compound they're going to mix together. If we did, the results could be rather explosive.

I think we can see now that the results of our experiments in moral education have also been explosive. We now have a clear picture of what happens when children make up their own morality without adult guidance. In the 1940's and 50's, teachers were concerned about gum chewing and running in corridors, today they worry about assault, robbery and rape.

Where did this experimental approach come from?

The most important thing to know about the origin of the decision-making approach, is to understand that it's essentially a transplant from the world of therapy. It was an attempt to take ideas and techniques that had proved useful in counseling and to put them to work in the classroom. In the 1940's and 50's Carl Rogers and others had pioneered a method of counseling that was non-directive, non-judgmental, and client-centered. Have you heard this name, Carl Rogers? Along with Abraham Maslow, he was one of the founding fathers of what became known as humanistic psychology or human potential psychology. Rogers is not the best known of psychologists but I don't think any other psychologist has had as much influence on our culture and ways of thinking. In the 60's and 70's these counseling techniques which Rogers had developed were introduced into schools with the result that teachers began to take a non-directive, non-judgmental attitude toward values. Each person would have to discover his own values, and no one could say that one value was superior to another.

The emphasis- As it was in the therapy - was on feeling good about yourself and feeling comfortable with your choices. It was an approach which cast the teacher in the role of amateur psychologist and which turned the values education classroom into something resembling an encounter group.

It is interesting to note, by the way, that Carl Rogers did not use this non-directive approach with his own children or grandchildren. Dr. William Coulson, who knew Rogers well, tells the story of visiting the Rogers household one hot summer day when the family was gathered around the outdoor swimming pool. It was as inground pool with a concrete border, and two of Rogers' granddaughters were there. One of these girls took a coke bottle and made as though she was going to throw it against the side of the pool (This was in the days when coke bottles were made of glass - I'm sure none of you can remember that far back).

Well Dr. Coulson is sitting in his lounge chair, observing all this, and thinking to himself "Hmm, I wonder how Rogers is going to handle this in a non-directive way? Is he going to say 'Un-huh, un-huh, I guess you're wondering, 'Gee! What would it be like to throw the bottle"? But that's not what Rogers said. What he actually said was "Put that down! That's dangerous! Someone could get hurt!" So much for the non-directive approach when it comes to your own grandchildren. Abraham Maslow didn't practice non-directiveness, either. He once locked his daughter in her room and despite her protests, despite her banging on the door, he wouldn't let her come out until she agreed to go to the college of his choice.

Unlike Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, however, the values education experts failed to realize that what might be appropriate in therapy might not apply to every area of life.

So the non-directive method became the basis for values education. How was it defended? Well, the main defense was what I call the "self-esteem defense." We were told that if a child feels good about himself, he won't need to do anything bad. I'm sure you've have heard that argument and I'm sure you've wondered if it isn't a bit simplistic. Why simplistic? Because we can just as easily arrive at the opposite conclusion: Namely, that a child with very high self-regard will assume that he can't do anything wrong. His reasoning will go like this: "I'm OK and whatever I want to do is OK." Unfortunately, more and more youngsters seem to be arriving at just such a conclusion.

A colleague at Boston College told me a story which illustrates the point. He once asked his philosophy class to write an essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. But he found that they couldn't complete the assignment. Why not? "Well," they said - and apparently this was said with a straight face - "We haven't done anything wrong." Parents often ask me, "Where should I send my child to college?" and I always say, "Boston College - the place where no one does anything wrong." Well, we can see a lot of self-esteem here, but perhaps not too much self-awareness.

Many American parents now have strong doubts about this experimental approach to education. Many of the educators, themselves, won't subject their own children to it. For example, in the city of Chicago nearly 50% of public school teachers send their own children to private schools or religious schools. And you find a similar pattern in cities throughout the states.

Why then do teachers stick with these approaches? Why do they continue with values clarification and decision making? One of the main reasons, I believe, is that many educators in America don't have anything else to teach. They aren't well versed in subject matter. Typically, they've had many courses in education, but relatively few in history, math or science. Typically, American teachers love children, but they don't have a corresponding love of knowledge.

