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Manhattan school weaves `ethics' into learning fabric

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1986



New York

In teacher Kalindi Handler's fifth-grade class, pupils are studying simplified versions of the Greek myths, with their lessons about fate, destiny, and who gets credit for good or blame for bad. Ms. Handler's seventh- and eighth-graders plunge into ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' or ``Lord of the Flies.'' The latter novel has sparked some heated discussion among students here over what causes the friction among the characters in that William Golding tale -- is it personality differences or something deeper? ``They were getting into arguments, which I just loved,'' notes Handler, who says she tries to choose books for her classes that ``bring up moral issues.''

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Classroom consideration of such issues, quite common here at the Cathedral School in uptown Manhattan, is a topic of increased interest in American education.

Since taking office a year ago, Education Secretary William J. Bennett has called repeatedly for a new approach to ``character development'' in the public schools, one that emphasizes ethics and what Mr. Bennett describes as the ``values all Americans share.'' The American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers' union, has been offering workshops on how teachers can deal with moral questions in classroom discussions. And the National Education Association, the biggest teachers' union, lists the teaching of ``ethical character'' among its seven educational objectives. A national poll of educators last fall by the Virginia-based Educational Research Service found that 54.7 percent thought schools needed to do more in the teaching of ethics.

As educators continue to debate how to do this, the experience of the Cathedral School may be relevant.

A few hundred feet from Ms. Handler's classroom rises the world's largest Gothic structure, the soaring Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal house of worship still being built a century after its inception. For 85 years, now, the Cathedral School has been a part of the church's activity, and today headmaster Rick Ackerly, a tall, wiry young man with a zest for his job, is wrestling with the challenge of guiding the school toward a new, more clearly defined identity.

For most of its long history the Cathedral School was an academy for choirboys, after the English model. In the '60s it became a day school open to a broader spectrum of students; in 1974 girls were admitted. Today, the school's 158 students reflect the surrounding city's mix of religions, races, and cultures -- black, Hispanic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Korean, Buddhist, Turkish, Muslim. Diversity is a key element in the new identity Mr. Ackerly and his staff are working toward maintaining and using.

In an interview in his office, Ackerly observes, ``Teaching values in a school is not a matter of . . . impressing values on kids.'' Rather, he says, it's a matter of nurturing ``that spark of empathy,'' or sense of fairness, within children. ``I believe it's innate,'' and the educator's job is to help that capacity of concern for others ``become more sophisticated.''

Ackerly calls this ``education of the heart.'' It's a responsibility that schools share with the home, he says. The success of this inner education has a lot to do with building a committed staff -- a task that boils down to ``getting people who live it, who know this is part of their job.'' That doesn't mean people have to think alike or act alike. Ackerly says he wants teachers who have ``transcended'' the easy answers to questions of values -- the ``what's-for-me, what's-right-for-you-crowd'' on the one hand and the ``hammer-it-in'' school on the other.

The Rev. Michael Laird-Kuhn is the school's chaplain, a post reinstated by Ackerly after having been vacant for a year or so. ``When you're working with children from cross-cultural backgrounds,'' says the Rev. Mr. Laird-Kuhn, you often get ``different understandings of morality, of what's right or wrong.''

This demands sensitivity on the part of teachers or counselors and a rejection of easy responses ``from the head instead of the heart,'' the young chaplain says.

Peter Bokor, a social studies and linguistics teacher in his second year at the school, recalls the lively exchange that followed when one student proclaimed a particular assignment, a Kipling story, ``boring.''

Squelching an initial impulse to get angry, Mr. Bokor threw the question to the class: Was it boring? Yes, said some. Others defended what the story meant to them.

At that point, says the teacher, ``I actually realized I'm interested in what they're thinking.'' That ``sense of acceptance of the children'' is at the heart of good teaching, adds the chaplain, and at the heart of any effort to help kids understand values.

While ethics and values may underlie nearly all instruction here, they're communicated less through specific curricula than through attitude.

For teachers and headmaster, instruction in values is a never-ending process of rejecting ``formulas'' and making moment-by-moment ``moral decisions,'' says Ackerly.

That's really what's going on in the Cathedral School, he says with a wide smile -- just a constant ``muddle towards really loving each other.''