Why We Might Be Reluctant To Teach “Morals” in American Schools | Vol. 3 / No. 39.2

We could get Peter Singer to design the curriculum… or not | Photo: Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY-SA 2.0

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I just finished reading this interesting op-ed over at The Atlantic by Paul Barnwell titled “Students’ Broken Moral Compasses: the pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.” The basic point is that “teaching to the test” and other academic pressures have pushed the teaching of “character, morality, and ethics” out of the classroom, leading to a generation of — well, I don’t know what. Not really amoral children or nihilistic young adults. Just ones who haven’t stopped to think about morals and ethics and whatever the hell “character” is supposed to be, I guess.

And honestly, I think that’s why I find the whole thing so perplexing: I don’t know what they mean by “teaching morals” or “teaching character,” and I’m not sure other educators know either.

My parents’ generation seemed uniformly to define character as “doing the right thing even when no-one is looking,” and perhaps that’s what they mean. But my generation (I’m among the oldest of the so-called Millennials, if you believe in such a thing) seems to have a problem with that. It’s not with the second half — I believe most of my own students wouldn’t change their behaviour if observed or not — it’s with the first half, the “doing the right thing” part.

Because what do we even mean by “the right thing,” and — I think more importantly for educators — who gets to decide what we mean by it? American Boomers, writ large, seem to think morality has something to do with religion. How else can you explain the need for a “good without God” campaign, for crying out loud? American religious people — and that’s a lot of them, especially the older they get — derive their morals from their religions. And as we have seen, one person’s “immoral” is another person’s human right to love and marry whoever they damn well please (see what I mean?).

Take “sexual morality.” What does that even mean? Any comprehensive lesson on the subject would have to start from first principles: “why is sex even a moral question?” we might ask. This would be too much for some conservatives to bear, I’m sure. But starting from the very premise that sexuality does have something to do with morality would be quite likely in violation of the Establishment Clause, because it’s from religion that we get that idea in the first place (and not all religions, either, but a few very specific ones that hold a kind of cultural dominance in some very local areas of the world).

What about the idea that Bernwell floats that schools could teach “about” morals without actively indoctrinating students? “There’s undoubtedly a fear about what specific ethical beliefs and character traits schools might teach,” he writes (without using a single exclamation mark!), “but one answer might be to expose students to tough issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.” That could work — but again, who decides what counts as a “tough issue”? Whose issues take precedence? How do you teach about empathy without making it blisteringly obvious that some positions some religions hold dear are from another moral standpoint thoroughly unacceptable if you’re exhibiting any empathy whatsoever?

I think it would be great to make every child take a course on ethics. We could put everyone on there from Bentham to Confucius, from Kropotkin to Singer. But designing such a course for everyone — in such a way that it doesn’t leave children from minority or non-religious households vulnerable to discrimination, and in such a way that it doesn’t become the next “hill to die on” after sex ed for Christian conservatives — seems to me a near-Sisyphean task.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but with the ties between “morality” and religion in this country, I’m not exactly surprised we don’t teach it, either.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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