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Think. Discuss. Act. Morals And Values

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Review: Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong

Kilpatrick, W. (1992). Why Johnny can’t tell right from wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.


William Kilpatrick, a professor at Boston University, instructs students in the areas of human development and moral education. The main purpose of this book is to inform those interested in the moral development of children of the need to instill values, virtues, and character traits that will help them lead productive lives with a sense of purpose. It is an informational text in that the author explains various methods of moral education, the strengths and weaknesses that lie therein, and suggests several strategies that may lay the foundation for a strong sense of purpose in life.

Kilpatrick discusses many issues pertaining to moral education including “The Crisis in Moral Education,” “Drug Education,” “Sex Education,” “How Not to Teach Morality,” “A History Lesson,” “Moral Illiteracy,” “Vision and Virtue,” “Morality Makes Strange Bedfellows,” “Beauty and the Beasts,” “Music and Morality,” “Life is a Story” (stories and their significance in teaching morals), “Myth Wars,” “What Schools Can Do,” “What Parents Can Do,” and a “Guide to Great Books for Children and Teens.”

Kilpatrick gives his view of the importance of moral education as it relates to parents, schools, and children. He strongly suggests that it is the combined responsibility of both the parents and the schools to foster environments that are wholesome, disciplined, caring, and consistent in order for children to grow into healthy, committed, responsible adults. He believes that if the fundamental teachings of what is right and wrong are in place, rather than letting children choose their own value systems based on “feelings” (the educational movement of the sixties), children will develop a better sense of self, family, and community rather than a sense of confusion. He focuses on the need for high expectations, discipline, commitment, critical thinking skills, and purpose as some of the ingredients in a healthy, happy person. He also stresses the need for these ingredients to be added to a young child’s daily life and environment (whether home or school). He writes:

The combination of high expectations, serious purpose, and attention to the total environment requires considerably more work than having students sit in circles and talk about their feelings; it does, however, have the distinct advantage of making a real difference in the lives of children. (p. 51)

Kilpatrick ends his writings with practical remedies for systems gone haywire. He discusses various ideas that can be implemented and utilized in school systems and the home. He also dedicates an entire chapter to an annotated bibliography of books deemed wonderful for children, not only for their moral teachings, but also because they are great stories.


I highly recommend this book to any person concerned with the state of youth. Though it is obviously an educational and informational text, it is written in a style that is understandable and captivating. The author covers the necessary bases more than adequately as he presents the history of various educational techniques and the negatives and positives each possess. The author offers practical suggestions and attainable goals that can facilitate a renewal of today’s youth. The reader will leave with a sense of hope.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What do you consider some of the major problems affecting the youth of today?
  2. Are things today worse than when your parents were in school?
  3. In your own words, explain what morals and values are. Also explain what it means to be of good character.
  4. Whose job is it, do you think, to teach morals and values to children? Give reasons for your answer.
  5. Are stories and music a big part of moral teaching? Do they play a part in choosing particular values? How do you think stories and music have affected your own way of thinking about life? Have you been influenced by them?
  6. What, do you think, gives purpose and meaning to life? Are morals and values important to that purpose?
  7. What are some suggestions you might have for families and schools in educating children about what is right and wrong?
  8. Do you agree with any of the author’s suggestions in this reading? Why or why not?


  1. We, as a nation, are not without hope. There are remedies to these problems that are attainable. Consistency in care, discipline, instruction, and expectations can and will make a difference.
  2. Certain values-justice, honesty, loyalty, fairness-have been handed down through the ages. The basic concepts of these values have been accepted throughout time and have usually derived from faith in a higher being. Religion and education work well together in terms of moral education and life purpose. Parents, teachers, and youth leaders can grow in knowledge concerning moral education by reading this book. It is extremely helpful in understanding where we have been and where we are going.

Valerie Kinnaman
© 2018 CYS

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