Moral education: consensus in a pluralistic society

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THE issue of moral education in the schools is heating up again. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett renewed his call for more emphasis on moral training in a speech at Yeshiva University. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has urged more attention to moral values in public schools. Irving Kristol stresses the importance of school standards that indirectly bolster moral behavior. And the American people overwhelmingly support a movement in this direction. But fears persist. Isn't moral education the job of home and church? Wouldn't it become a means for smuggling religious teachings back into the classroom? Can there be any consensus on moral values in our uniquely heterogeneous society? Are there pedagogical methods that can effectively promote the ends being sought? Or is good example the best that teachers can do in this area? Isn't indoctrination ipso facto undesirable?

All of these are important questions, and all can be answered.

While moral education is primarily the responsibility of home and church, the schools have always taught moral principles; a school that didn't would be unthinkable. Besides, there are millions of homes that give children neither a good moral example nor anything approaching adequate moral instruction. Even homes that do a good job would welcome reinforcement by the schools.

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Despite our pluralistic society, there is far more consensus on moral values than critics realize.

What parents would not be glad to have their schoolchildren taught the importance of self-discipline (doing what we believe we should do, even when we'd rather not do it); the importance of being trustworthy; of telling the truth even when it hurts us to do so; or of being honest in all aspects of our lives?

And wouldn't parents be glad to know their children are being encouraged to resist peer pressure; to use honorable means to achieve their ends; to develop the maturity to be able to say, ``I'm sorry, I was wrong''; to practice good sportsmanship; to cultivate civility in relations with others; to respect those of different classes, races, nationalities, or religions; to do work well, whatever that work may be; and to respect the property of others?

These are values that responsible parents everywhere, whatever their religion or lack thereof, would be pleased to have their children taught. The schools already teach many of these, but in a random, haphazard, low-priority fashion. They should devote far more energy and emphasis to the enterprise.

Of course, example is always more valuable than good advice. But even the best parents supplement their example with counsel and explanation. The schools should do no less.

As for the dangers of indoctrination, each generation of adults has no higher obligation than to pass on the best of its moral and ethical heritage to the young. Children have a right to know what human experience has taught mankind about the values and behavior that promote the long-run well-being of both the individual and of society.

Is such training feasible? I believe it is. Here are some ``consciousness raising'' suggestions that might be useful at the junior high and high school level. (Of course, moral education should begin much earlier than that.)

Use the time-honored practice of placing one principle or attitude on the blackboard for a week, supplemented, where possible, by an aphorism that succinctly and perhaps memorably captures the spirit. (``It is easy to tell a lie. But it is hard to tell only one lie.'')

Teachers could ask their pupils to write essays about someone they've seen or read about who admirably upheld or unwisely violated one or more of these moral precepts. It might be especially worthwhile for students to consider, at least once each school year, which of the principles have the greatest potential value for them personally.

Students might also be asked, ``Which of these principles do your parents believe can be especially useful to you?'' Why do they feel this way?

A fruitful practice might be to ask students, ``How can young people be encouraged to want to do what they know they should do but would rather not do?'' (I'd love to sit in on one of those classes!)

A follow-up session might be scheduled for discussing the various psychological tricks people employed to defend behavior which, in their wiser moments, they recognize as undesirable.

Students should be encouraged to read the biographies of people whose lives have an inspirational quality, people like Washington, Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller, and Martin Luther King.

Of course, students shouldn't be told that adults always abide by these principles or reflect these attitudes; students know better. But they should be told that all of us are at our best when we do.

While none of the moral principles cited above deal directly with problems like drugs or teen-age sex, several are clearly relevant: self-discipline; truth-telling; resisting group pressures; openness.

I have no illusions that any program of moral education can make dramatic improvements in students' attitudes and behavior. The most we can hope for, in the face of powerful internal and external forces that drive us toward overvaluing money, prestige, power, and hedonism, are small, incremental gains. But these should not be scorned. And when teachers strengthen the impulses toward the good which exist in all of us, they perform their most valuable service. It's what the best of them want to do most.

The most important thing about a society is not its gross national product, its military might, or even its artistic achievements. It is the kind of people it produces and the values they live by. It's time to acknowledge this, and the schools should lead the way.

Reo M. Christenson is a professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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