Grigg, P.G. & Martin, W.C. (1995). Moral education: Where have we been? Where are we going? Opinion Papers, 120.
Violence. Disrespect. Discipline problems. Social disintegration.
These issues are of major concern to many professionals seeking to understand the youth of today. They are finding that it is not only important to look at where-as a society-we are today, but where we were and where we are going. Many are primarily concerned with the issues of moral education and the responsibility of the schools.
Where have we been? Centuries ago, the concepts of piety and virtue were a strong part of the educational system. In 1789 at an academy in Andover, Samuel and John Phillips described virtue as meaning “good conduct or ethical behavior.” Most schools established before 1900 had virtue as their chief objective. Knowledge was considered dangerous without goodness.
Piety, however, was considered more important at the academy. Piety meant that a person had respect for things beyond himself. It also meant that there was a sense of meaning in life. Piety stretched beyond ethics, delving into the larger questions of the value of hard work and the value of life. Reflective thinking was a major part of piety.
In colonial times, the Committee appointed to execute the Systems of Public Education, adopted by the Town of Boston in 1789, strongly encouraged schoolmasters to instruct their students on piety. This is not the case today. The word “piety” is a thing of the past. Piety was closely tied to religion and religion has been banished from the public schools for the past thirty years.
The youth of today are still looking for something to give meaning to their lives. They need morals and values to help them find purpose, yet socially acceptable practices demand that religious and political controversies should be avoided. Societal standards imply that educators should be neutral and remain silent. Of equal concern is the obvious lack of silence on the part of society represented by the entertainment industry. Rap groups, film makers, television producers, and others are clearly vocal in the promotion of drugs, sex, aggression, and violence. Why, then, should educators be silenced? Perhaps they need not be.
There are some who claim that certain truths can be taught in official or “hidden” curricula, outside of a religious context. Tigner, author of the article, “Character Education: Outline of a Seven Point Program,” suggests seven points that will lead students to be respectful, friendly, responsible, confident, temperate, fair, and informal. His first point, “Take people seriously as persons,” deals with the area of self-esteem. He states:
Encouragement that doesn’t discriminate between excellent and shoddy performance signals the positively harmful message that the quality of one’s effort doesn’t matter. To deprive students of feeling bad about doing less than their best is to deprive them of one of their chief incentives to grow, improve, and mature. Much to their detriment, it positively invites them down the easy slide to mediocrity (Tigner, 1993, p. 6). (p. 6, 7)
Who should be teaching these children? It is not only important to look at the character of children, but also of those who are teaching them. Assessing character and virtue in teacher candidates is a necessity. However, it is hard to say who should judge whom not only in regard to teachers but also principals, members of school boards, and others in administrative positions. It is equally difficult to insure reliability and validity.
The question of where teachers stand on the issue of moral education is significant. Many teachers feel it is not their place or their job to be teaching morals. Some believe there is no way to determine good and bad character due to the growing emphasis on multi-culturalism. There are some teachers, though, who feel that moral education is as important in their jobs as teaching academics.
Through the efforts of the Jefferson Institute, running from June 1990 to August 1991, many of these questions were raised and answers sought. One outcome was clear: many teachers found that the words “right” and “wrong” were no longer part of school vocabulary.
Americans need to return to the nation’s moral covenant-the Constitution. It was designed to show that human beings need to act fairly to others and handle conflicts peacefully.
There are few people who would object to the teaching of certain basic values, such as honesty, fairness, courage, and caring. Teaching morality should not be confused with teaching a particular faith. Grigg and Martin state:
The Jewish and Christian faiths of our forefathers provide the true basic moral foundations our children need. Very few will object and few should confuse teaching morality with teaching a particular faith. We will not lose our freedom of religion by teaching our children right from wrong. (p. 12)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Whose responsibility is it to teach morals to children?
- How does a multicultural society affect the teaching of morals? Are the two variables incompatible?
- What is meant by “pluralism”? How has this concept affected the teaching of morals?
- Can morals be taught outside of religion? If so, how? Does “outside of religion” mean that religious faith is unimportant in the development of moral understanding? Give reasons for your answers.
- Parents should involve themselves with their children’s education. They should be concerned about what schools are teaching. They should know the teachers who are in direct contact with their children.
- Teachers should be aware of the growing concern about moral education. They should meet with administration regularly to insure that schoolwide policies are being upheld.
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