Vermonters for Better Education
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For years now, I have been more and more troubled by American educators' abandonment of the responsibility to teach moral values to our kids and to demand moral behavior from them. As I have thought about it several themes have emerged.
It is almost axiomatic among American teachers that schools should not be in the business of moral instruction. Hence, teachers should stay antiseptically clear of anything that resembles teaching values. This horror of being morally influential in students' lives comes from a contorted misapplication of our other fetish, the separation of church and state. In a naïve leap from this center of correct political thinking, over all intervening logic, to how they teach in their fourth or eighth or twelfth grade classrooms, teachers conclude that anything that smacks of a moral opinion is somehow religious and therefore an intrusion upon each and every student's inviolable right to his own value system. We in American education, in the name of personal freedom, have made a science of avoiding the "What ought we to do?" questions.
And it doesn't stop there. In our illogical denial that some "ought to's" are always and everywhere true, we push with religious fervor other absolutes: Everyone has a right to his own opinion; It all depends on the circumstances; Do whatever suits you but doesn't hurt anyone else; Do what feels right.
Formally, we institutionalize our moral hesitancies in a methodology called "values clarification," a system which avers that teachers should never directly tell students what is right and wrong, but should let them discover their own values. The proper way to do that is to lead students to their own values through a series of questions about which the teacher remains absolutely values-neutral. Do you like peaches? How fast is fast?
Would you rather be alone or with someone? Is darkness the absence of light, or is light the absence of darkness? How do you feel about child molesters? Assuming that the teacher can be values-neutral in such a situation, his attitude promotes the impression that the questions are of equal value and that any answer a student gives is the right answer. Values clarification may lead children to some understanding of themselves.
It almost certainly leads to the conclusions that no value is of a higher order than any other value; that whatever the child answers must be right; and that everybody can have a different, but equally correct answer to the same question. Values clarification, which was created to avoid the imposition of one person's values upon another person, teaches with absolute irony that only one statement is always and everywhere right, the statement that all values are relative.
We see the student confusion that the sterility of values clarification and the avoidance of the "ought to" questions creates. One of the Academy's teachers was astounded recently by the inability of his senior Advanced Placement English class to conclude that Jeffrey Dahlmer didn't have the right to eat human flesh even if it required his killing human beings to get it. For the class to draw the conclusion that murder and cannibalism are objectively wrong, the students would have had to sacrifice the much more deeply ingrained moral axiom that everybody has an absolute right to do anything he wants as long as it feels right to him, and the corollary, that nobody has any right - ever - to impose any value, no matter how seemingly self-evident, upon anyone else. Incredulous myself, I replicated the discussion with a class of accelerated sophomores. I got the same result.
Are some things always and everywhere wrong and others that are always and everywhere right? Of course there are. Try these that I borrowed from an article I read recently: It is wrong to mistreat a child, to humiliate someone, to torment an animal, to think only of yourself, to steal, to lie, to break promises. It is right to be considerate and respectful of others, to be charitable and generous. And these. It is right to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the grieving. Above all, it is right and necessary to teach students from kindergarten through post doctoral studies that right and wrong do exist and that discerning which is which goes way beyond a feel-good inquiry.
I speak from thirty-four years of teaching experience. Teachers generally are very, very uncomfortable teaching any kind of values or morality. As a result, we frequently retreat from answering moral questions and even more emphatically retreat from asking them. Out of fear of imposing our own values on other people, we frequently fail to confront the misbehaving student, the bully, or the cheater. We do not confront our colleagues or peers when they are sarcastic toward, or belittling of their students; when they avoid their obligations; or when they use the community resources for personal gain. All too often, we assume a hear no evil - see no evil - speak no evil, noli me tangere posture. All too many of us have an implicit contract with our non-performing students to ignore their non-performance in exchange for a little peace and quiet in the classroom, or with our malingering colleagues and peers to look the other way and not rock the boat. There are only two outcomes from this kind of behavior, cynicism or moral ossification. I have seen both all too often.
American educators must stop ignoring the need to teach and model moral education. We must expose the fallacious reasoning that leads students to think that there are no moral absolutes. We must sharply draw the distinctions between freedom and license, and we must demand moral behavior and confront aberrant behavior.
The ultimate goal of a school should be a roster of teachers who do not shrink from their roles as moral exemplars and instructors and who, far from shrinking from the questions, always ask the "ought to" questions: How ought we to be when we live in community? What should we have done? How ought this man or that woman have acted to avoid the evil that he/she brought about? School leaders should build a faculty that will confront negative or anti-social behavior wherever they perceive it, whether among students or staff. It won't happen in a year; we have been in denial for too long for such a quick fix. I think that it will take many years and a revolution in the way teachers think, but we have to do it.