AB: Traces the history of moral education
from the ethics-laden forties and fifties through the value-neutral
sixties and seventies to the late eighties focus on character,
socialization, and culture. Offers a blueprint for future ethical
instruction based on example, explanation, exhortation, environment,
The New Moral Education
By Kevin Ryan
Faddism is the bane of American education. Although our educational history is filled with triumphs, such as universal education and the education of the mentally and physically handicapped, our schools have lurched in recent years from one unfulfilled promise of a panacea to another. Programmed instruction, new math, and open education are but a few examples. Faddism has influenced the manner in which the schools have gone about the moral education of children, as well. But the shifts and turnings in moral education have been less evident than some of the other radical changes in course.
Moral education is what the schools do to help the young become ethically mature adults, capable of moral thought and action. Very little of the moral education that inevitably occurs in the schools is formally recorded in lesson plans, curriculum guides, or behavioral objectives. Many aspects of moral education are part of the hidden curriculum, instead. And, though there are no "Moral Aptitude Test" scores to verify this fact, students do learn. They develop conceptions of what being a good person entails. They learn what their obligations are (if any) to the group and to the larger society. They acquire a sense of their rights as individuals. In other words, moral education has a certain inevitability about it.
But the how and the what of moral education have changed over the years. This point can be illustrated by a brief examination of three periods in U.S. history: 1) the Forties and Fifties, 2) the Sixties and Seventies, and 3) the first half of the Eighties.
The Forties and Fifties. These decades brought World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. They also brought vast cultural change, spawned by steady economic growth and increased leisure time. A baby boom and the rapid growth of the suburbs caused the educational system to grow significantly.
However, moral education did not change substantially. The schools were still expected to reflect the best values of their communities, and they generally did so. America and the democratic way were taught as the last great hope of a world threatened by an aggressive godless communism. Students respected President Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower; they also respected their principals and teachers, because these adults represented the local community. They were there in loco parentis. Schooling was a gift that had strings attached; it was a limited right. If one did the work and followed the rules, one stayed. But a student who could not or would not follow the rules either walked out or was pushed out. There were injustices in the system, but they were considered the exceptions.
The moral education of children proceeded much as it always had. Students learned to follow such rules as setting disputes with words, not fists. The cultural values of hard work and love of country were strongly endorsed in stories as diverse as "The Three Little Pigs" and "The Man Without a Country," and they received emotional reinforcement through such rituals and pageantry as the honor roll, American Legion citizenship awards, and Thanksgiving assemblies. Meanwhile, teachers preached. Without self-consciousness, they told students (from kindergartners through high school seniors) what they - and, presumably, the right-thinking majority of the community - knew to be the correct way to live. They told the young what was right and what was wrong because, as teachers, they were expected to do so. The role of the teacher as moral educator was rarely easy or simple, but it was relatively clear.
The Sixties and Seventies. The 1960s started with a burst of idealism. John F. Kennedy challenged the nation's youth, "Ask not what your country can so for you, but what you can do for your country." The Peace Corps and, later the Teacher Corps gave young people two means by which to meet the President's challenge. Almost simultaneously with the assassination of Kennedy, however, the situation in the schools began to change. The average Scholastic Aptitude Test score peaked at 980 in 1963 and then dropped for 18 straight years. Meanwhile, school vandalism, violent crimes by students, and teacher absenteeism began to rise sharply.
In the mid-Sixties, the disciplined civil disobedience of blacks and whites in the South and the orderly protests of those who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam gave way to "dirty word" demonstrations on the Berkley campus. Many citizens made no distinction between the motivations and behaviors of Martin Luther King, Jr., and those of Abbie Hoffman.
When the Seventies began, distrust of government and heightened attention to individual rights were abroad in the land. As the Vietnam war wound down to its costly and inglorious conclusion, references to Kennedy's "Ask not" statement elicited cynical smiles. A Vice President resigned under pressure, and then a President. These events could be considered evidence of the capacity of our government to cleanse itself, but they also confirmed the worst suspicions of many citizens, young and old.
