American public schools have an ``obligation'' to provide students with an understanding of good character and to teach moral values, said Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in a major policy speech in New York last Thursday. Students need to become ``morally literate'' -- familiar with the components of moral reasoning through exposure to great characters and lessons in history and literature, such as Galileo and the Wright brothers, ``King Lear'' and ``The Diary of Anne Frank.'' Teachers and principals must not only articulate moral ``ideals and convictions,'' they must point to the difference between right and wrong and ``live that difference in front of students,'' the secretary said.
Dr. Bennett's speech comes several weeks after New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, perched at the other end of the political spectrum from Bennett, told reporters that ``when you get kids for eight years in an elementary school and you never say anything to them about values, I suspect what you're saying to them is `there are no values.''' By ``values,'' Governor Cuomo said he meant concepts such as ``love thy neighbor.''
The issue of teaching morals and values has become a hot, new topic in public education. Both the political left and right are getting involved. The awakened interest, say experts such as Dennis Doyle of the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, is due mainly to a growing realization among educators, parents, and politicians that knowledge is not ``value neutral.'' The elements of schooling -- everything from computers to civics curricula to the role of the teacher -- do not exist in a moral vacuum, they say.
``For about 15 years now,'' says Mr. Doyle, ``schools have lacked clearly defined goals and moral vision. That's slowly starting to change.''
Reasons for this lack are complex and varied, experts say, and tend to reflect social trends and beliefs -- such as ``relativism,'' the notion that all ideas and values are equal and are only as worthy as the individual believes they are.
Educators such as Harvard professor Robert Coles say the lack of serious moral thinking has much to do with an increase in educational ``psychobabble,'' and asks bluntly, ``Are students really better off with the theories of psychologists than with the hard thoughts of Jeremiah and Jesus?''
Others say the general lack of consensus in values between liberal and conservative parents since the 1960s means that schools end up teaching no values, to avoid controversy. The result has been a bland, homogenized curriculum. The classic American novel ``Huckleberry Finn,'' for example, has been quietly taken off many reading lists. Liberal parents oppose the racist overtones in the book. Many conservative parents feel the book is subversive -- Huck Finn is a vagabond who habitually breaks the law and tempts others to do so as well.
Yet what distinguishes great works of literature, educators note ironically, are the controversial moral lessons they contain. Graham Down, president of the Council for Basic Education says that ``Controversy is part of education. There's no one right answer to everything.''
What the recent remarks by Bennett and Cuomo represent, say experts, is a growing consensus about basic values all students should be aware of -- the difference, for example, between honesty and deceit, and between generosity and selfishness.
A new consensus is also developing in another important area of schooling and values -- the teaching of democracy.
In a symposium of leading educators -- held last week by Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) -- both new right conservatives and liberal progressives agreed that a ``value neutral'' approach to schooling must change. Developing a citizenry able to think democratically is one of the greatest needs in schools over the next 20 years, both sides agreed. The disagreements are over what that means, and about how to do it.
Conservatives argued for better teaching of the history of democracy. Chester Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education, said that in a recent study, conducted by himself and Diane Ravitch of Columbia Teachers College, more than 70 percent of American high school students could not place the US Civil War in the correct half century. The problem is not simply a matter of not knowing dates, says Dr. Finn, but of not being taught the narrative of American history, and thus not understanding critical cause and effect relations in the past. Without understanding why events took place, Finn says, students can't make informed judgments about the present.
Liberals stressed giving students more learning about the participatory side of democracy, in ``being democratic,'' as Prof. Henry Giroux of Miami University of Ohio put it. ``We teach about democracy as though it were an artifact,'' Dr. Giroux said, which ``deadens'' students' ability to think critically and question their political and civic values.
Textbooks were roundly criticized by both the right and left. Conservatives such as Dr. Paul Vitz of New York University described a lack of ``traditional'' values in school books. His own study of some 1,000 high school social-studies texts showed that subjects such as marriage and religion were rarely mentioned. ``There was no sense, for example, of the powerful religious impulse behind the lives of Martin Luther King and Ghandi,'' he said. References to business, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and -patriotism were nonexistent, he said, ``No text mentioned that many people work at jobs because they are socially meaningful.''
Liberal progressives such as Dr. Jerald Starr of West Virginia University, the author of a new curriculum package on the Vietnam war (a subject he says averages less than six paragraphs in American history texts), agreed that school books were far too value neutral. ``The books are as outmoded as the steam engine,'' he said. Dr. Starr argued for the inclusion of the history of oppression and dissent in America, of labor and class struggles, and of social change.