Moral muscle: students discover, develop it

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Can students wear Walkman headphones at school - in classes, on campus? Who should decide - the principal, the student council? Is this a ''moral'' issue to which moral reasoning should be applied?

At Brookline High School, headmaster Robert McCarthy ruled the Walkmans could not be brought to school. But today some students on campus and in classrooms ''legally'' tune in to rock-and-roll instead of to each other or their teacher.

Dr. McCarthy's decision was overruled by Town Meeting, the democratic school governance sys- tem McCarthy himself mandated in 1981.

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Every other Wednesday, representatives of students, faculty, administrators, and staff (including clerical, custodial, and cafeteria workers) wrestle with questions like the Walkman issue, school cleanup days, whether Town Meeting itself can appropriate the table tennis room (Chinese students' turf) for its deliberations, and whether or not to accede to a request by two Palestinian students that the Palestinian flag be hung in the school cafeteria amid the flags of the 60 countries of origin of other Brookline students.

These are highly emotional issues, whose partisans don't always find it easy to set aside personal biases for reasoned parliamentary discourse. But the school's insistence that they do so is not only welding together a strong community at Brookline High, but also teaching participants respect for divergent views.

''The cutting edge of work in moral education at this time is decisionmaking - policymaking in the real-life context of the school rather than in the English or history curriculum,'' says Ralph Mosher, an education professor at Boston University, who serves as consultant to the Brookline schools.

Citing the theories of Jean Piaget, the childhood educational expert, and Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard University professor of moral education, Mr. Mosher says, ''Piaget and Kohlberg insist that morality is moral reasoning.'' Both have identified stages through which moral reasoning progresses. In the lowest stages , it is emotional and personal; in the higher stages, is more complex, because it involves anticipating how others, as well as oneself, will be affected by the consequences of any decision about right and wrong. At the highest stage, it touches ''commonality'' (universality), with the best decision possible because it is best for most. Mosher and others believe it possible to create learning experiences that promote such higher moral reasoning in schools.

''One result of what you've seen (at Town Meeting at Brookline High) is measured increases in moral reasoning by kids who participate in such discussions,'' Mosher explained.

On the day I attended Town Meeting, Brookline High's elected student leaders and assorted faculty members gathered in the faculty cafeteria. Some sipped soda and crunched munchies during the noontime proceedings; for others, the discussions were too engrossing to permit distractions. The student chairman and parliamentarian, seated up front with adult sponsor Jennifer Huntington, conferred quietly in an effort to determine whether a speaker on a point of order was instead expressing an opinion.

The question being debated was whether a straw vote (nonbinding expression of opinion) should be mandatory before a final vote was taken on an issue. One student after another rose to speak in favor of not making the straw vote mandatory, while the adults present spoke in favor of the straw vote.

To an observer, the meeting looked like good training in civic education and democratic decisionmaking. But to its designers, headmaster McCarthy and professor Mosher, Town Meeting is secularized moral training.

''The decisions have to do with the process of deciding what's right and what's wrong,'' Professor Mosher says. ''Coherent moral philosophy is the result of experience and reflection. It's not dependent upon chronology but on quality of experience. Therefore education has a large part to play,'' Mosher maintains.

''Psychologists believe religious practice and tradition give us the language in which we think, but the quality of our understanding depends on social interactions, ability to think, influence of mentors,'' says Mosher in defending Town Meeting as a means of moral education.

''We are not preaching a new code or morality, but this is the way we think people come to more complex moral reasoning. Complex thinking doesn't belong in a vacuum,'' Mosher insists.''The big issue is: Do we do right when we know what is right?''

''Democratic government is not a guarantee of a higher moral atmosphere in a school,'' comments Dr. Clark Power of Notre Dame University, who co-led a recent workshop on ''The Moral Atmosphere of the School'' at Boston University, which preceded the annual meeting of the Association for Moral Education. ''Nor is a strong sense of community, though that is one goal of school moral education programs. We want to distinguish a community like Jonestown (the religious community in Guyana founded by the Rev. James Jones which made headlines in 1978 when inhabitants submitted to mass self-destruction), which had a strong community, from morality itself.''

Dr. Power and the workshop co-leader, Dr. Ann Higgins of Radcliffe College, collaborated for six years on the Just Community School Project at the Center for Moral Education at Harvard.

''We had the goal of developing students' sense of responsibility toward their school as a whole,'' Dr. Power explains. ''We wanted the school to be a moral community; we wanted students to value this aspect of their school, rather than 'I like this school because it helps me get ready to go to college.' ''

One positive result of the Just Community Project occurred at the Cluster School, an alternative school in Cambridge. This school had a problem of theft. When urged by faculty to make a rule against stealing, some students at first argued, ''It's normal. School is not like your family; it's like the street.'' Other students said it was like their family; there was stealing in their family , too.

Eventually the Cluster School did make a rule against stealing. But after a year, another theft occurred. Some students said they were disappointed the rule had been broken; others wondered if the school could survive the incident; one student made an impassioned plea for the thief to identify himself; some students said it wasn't their fault that the incident had occurred, and one blamed the victim.

But when the thief was not identified, the students began to consider making collective restitution to the victim.

''We viewed this as a change in the moral environment of the school,'' says Dr. Power. Theft had been virtually eliminated for a year, and when a theft did occur, the community showed a caring attitude toward the victim, he pointed out. ''Not only adults, but Cluster School students, believed stealing was wrong.''

''It's easy to get rules,'' he says, ''but hard to get moral norms. Even after we got a norm on stealing at Cluster School, there was still shoplifting and theft in the larger high school of which Cluster was a part and in the stores.''

The Harvard Just Community Project operated in large, comprehensive high schools and small, alternative high schools in three communities: Brookline; Cambridge; and Scarsdale, N.Y.

''We felt we had more than 80 percent who favored an improved moral atmosphere at school; we did have a vocal majority,'' says Dr. Higgins. But she says it was harder to enlist faculty support.

''We have seen ourselves as interventionists,'' she says. ''We wanted to create a positive environment for kids as they developed from a lower to a higher stage of moral reasoning. We want to have a place where moral responsibility can be exercised. We want to help students who seem to be developmentally disadvantaged, who still reason at Stage 2 [preconventional, by Kohlberg's definition] when they are 16 years old.''

Wednesday: Defining the moral problems on college campuses.

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