The street slogan, "Don't trust anyone over 30," was not lost on U.S. students or on their teachers. In Frederick Wiseman's widely acclaimed documentary, High School, a young black student announced to the class, "This schools is a moral garbage can!" As the other students grinned and nodded in agreement, the teacher sheepishly looked on in silence.
In the face of a new anti-authority spirit, the influence and power of teachers were weakened. Teachers shared with the rest of the nation much moral confusion over such issues as the limits of protest, the new sexual mores, and the meaning of patriotism. Imperceptibly but clearly, many teachers surrendered their moral authority and retreated to the role of technician. They restricted their efforts to the conveying of information and skills, and the concept of teachers as special people responsible for the character and moral development of the young began to erode. However, some teachers tried to find new ways to play a role in the moral development of their students. The academic community helped them along by providing three new approaches: values clarification, cognitive-developmental moral education, and ethical reasoning for children.
The most popular of these approaches was values clarification - a rare movement in education, in that its label accurately describes its purpose. 1 Through specific games and strategies, students clarified their own values (not the values of their communities or the values of Western culture).The role of the teacher was to engage students in activities that caused them to wrestle with such issues as war, family, and the whole range of human relationships. Discussing these topics without having to study what the culture had learned about them proved very popular with students. The techniques of values clarification were easy to learn and required little of teachers - except, perhaps, the ability to remain neutral in discussions that were often highly charged and riddled with misinformation. Advocates of values clarification urged teachers to forge ahead, because evaluations of the approach showed such positive outcomes (a claim that later collapsed under closer scrutiny). For all these reasons, values clarification became the primary response of teachers and teacher educators to the "values crisis" of the Sixties and Seventies.
During the same period , Lawrence Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental approach to moral education garnered a good deal of space in textbooks and journals. 2 But whether this approach had any large-scale impact on the schools is less clear. Kohlberg argued that the structure of moral thought goes through a predictable sequence of developmental stages. Kohlberg believed that teachers could help children reach higher stages of moral thinking, largely through the discussion of moral dilemmas. Once again, the teacher plays a relatively neutral role, merely presenting the dilemmas and helping the students to keep their discussions on course. The teacher is not concerned with the right or wrong of what the students say or with the decisions they are reaching; in and of themselves, the verbal activity and the associated cognitive activity are expected to propel students forward through the developmental stages. Kohlberg's theory generated considerable enthusiasm in the Seventies, but the outcomes of subsequent research on the cognitive-developmental approach have been discouraging. The gains that students make are quite modest and tend to be confined to the lower stages of moral development. 3
The third approach to moral education is to teach students how to reason their way through moral problems. Developers created a variety of programs intended to help children work through moral problems in a step-by-step, analytical way. In effect, these programs were teaching ethics - which traditionally has been taught as part of the college-level philosophy sequence - to high school, junior high school, and even elementary students. This effort, though interesting, touched relatively few students. Its limited impact may have been due to the fact that very few teachers are prepared to teach ethics.
All three approaches to moral education in the Sixties and Seventies had certain things in common.
First they were cerebral. The moral education of this period was concerned with ideas, with intellectual skills, and with structures of thinking. There was little attention to doing - to moral action or to how one ought to behave. Ought was out during this period; it represented "the cold hand of orthodoxy" and an authoritarian stance with which few teachers were comfortable.
Second, the dominant methods of moral education during this period emphasized process. Uncomfortable about imposing their own values on others, teachers were cheered to hear at workshops and to read in education journals that they could avoid doing so and still have a positive impact on the moral lives of children. Recent researches has deflated or discredited this claim, but it was welcome news at the time. 4 It allowed teachers to believe that they were doing their job - and doing it better than they had in the past. Few teachers made any connection between the new approaches to moral education and the facts that violence and vandalism were increasing in the schools, that student achievement and public support for the schools were plummeting, and that teaching was losing its attractiveness for potential recruits. Instead, teachers saw the new emphasis on process as the only safe, fair, and efficient way of handling moral education.
Third, teachers were not to express their own views on moral issues or to urge certain positions or actions on their students. For many teachers, such neutrality was a hardship. They found it painful to watch students struggle with principles that seemed to them morally obvious (e.g., "Don't take personal pleasure if others have to suffer thereby") and to keep silent in the face of students' misjudgments.