As a consequence they have very little to pass on. So instead of teaching history, literature, science or geography, the temptation is to sit around in circles with the children and share feelings. That doesn't require much preparation and it makes for far less homework to correct. So while students in other countries are learning about the American Revolution and the American Civil War, American students are learning to feel comfortable with their feelings. And it works! Americans have the highest self-esteem in the world. They don't know the difference between China and Chile but they do feel good about themselves.

So, self-esteem was one attempt to substitute for character formation - a substitute that didn't work. Another substitute that hasn't worked was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard University. It is called the moral reasoning approach and it tells us that we can exercise a youngster's decision-making skills by presenting him with thorny ethical dilemmas.

One of the best known of these dilemmas is called "the lifeboat exercise." In this exercise the teacher tells the class to imagine that they are on a cruise ship. Then they are to imagine that the ship hits an iceberg and begins to sink. Then they are to imagine that they are in a lifeboat, but the lifeboat is overcrowded and the weather is stormy, and everyone is in danger of drowning - unless the load can be lightened. The teacher then produces a passenger list to see if there are any passengers who can be thrown overboard. The list includes a young couple and their child, a doctor, an athlete, an entertainer, and so on. Near the end of the list is an elderly man and his elderly sister. Well, as you probably know, respect for elders is not one of the values taught to American children and so the students usually decide to throw the old man and his sister overboard.

By the way, a researcher once did a variation on this exercise. In place of two of the passengers he substituted a dog and a teacher. What he found was that his eleven-year-old subjects invariably threw off the teacher and kept the dog. I guess they had their values clarified.

I do think the moral reasoning approach is an improvement over the values clarification approach. Nevertheless, I think there are still some major problems. One of the problems, as you can see, is that it encourages students to look at life in a utilitarian way - to think, in short, that some lives are dispensable. Another problem is this: We have to wonder about the cumulative effect of presenting students with problematic dilemmas of the type that would stump mid-east negotiators. The danger, of course, is that students may gain the impressions that all of morality is problematic, that all questions of right and wrong are up in the air and up for grabs. In short, it's a cart-before-the-horse approach in which youngsters are often forced to question values and virtues they've never acquired in the first place, or upon which they have only a tenuous hold.

It takes a long time to socialize children. It takes a long time before they realize that it's really wrong to lie, to hit, to steal. It seems to me a mistake to introduce youngsters to exotic dilemmas of this kind long before this socialization is complete - dilemmas in which it is suggested that perhaps in this unusual situation it might be alright to lie, and perhaps, in that complicated circumstance it might be alright to steal, and perhaps in this particular crisis it might be alright to throw people to their deaths.

Once again, however, the values educators had a ready defense. This, we were told in hushed tones, is the Socratic method - the method that Plato and Socrates used to draw out wisdom. Plato and Socrates didn't indoctrinate, they didn't lecture. They posed dilemmas, they asked probing questions. Which is true. But Plato also added a qualifier. He said that the dialogue method was not appropriate for young people. It was to be reserved for mature persons over the age of 30. Moreover, the dialogue was only appropriate for those who had already acquired virtue. In Plato's words "Young minds, like young puppies would only pull and tear at ideas." Instead of searching for the truth, they would be distracted by the excitement of debate. Instead of becoming good persons they would only become good at rationalization - like the sophists for whom Plato had no use.

That's why Aristotle and Plato put so much emphasis on habit. Virtues, said Aristotle, are acquired primarily through habit and practice, not through discussion. As he put it, "A man becomes just by performing just acts, brave by performing brave acts, temperate by performing acts of temperance."

Because the Greeks understood virtue in this way they often compared character formation to athletic training. In its original sense, the word "virtue" meant something like our word "strength." And like physical strength you could lose it if you didn't keep in practice.

Understood this way it also means that much of our modern talk about "making choices" of "making decisions" is rather shallow - because an individual can't choose to do something if he lacks the capacity to do it. For example, running the Boston marathon is not a choice for those who are out of shape. It only becomes a choice for those who are willing to put in many months of training. In this respect, character education, because it emphasizes habit and training, may offer more real freedom of choice than all our contemporary curriculums which talk so much about choice but tend to produce individuals who are slaves to their own impulses.

