Moral Dimension of Today's Youth

`TRAIN up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.'' This Biblical truism (Proverbs 22:6) has not weathered well the 20th-century world. For the most part, materialist and empirical social science views have had the upper hand. Researchers have tended to feel that race, gender, and economic factors - the overall social environment - outweigh all else in the shaping of children's moral beliefs and attitudes.

A new in-depth study of the moral values of children challenges these views. The study of 5,000 students from age 9 to 18, financed by the Girl Scouts and conducted by Robert Coles of Harvard and James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, found that race, age, class, and sex differences were not the most important factors in shaping the moral logic and assumptions of students.

Questions ranged from how students determine what truth is, to their beliefs about right and wrong, premarital sex, drug use, cheating, adults, and civic responsibility. The answers cut across social and economic lines. Students tended to be grouped far more by categories of underlying belief systems than by demographics.

Take premarital sex, for example. When broken down by race or parental income, those who said they accepted this behavior differed by less than 10 percent. Yet when grouped into five basic types ranging from ``expressivist'' (doing what makes you happy) to ``theistic'' (religously rooted) the differences were marked - up to 35 percent.

The structure of values boys and girls hold - whether Hispanic, black, white, rich or poor - proved more powerful than external circumstances. Kids made sophisticated moral distinctions. What isn't clear, say Coles and Hunter, is where kids' beliefs come from - though students of all backgrounds emphasized the importance of family as both a primary influence and a value.

Interestingly, the study found that the heroes of today's kids are all contemporary black men - Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and Michael Jordan. About 18 percent said they had no heroes.

Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, the greatest worries of kids are not drugs, suicide, or pregnancy. Rather, it is ``fulfilling the expectations of the adult world,'' and ``the pressure to do well in school and sports.''

The survey, rightly, does not play down the importance of social background as an influence. Nor should policymakers assume a new emphasis on moral values and character education can substitute for spending dollars on schools. (Economic justice is itself a moral issue.) But the study does indicate a need to give more attention to the moral and civic dimensions of education - even while setting goals for math and science scores, and teacher pay.

The great number of students making decisions based purely on personal happiness and a narrow ``get-ahead'' ethic underscores this need. A healthy American republic requires a higher standard of sacrifice and selflessness.

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