But other teachers found neutrality a relief. This was an era in which the rules on many important issues - loyalty to country, premarital sex, and abortion, to name only three - were being rewritten. Not surprisingly, many teachers were just as confused as the rest of the society about what was right and what was wrong. Other teachers knew where they stood on the controversial issues, but they believed that they had no right to express their views to their students. For many teachers, neutrality soon spawned complete disengagement from the moral lives of students.
The Eighties. A society exhausted by change and internal strife now seems to be struggling to return to normal. President Carter, discouraged by the nation's ennui and paralyzed by the hostage crisis in Iran, was replaced in 1980 by a popular and upbeat President, Ronald Reagan. Church attendance began to rise. The divorce rate began to decline. "Preppy" came back into style; even the nihilistic punk movement has become just another fashion trend. The major television networks lost interest in Norman Lear and in the probing of social mores; they returned instead to situation comedies about recognizable families, e.g., "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties." The national economy and the national spirit are both flying high. The alienated, existential heroes of the Beat Generation and the articulate and angry young adults who led the various protest movements of the Sixties and the Seventies have been replaced by - and sometimes transformed into - Yuppies (young urban professionals), who keep one eye on their careers and the other on their stock portfolios. America has proved once again that it is a restless, unpredictable culture.
In 1980 many observes predicted that the new President would eliminate the Education Department and ignore the public schools; in reality, however, events took quite a different turn. The two Secretaries of Education under Reagan have kept education on the front pages of the daily newspapers and on the nightly television newscasts. The early 1980s brought a flurry of reports by national commissions and task forces on the state of U.S. schools. These reports stressed failings related to academic achievement, but many of the schools' failings were moral in nature: poor discipline, vandalism, physical abuse of students and of teachers, students' escape from serious academic effort through television and drugs. Although the commissions and task forces shied away from suggesting that the schools reassert their traditional role in the moral education of children, the public did not. In September 1980 a Gallup poll posed the question, "Would you favor or oppose instruction in the schools that would deal with morals and moral behavior?" A vast majority (79%) of the total sample said that they would favor such instruction. 5 Among those respondents who had children attending public schools, 84% favored such instruction. 6
Many educators and academics pondered the meaning of this strong call for instruction on morals and moral behavior and anguished about which morality to teach in a pluralistic culture. But two public officials - William Bennett, first in his role as director of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then in his current role as Secretary of Education, and Bill Honig, California state superintendent for public instruction - were quite willing to provide an answer. Quoting Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson, they reaffirmed both the right and the responsibility of the schools to teach the traditional American values of love of country, courage, and respect for parents, teachers, and other adults. In their speeches and writings, Bennett and Honig have urged teachers to help children become not only smart, but also good. 7 They have pointed out that the Founding Fathers conceived of the schools as fundamental to a viable democracy, in that the schools would be the major instrument to elevate the populace morally and intellectually.
Both Bennett and Honig have criticized the moral education that the schools provided during the Sixties and Seventies. Perhaps in an effort to distance themselves from the value-neutral and seemingly contentless approaches that held sway during those decades, they have revived the terms character and character formation. Along with content and choice, character has become one of Bennett's three C's. Honig relies heavily on character formation as one justification for returning to traditional curriculum. 8 But perhaps the greatest appeal of the word character is that it addresses one aspect of moral education that was very much out of vogue in the recent past: socialization.
In the Eighties, culture is once
again viewed as a human achievement that should be transmitted
to the young. To transmit the culture, however, we must introduce
the young to its ethical principles and moral values. In other
words, much of schooling should be vigorously devoted to teaching
the young those things that the society has learned about how
to live together in a civilized fashion.
Although the public strongly supports a more active role for teachers in the moral education of the young, many teachers are uncertain about how to proceed. In an effort to provide some specific recommendations (and in the hope that the alliteration is not too strained), I offer readers "the five Es" of the new moral education: example, explanation, exhortation, environment, and experience.