We talk a great deal about choices and options but in reality - because we have neglected habit formation - we seem to be the most compulsive and addictive society ever to have come down the pike of history. We are a society filled with people who seem to be able to exercise very little freedom of choice about their behavior.

Look at the list of compulsive behaviors we are afflicted with: compulsive drinkers, compulsive smokers, compulsive eaters, compulsive gamblers - even compulsive shoppers (a category to which I aspire). As Aristotle might have put it, individuals who don't practice good habits, soon become the prisoners of bad habits.

Americans failed experiments in moral education - values clarification, decision-making, moral reasoning - are examples of individualism taken to the extreme. In these approaches each individual child is encouraged to make up his own values with very little guidance from adult society.

We thought that if parents and teachers refrained from teaching values, youngsters would be free to think for themselves. But that is not what happened. Instead youngsters were left to the mercy of the peer group and the media. And, of course, the Media had no hesitation about imposing its own values on children.

Ironically, the same thing can happen in a collectivist society once it is exposed to hedonistic and materialistic media. Japan, for example, is experiencing, though on a smaller scale, many of the problems we face in America. A particularly acute problem is that of school-girl prostitution. These are middle class girls who turn to prostitution not out of poverty but in order to purchase luxury items such as expensive clothing, watches, handbags and jewelry. Many of them are only 13 and 14 years of age. In some Tokyo school districts it is estimated that one third of school girls are engaging in prostitution.

Just as an extreme emphasis on individualism can lead to a hedonistic morality, so can an extreme emphasis on collectivism. It simply means replacing one collectivism for another. And the media has been very successful, even in traditional societies, in creating its own collective mindset among adolescents and pre-adolescents. When youngsters fail to develop any individual judgment, the peer group may easily become the new collective and it will take its cue not from traditional morals but from values manufactured by the entertainment industry. Societies that encourage an extreme individualism and societies that encourage an extreme collectivism can end up with the same bad result.

The trick, in both traditional and individualistic societies, is to help a youngster develop a set of universal values: an objective set of principles by which he can judge both the media and his own behavior. Kohlberg, of course, thought he was doing just this. His mistake was to think that a purely rational basis for morality would be sufficient. He mistakenly assumed that youngsters would be able to arrive at universal ethical principles soley through a process of unaided reason; he then mistakenly assumed that once youngsters discovered these principles, they would go ahead and act on them.

He neglected two things: the will and the imagination. Kohlberg was not interested in training the will through habit formation. Consequently, he failed to realize that a youngster, even if he was lucky enough to figure out what is right, might still lack the will power to act on his knowledge.

He failed also to realize the importance of imagination for the moral life. The fact he neglected is this: It's not enough to simply know the good, we also have to desire it. Plato, who thought long and hard about the subject of moral education believed that children should be brought up in such a way that they would fall in love with virtue - and hate vice. And he thought that stories and histories were the key to sparking this desire. No amount of discussion or dialogue could compensate if that desire were missing.

The fact is, that even in the moral realm, most people are convinced not by arguments, but by aesthetics - by the force of beauty. Or, more accurately, by what they perceive to be beautiful. An example of what I'm talking about is Yves Montand's confession that he was converted to communism after watching Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin. In other words he was more strongly motivated by the aesthetic argument than by the intellectual one.

Abraham Lincoln made a similar point. When he was first introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe, he greeted her with the words, "So this is the little lady who started the big war." It was a recognition of the galvanizing effect that Uncle Tom's Cabin had had on the moral sensibilities of Americans. After the novel appeared it was acted out on the stage in hundreds of cities. For the first time vast numbers of Americans had a visible and dramatic picture of the evils of slavery.

So we should want our children to think critically about moral issues, but we should want more than that. It's equally important that they feel strongly about right and wrong.

