FOR John Roemer, school librarian at the Park School of Baltimore in Maryland, much of human history is ``about people bashing each other,'' and the rest hinges on humanity facing the ``moral issues that arise out of those clashes.''
For some, that may be much too simple a description. But at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in Boston last weekend, teachers and administrators were reminded that exploring moral issues is now recognized as a job inescapably linked to education.
Against the backdrop of a society heavily criticized for having lost its moral compass, conference speakers and reports confirmed the best and the worst about private schools. Many are superior academically, but at the same time fall short on environments where character and moral issues are emphasized. Other schools have well-established guidelines on values and ethics that help drive the curriculum; moral issues are actively discussed and lived more visibly on those campuses.
According to studies of independent schools conducted by Douglas Heath, an educational consultant and author of three books on schools, some students today are so removed from an understanding of values that they are unable to define words such as integrity or initiative.
``Virtue is a word almost completely unknown to some kids,'' Mr. Heath says. ``Highly competitive academic schools that ignore the character of their students risk creating contented intellectual sociopaths.''
Teaching values every day
Successful programs recognize differing values, some educators say, but don't hesitate to discuss the issues triggered by those values. Mr. Roemer, who teaches a course about values and moral issues, says one of the functions of a school is to include values in the daily discourse because ``we live in a moral universe.''
``You talk to the students about integrity,'' he says, ``about concern for others, not in lectures, but in discussions about the issues that concern them, and you have to do it over and over again. They don't understand complex notions in calculus after one explanation, and value education has to be done over and over again.''
Part of the problem, some educators suggest, is parental pressure on children to succeed strictly in academic terms, so they can get into the top colleges.
``I've been to two schools recently where the primary mission statement is, `We are here to get you into college,' '' Heath says. ``What kind of perversion is that to the meaning of liberal arts? Where are the statements that say our mission is to help you become an effective adult?''
Heath, who has done dozens of studies for NAIS schools, sees a great danger in the overemphasis on academics. ``What are the implications for our country,'' he asks, ``if we are empowering the minds of students, but do not discuss for what purposes they are getting this power?''
NAIS, with more than 1,000 member-schools, recently established a ``Moral Life of Schools'' project to offer support and resources for schools to help students find their way in a society full of conflicting values.
``We heard a lot of teachers saying they never had time to talk about the important issues,'' says Steve Clem, NAIS vice president for Educational Leadership, ``so we wanted to raise the visibility of moral issues by encouraging people to put them out in the open and talk about them.''
NAIS says each school day is filled with ``moral moments'' and that adults set the tone for recognizing the moral flow inherent in each day. ``We're not just talking about whether students cheat or not,'' Mr. Clem says, ``but of adults starting dialogues with students and putting values into action.''
At St. George's School in Spokane, Wash., Tom Gazzola - a teacher and head of the upper school - helped initiate a project that redefined the essential values of the school.
After many discussions among the 285 students and the faculty, St. George's settled on two core values: respect and generosity of spirit. ``Both of these are propositions that, in order to work, adults and students have to give of themselves,'' Mr. Gazzola says. ``What comes next for us is weaving them into such things as how we run meetings, the curriculum, and our new community handbook.''
Roemer says that in his class, moral issues are examined to the extent possible from the standpoint of students' daily lives. ``Education is partly teaching people how to behave in difficult circumstances,'' he says.
For instance, honesty versus loyalty to a friend. ``If you see a student in class looking at someone else's paper,'' Roemer asks, ``do you have a moral obligation to your friend, or a moral obligation to turn that person in, or at least to say something later to that person?
``I challenge kids all the time with this question. They feel very bound to their friends,'' he says.
For Roemer, getting students to wrestle with moral issues and to realize that there are sometimes no clear answers leads them toward the ideal ``of the judicious person with the ability to see conflicting values, but make a decision based on reason.''