The importance of moral education

The importance of moral education is particularly clear at the junior high level (grades 7-9, average age 12-14 years). Fortunately, it is also a stage when most educators and parents are willing to concede time for moral education activities: The “basics” have been taught in some measure, and the pre-college pressure has not yet begun. The field of moral education is, of course, vast. We can here only take up a few issues and make a few practical suggestions. In particular, the focus in the final three sections of this chapter will be on thestudy of moral issues, rather than moral education in general. This narrowing of focus to study activities is because of limitations of space alone, and does not reflect on the importance of the rest of the moral education program of the school.

The “integrative model” of the person and of moral education developed in the present volume is one I endorse: all aspects of the person–thoughts, feelings, behavior–must be attended to in moral education.1 The main theme running through the chapter will be that moral education in the junior high school must be grounded in the life needs of the young adolescent students. Accordingly, we will begin with a brief overview of the situation in which these students find themselves. THE WORLD OF JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

These young people, at early adolescence, are being given more responsibility for their lives, facing new questions and having new experiences. They are beginning to choose their way of life, whereas before much of it was chosen for them. Junior high students are thinking about what kind of job they want. This is necessary both so they can select suitable school subjects and job training, and to give them a sense of direction and meaning in life. If they can see the necessity of schooling partly in job terms it helps them to go along with its more difficult aspects. To a degree, also, these students are free to choose other elements of their way of life: sports, friendships and group life, movies, TV, music, reading of different kinds, the clothes they wear.

Possibly they can now buy a Walkman or a ten-speed bike with their own money. Perhaps they can give up (or take up) a musical instrument without much adult control. At this age, students are very concerned about their self-image. Rapid changes in bodily size and appearance, together with greater social interest, result in a need to rationalize their changing self and see it as acceptable. Strong feelings, again both internally and externally triggered, lead to questioning about the nature of their personality and the meaning of their life. Health, physical and mental, is also a preoccupation of these young people. Physical and emotional changes make them aware of the possibility of change, and they fear abnormality. They also sense that they may have some control over their health: They are hearing about fitness programs, proper nutrition, dental hygiene, how to overcome stress.

And probably their parents are giving them increasing responsibility in health matters. Friendship patterns are changing. Being accepted by their peers takes on much greater importance, and many of their activities are directed toward that end. Sexual relationships become a distinct possibility, requiring a set of attitudes and verbal responses even if only negative ones for the time being. Thoughts of marriage begin to crop up, even (or perhaps especially) when there is as yet little experience of close heterosexual friendship. Access to alcohol and drugs is now a reality. Although it might be difficult, they could if they wished experience such things; and in many cases it would not even be difficult. This accessibility along with the interest in self- image, group life, and health constitutes a new life situation. Family relationships are of pressing interest to young adolescents.

Most still have strong emotional ties to their family, but potentially competing relationships are developing. There is a growing sense of a need to strike out on their own, perhaps encouraged by their parents. The thought of one day leaving home may be entertained from time to time. And issues of parental authority arise constantly. Because of increased independence and heightened social interest, students of this age are concerned about the community setting: happenings at the local mall, movie theaters nearby, neighborhood youth centers, the local police station, racial, religious, and class conflicts take on a personal meaning, since they may now have to respond on their own initiative (although often with peer group support).

As they build their distinctive interests, personality, and way of life, these young people are developing ideas about life in society, at a local level at least. Perhaps the most urgent concern of young adolescents is to maintain a sense of meaning in life. There is a fear of finding themselves in limbo: not children, not adults, not working, not married, not voting, not dependent, not independent, not achieving anything (except make-work school tasks). What is their place and purpose? Some of their other concerns are heightened and distorted (from an adult point of view) in attempting to gain a sense of meaning or to escape a sense of meaninglessness. THE INTERFACE OF ADOLESCENT AND ADULT WORLDS

In morally educating young adolescents, we adults must recognize the legitimacy of their needs and interests, while at the same time helping them accommodate to our interests as far as is justified and to the many values that should be shared by all members of society. Our task is to help students develop a total value system which, as well as serving their distinctive needs for independence, identity, self-respect and so on, gives room for general moral and societal values such as reliability, honesty, fairness, tolerance, loyalty, participation, cooperation, and sharing. Pursuit of these values, in appropriate ways, benefits both the adolescents themselves and society as a whole. In the past, in moral education programs, we have often given almost exclusive attention to the general needs of society, especially the adult world, and neglected the distinctive needs of adolescents.

We have sometimes even questioned the morality of adolescent desires and aspirations. We have not recognized that the needs of adolescents are in large measure legitimate, and moral requirements must be tailored to meet them.2 A central focus, then, of a moral education program in the junior high school must be the world–including the interests–of the students. The main reason for this has to do with justice: A truly moraleducation must promote the well-being of the young person and other members of society alike. But another, practical reason is that unless we meet students on their own ground we will fail in moral education. We will fail, first, because we will not engage their attention or enthusiasm and, secondly, because we will be going against a fundamental educational principle, namely, that one must start from where people are.