The second problem with Kohlberg and also with the values clarifiers is that they failed to understand the connection between morality and meaning. Without the sense that life makes sense, all the other motives for acting well lose their force. If, in the words of Macbeth, "Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," then it really doesn't matter how one behaves. If life itself is pointless, what's the point of trying to lead a good life? If, on the other hand, one has the chance of playing an important role in a meaningful universe, and playing it well - that is a considerable source of motivation. This kind of motivation is, of course, missing in the Kohlbergian approach precisely because that approach lacks any sense of life as a narrative fabric. Consequently, there is nothing lifelike about it. Indeed, there is something artificial about the moral life conceived of as a series of disconnected dilemmas. It is not a very compelling vision of life. It is more like a game of connect-the-dots in which no connections are made.

The beauty of stories is that they can provide a sense of meaning. They can help to reinforce the conviction that life itself is a story - that there is something like a point, or purpose or plot to life. "We turn to fiction for some slight hint about the story in life we live," observed Robert Penn Warren. A plot. A purpose. An explanation of our struggles and sufferings. The supreme gift of stories is their reassurance that these can be found. By giving us a larger vision, a story may help us find meaning in experiences that might otherwise seem chaotic or pointless.

A few years ago I read a news account of a 15-year-old boy who had been arrested for the brutal murder of an elderly woman. When asked by police why he felt no remorse, he simply said, "She's not me, why should I care about her?" And, of course, if there's no larger point to life, why should he?

I'm afraid there are many other youngsters all across this country who have never learned respect for human life because they know of no larger story or narrative or vision to take them beyond the level of self-absorption and self-indulgence. If these youngsters have a story in mind, it is a very limited story in which the purpose of existence does not go beyond thrills, shows of bravado, and casual sex.

We are story-telling creatures who need drama in our lives almost as much as we need food. The entertainment industry has been successful in molding young minds because it supplies them with stories and dramas and images. If moral educators are to be successful in helping children to resist the attractions of media, then need to pay more attention to the role of imagination in moral growth.

It's important to provide youngsters with codes of conduct. It's important to help them develop good habits of behavior. But it's equally important to feed their imaginations. Just as the imagination and the passions can be enlisted on the side of vice, so also, and with a little more effort, they can be enlisted on the side of virtue.

So we must fight fire with fire. It's up to us to provide the next generation with the stories, images and memories that will help them make sense out of their lives, help them to resist the nihilism of popular culture, and at the same time inspire them to do the right thing. "The play's the thing wherein we'll catch the conscience of the king," said Hamlet, and it did catch the king's conscience.

Well, the play is still the thing: the play, the story, the history, the biography, the song, the poem. These are the things wherein we can capture or recapture the moral imagination of a whole generation.

To conclude:

A proper moral education involves three things: training of the reason, training of the will, and the training of the imagination. We used to understand this in America, and we used to understand how to cultivate character: by enforcing discipline, by creating a positive moral culture in the school; by presenting youngsters with high ideals and good examples; by motivating them with powerful stories.

Somewhere along the way we forgot how to do this. We stopped telling the kind of stories that could provide a meaningful vision of life; we ridiculed the whole idea of habit formation. We experimented, instead, with various supposed shortcuts such as values clarification and decision-making. Unfortunately, these well-intended programs often had the opposite effect of the one intended. We have had drug prevention programs in schools that have led to increased drug use. We have had sex education programs that have contributed to increased sexual activity and to an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases.

Between 1960 and 1990 the United States saw a 560% increase in violent crimes, a 419% increase in illegitimate births, and a quadrupling in divorce rates. Compared to other developed countries the United States has the highest divorce rate, the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest abortion rate, the highest percentage of violent deaths among youth.

So I urge you to very carefully examine any educational product that bears the label "Made in America." America still manufactures and exports many fine products. But the ideas manufactured in American schools of education over the last 30 years are not to be compared with Boeing 747's or Apple computers or other quality products. Rather, they are more on a par with such American exports as Barbie Dolls, Michael Jackson, MTV and rap music.

You could do nicely without any of these products. Likewise you could do nicely without many of the products exported by American educationists. In light of the fact that many Americans are now demanding that these defective products be recalled, it would seem most imprudent for your society to import them.

On the other hand, you may learn from our mistakes. And you may profit from the fact that we have been exposed to these problems for a longer period of time. As a result we have begun to develop some promising strategies and solutions. One of the problems for you is to decide which set of American experts to listen to.

Good luck to you.

Thank you.