Example. The most obvious form of moral education in the classroom is the example teachers provide for their students. This troubles many teachers. Those who came through the era of teacher-as-technician are put off by the notion that teachers are supposed to be models of moral excellence for their students. Nonetheless, research has now confirmed what humankind long ago recognized intuitively: people with power and prestige are imitated by those around them. And, though some teachers may not think of themselves as figures of power and prestige, the children they teach certainly see them as such. Children watch their teachers to find out how grown-ups act. Therefore, teachers need to be constantly aware of the powerful influence that their actions in the classroom have on students.
If teachers themselves are an important sources of moral modeling for their students, so are the historical and literary figures whom teachers introduce in their classrooms. When young people read history, they are exposed to the heroes, the weaklings, and the villains of the culture; they see the consequences of human courage and cowardice, and they are inspired or repelled thereby. Meanwhile, many of the culture's most profound moral ideas are embedded in its stories. Good literature gives pleasure and instructs. Children learn generously from O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," the dangers of disobedience from the stories of Pandora and Icarus, the folly of envy from Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory." Whether embodied by the teacher or embedded in the curriculum, human example is a major mode of moral education for the young.
Explanation. It takes years of poor teaching to subdue a child's natural curiosity. Much of children's inquisitiveness is directed at moral issues: "Why am I being punished, and he isn't?" "How could great men like Jefferson and Washington have owned slaves?" What do I owe my neighbor?" "Is it fair?" "Is it right?" "What should I do?" A major task of teachers is to explain the moral order to the young.
Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, strongly endorsed the school's active efforts to instill in the young its values and rules of conduct. However, Durkheim insisted that these efforts must be rational. "To teach morality is neither to preach nor to indoctrinate; it is to explain," he said. 9 This teaching starts on the kindergarten playground, when the teacher explains why we don't duel with sharp sticks, and it ends on the high schools steps, when the teacher explains to disappointed graduates who have been turned down by a favorite college or denied entrance into an apprenticeship program that life is indeed unfair, but we must endure and transcend our disappointments.
We need to teach moral education through explanation - not simply to stuff students' heads with the rules and regulations of society, but to engage them in the great moral conversation of the human race. Indeed, the very existence of that conversation is what makes us human. Marshall McLuhan has pointed out that "the medium is the message." Likewise, our continual explaining of the rules is, in and of itself, one of the most important messages of the school.
Exhortation. Explanations are a crucial part of children's moral education, but teachers' urgings and exhortations also have a place in that process. A child who is discouraged by academic failure or by having been cut from a team, a cast, or a musical group often needs something stronger than sweet reason to ward off self-pity. A student who is passively slipping through school may need a teacher's passionate appeal to inspire him or her to study more diligently. A youth who is flirting with racist ideas may not question this kind of sloppy thinking until he or she feels the heat of a teacher's moral indignation. To become adults who are capable of standing up for their values, students need to see teachers who do so.
Exhortation should be used sparingly, and it should never stray very far from explanation. Nonetheless, there are times when teachers must appeal to the best instincts of the young and urge them to move in a particular direction. There are moments for the heart-to-heart talk. Acknowledging these special moments, Pascal once said, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."
Environment. A classroom is a small society with patterns and rituals, power relationships, and standards for students' behavior and academic performance. In an effective classroom, students are respected and respect one another, the standards of excellence are reachable, and students' satisfactions come from achieving those standards. The ability to establish a purposeful environment of this kind is what distinguishes the good teacher form the run-of-the-mill or the poor teacher.
A central factor in a classroom environment is the moral climate. Are the classroom rules fair and fairly exercised? Does good balance exist between competition and cooperation? Are individually and community responsibility both nurtured? Are less-able students protected but also challenged? Are ethical questions and issues of "what ought to be" part of the classroom dialogue?
No handy book of techniques is available to help a teacher create a moral classroom environment. Nor will a moral classroom environment, once established, maintain itself. A moral classroom environment is greatly affected by conditions and factors outside the classroom, such as a hostile schools environment or a pleasure-oriented community. The building and maintaining of a moral classroom environment is a continuing struggle. But this daily, all-encompassing quality is also what makes the moral classroom environment such a powerful teacher.
Experience. Two generations ago, when the U.S. was a nation dominated by farmers and shop owners, young people made regular and often crucial contributions to the economic survival of their families. Their chores on the farm, in the family store, or in the home demanded and developed responsibility. In those days, young people did not have to worry about whether or not they were loved, because they were secure in the knowledge that they were needed.
