EARLY last fall, 23 scholars and educators met here for two days to discuss moral education and character, under the sponsorship of the Department of Education. They talked about everything from Kantian vs. Aristotelian ideals of ``the moral'' - to how a teacher should confront a child who brags her father has stolen a bicycle for her.
Many participants started off wary of the occasion - of ``[Secretary of Education William J.] Bennett's character agenda,'' said one. But the freewheeling discussion - and the response papers that dribbled in last month - left officials and scholars eager to keep the subject alive.
``I was worried we'd end up with a kind of `moral education program' that - bang! - would be installed in all American schools,'' like reading and science units in the 1960s, said Gerald Grant of Syracuse University, whose groundbreaking work on establishing a moral ``atmosphere'' in schools will come out early this year. ``That didn't happen.''
Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn Jr. says the issue is becoming timely. ``There is a public hunger for schools to deal with morality,'' he said.
Part of the reason, educators say, is a perceived breakdown in ethics in the larger society this year - a year in which major figures and institutions in business, politics, and religion have been tagged with moral or ethical misdeeds: Ivan Boesky, Sen. Joseph Biden, Jim Bakker, and Beech-Nut Nutrition Co., to name a few.
The Washington Post Magazine cover story last week, for example, summed up 1987 as ``The Year of the Big Lie.'' It included a poll showing that 70 percent of Americans feel standards of honesty are in decline; a Reader's Digest phony repair ``sting,'' in which only 28 percent of 225 randomly sampled auto mechanics around the country honestly diagnosed a loose spark-plug wire; a view by Harvard's Sissela Bok that ``good people'' lie because they can't see the harm it does, and her plea for ``leaders especially'' to ``understand the horrible power of their lies.'' The Post finished with a chilling assertion that in the modern, secular, impersonal world, many people reluctantly conclude ``they no longer live in a world of friends and neighbors and families, but a world of associates, clients and customers who will look them in the eye, smile - and lie like a rug.''
Prospects for moral and character education in such a climate are daunting, the scholars admitted. But all felt it was essential. As Dr. Grant said, ``These days we can't set aside moral education. It's a matter of how we do it. We don't have the choice of not doing it.''
Only in modern times, said Kenneth Strike of Cornell, have we ``separated the idea of education from that which is moral.'' In previous eras the two were inextricable; students would naturally be asked to think through concepts of moral law and sense.
This is still true today, said Philip Jackson of the University of Chicago, despite the social climate: ``Instruction is impossible without some set of enabling conditions that are deeply moral in nature. Science is impossible without the idea of honesty - it just makes no sense. You can't play a game of tag, without an agreement to abide by rules.''
The problem, says Thomas Green of Syracuse, is that the public discussion of moral sensibility has atrophied. People are embarrassed by it. ``We don't understand the domain of the problem,'' says Green. ``In contemporary culture there are excessively narrow limits placed on the term `moral.''' It has taken on petty, scolding overtones in education. And is usually tied to cheating, sexual behavior, and expense accounts in the press.
Green argued for a reconstitution of the idea of ``the moral'' - that its teaching in schools be associated with grander themes: conscience, imagination, biography, virtue, memory, a prophetic tradition, craft (learning to do things well).
There was general agreement that direct teaching of morality in schools is ineffectual. ``People were skeptical about a curriculum-driven moral ed, preferring the values in hidden curriculum such as school environment,'' said Education Department official Ivor Pritchard.
William Proefriedt of Queens College quoted theologian Martin Buber, who said direct character education was ``resisted precisely by those [students] who show the most signs of genuine independent character.'' Students who seriously wrestle with good and evil ``will rebel if teachers try to dictate answers,'' Dr. Proefriedt added.
James Leming of Southern Illinois University summed up research from the 1970s and '80s on effective moral education:
Moral discussion in small groups.
Students allowed to assume responsibility for their own and others' behavior and learning in a structured ``cooperative learning'' environment.
What doesn't work, he said, is ``values clarification'' techniques in which students decide their own values, or traditional ``moralizing.''
Several scholars, including Susan Parr of the University of Tulsa, said the moral lessons imbedded in the literature of authors such as Faulkner, Twain, Dickens, and Hemingway were effective in class. Dr. Parr cautioned, however, against diminishing or exploiting literature - subjecting it to a mechanical ``moral analysis'' simply to squeeze out moral lessons; that would be immoral, she suggested. One should learn more from Dostoyevsky's ``Crime and Punishment'' than not to be an ax murderer, as one put it.
Lessons from history were also discussed. Dr. Grant agreed with proposals to reinvest history with its religious dimension: ``Don't we have to respect the student's academic freedom and right to learn history in an authentic way?''
Philip Cusick of Michigan State agreed that school environment is essential. That's why moral education is impossible in large urban schools in which lower and working-class children attend overcrowded classes with teachers who have little time or passion themselves for the self-education and learning needed to influence the environment.
Several scholars wrote followup papers.
Joseph Adelson of the University of Michigan: Social science has hammerlocked values clarification and situational ethics in the schools, even though they have not worked. This science has also relaxed into a belief that inner ``personality'' is not a source of behavior - hence, correction - in the real world.
Kenneth Strike: Further research is needed into how both community responsiblity (the classical mode) and individual conscience (the modern) relate to moral learning.
Richard Baer of Cornell: Assumptions that moral education can emerge from a purely ``rational'' or ``neutral'' basis are false. They are shallow, noncontroversial, and work against deeper traditions of wisdom and experience. Hence, the need to explore privatization and vouchers.
Philip Jackson: The very way we research moral education will dictate the answers we find. Hence, the need to distinguish between utilitarian methods (sometimes useful), and methods to promote clearer research and understanding.
The department, which spent $60,000 on the conference, will publish the results and keep up its commitment to the subject: ``Character is extremely complex and elusive,'' says Pritchard. ``If you expect to get results, you have to be in it for the long haul.''