A dozen years ago, by contrast, James Coleman wrote that the modern generation of American youth is information rich and experience poor. 10 The world of U.S. children has been radically altered by changes in the economy, in the means of production, and in the size and structure of U.S. families. Today's young people are members of smaller and less stable families than was the case two generations ago. A modern house or apartment affords few tasks for children other than doing the laundry and the dishes, putting out garbage, and mowing the lawn. These are hard routes by which to develop a study self-concept. At the same time, by the standards of any previous generation, today's young people exist in a self-focused, pleasure-dominated world of turn-on escapism (through MTV, sexuality, drugs, or simply "hanging out"). Only rare and fortunate teenagers encounter the kinds of experiences that help them break out of this envelop of self-interest and learn to contribute to others. These experiences often come through academic and athletic programs offered by the schools.
But more youngsters avoid these opportunities
than participate in them. For a variety of reasons, many young
people find academics a continuing source of failure, and they
are neither attracted to nor skilled in sports. Teachers need
to provide special experiences for these students that draw them
out and enable them to contribute to others. Many public and private
schools are already giving students such opportunities. Within
these schools, students are encouraged to help teachers and other
students. Older children often help younger ones learn academic
or physical skills; students also help teachers, librarians, or
other staff members with routine clerical tasks. But out-of-school
programs represent a larger departure from the ordinary. These
programs enable students to provide services to individuals in
need, such as a blind shut-in or a mother with a mildly retarded
child. Other students work (usually without pay) in understaffed
agencies, such as retirement homes or day-care centers. The school
serves as an intermediary between student volunteers and individuals
or agencies in need of assistance. Meanwhile, the teachers help
students understand the new experiences that such activities afford;
they also act as trouble-shooters. Such service programs teach
the skills of effective helping and cause young people to define
themselves as individuals who are connected to others. Moral abstractions
about justice and community take on immediacy. Students begin
to appreciate the need to couple moral thinking with moral action.
The new moral education is not a
fad. Instead, it is a break with the faddism that characterized
much of the moral education of the Sixties and the Seventies,
when the emphasis was on process and teachers pretended that the
culture has few moral principles or lessons to transmit. As the
five E's probably make clear,
the new moral education is really quite old; indeed, it is deeply
rooted in classical thinking about education. For example, the
last E - experience - comes straight from Aristotle's
Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle said that a man becomes virtuous
by performing virtuous acts; he becomes kind by doing kind acts;
he becomes brave by doing brave acts. A school that institutes
a community service program is merely operationalizing Aristotle.
And a teacher who takes on the new moral education is simply reassuming
a responsibility traditionally assigned to teachers. The role
of the school is not simply to make children smart, but to make
them smart and good. We must help children acquire the
skills, the attitudes, and the dispositions that will help them
live well and that will enable the common good to flourish. For
schools and teachers to do only half the job puts the individual
child and all the rest of us in danger.
1. Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin, and
Sidney Simon, Values and Teaching, 2nd ed. (Columbus, O.:
Charles E. Merrill, 1978)
2. Lawrence Kohlberg and Elliot Turiel,
"Moral Development and
Moral Education," in
Gerald Lesser, ed., Psychology and Educational Practice
(Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1971), pp. 410-65.
3. Ralph Mosher, ed., Moral Education:
A First Generation of Research and Development (New York:
4. Ibid.; and Alan Lockwood, "The
Effects of Values Clarification and Moral Development Curricula
on School-Age Subjects: A Critical Review of Recent Research,"
Review of Educational Research, vol. 48, 1978, pp. 325-64.
5. George H. Gallup, "The
12th Annual Gallup Poll of the Public's
Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,"
Phi Delta Kappan, September 1980, p.39.
7. William Bennett, "To
Reclaim a Legacy: Text of Report on Humanities in Education,"
Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 November 1984; and Bill
Honig, Last Chance for Our Children (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley,
8. Honig, p. 64.
9. Emile Durkheim, Moral Education
(New York: Free Press, 1961), p. 120.
10. James S. Coleman, Youth: Transition
to Adulthood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).