Dewey, of course, told us this long ago, and Piaget and Kohlberg (in the field of moral education) have continued to make the point. Where, specifically, are young adolescents? In the previous section we saw that they are largely absorbed in learning how to run their lives, choosing a way of life (including school subjects, and a possible future job), achieving an identity acceptable to themselves and others, establishing good friendship, family, and neighborhood relationships, working out how to deal with sexual relationships now and in the future, working out how to maintain physical and mental health, establishing attitudes and practices with respect to alcohol and drugs, and trying to maintain a sense of meaning in life.

Most people are in a state of rough balance between concern for themselves and concern for others, especially their family and friends (which is precisely where most adults are). In the world of the young adolescent, as we have seen, there is strong interest in being responsible, doing work, getting on well with one’s family, having good friendships, living a meaningful life. Helping them satisfy their concerns is not giving in to a lesser morality, but helping them achieve legitimate life goals which, of course, are partly self-interested. The position I would recommend we adults adopt is that adolescents are our moral equals. This is not simply the view that they are “of equal moral worth,” which is relatively easy to accept. It is the stronger position that they are “as good at morals” as adults, and their moral thought and behavior is on average as appropriate as that of adults.

Insofar as their morality differs from that of adults it is not due to a lesser capacity but to differences in the life circumstances in which they find themselves and to which their morality is more or less appropriately adapted. Stages of morality may be traced but they are stages of change associated with changing life circumstances, not stages of improvement. One can, of course, always live better as an adolescent. Moral development in the sense of improvement is possible at a particular age. However, it is equally necessary for both adolescents and adults. Adolescents do not stand in greater need of moral improvement. If one grants that adults are not, on average, more moral than adolescents, what place is there for moral education conducted by adult teachers? Normally in education we assume that teachers have greater knowledge and skill than their students, which is why they are teachers. What is the situation in the case of moral education?

To begin with, as we have noted, there is always the possibility of moral development (in the sense of improvement) at a given age. Adolescents, like adults, can become more altruistic, sensitive, thoughtful and wise, and more skillful in giving expression to their morality. Accordingly, the need for moral education certainly exists. In society as it is presently structured, adults are cast in the role of teachers. They have the authority and the professional training and status. They are the ones who are expected to organize educational programs. In most cases, young adolescents who attempted to take on such a role would be rejected, by peers and adults alike, as precocious and presumptuous; and besides they would not be paid for their activities or even given time to perform them.

Adults, then, must engage in formal moral education if it is to take place to a significant degree under present social, political, and economic conditions. While adults are not in general better at morals than adolescents, particular teachers may through training and selection emerge as “moral experts” (just as we have literature, history, and mathematics experts in the school). They may be better at morals than most adolescents and fellow adults, and have a great deal to teach. Besides moral development at a given age, adolescents must eventually go on to a morality appropriate to adulthood. If they are to live well as adults, and fulfill the responsibilities assigned to them, they must take on the way of life of an adult and the corresponding moral behavior.

Now, adults are in a good position to initiate adolescents into the responsibilities and way of life of adulthood, since we are there already. In this area we often have greater knowledge and skill than students. While there is room for moral education by adults, however, we must tread carefully. In many areas, especially those having to do with moral development at an age level, we may have less knowledge and skill than our students, even though custom and politics assign us the role of teacher. Even where we do feel we know more, either because ethics is our teaching field or because we know about the adult way of life, we should adopt an interactive teaching mode since adolescents already have many insights into the adult world and its problems.

We must resist the temptation to push students into the adult mode of conduct just because it suits our interests: Our concern should rather be for the whole, including ourselves. We must as far as possible allow students to enter adulthood in their own way, so that their needs for identity and relative independence are met. We must keep constantly in mind that initiation of young people into an adult mode of life is only one part of the story. The adult way of life must itself be under constant scrutiny to see if it can be improved. In a great many ways adults and adolescents should be exploring precisely the same societal issues. The significance of the adult-adolescent distinction should not be exaggerated. A key principle of moral education is that of “teachers and
students learning together.”

In many cases, we do not “know the answers” beforehand: We must search for them together. Part of the teacher’s role may be to help liberate adolescents, since potentially such a change has enormous advantages for both adolescents and adults: Adolescents could live fuller, more interesting lives and adults could have better relationships with adolescents and also benefit from their aid in societal projects. It is important, however, that we not jeopardize their well-being by pushing too quickly or in the wrong directions.

We could destroy a way of life–adolescence, which for all its problems is at least a way of life–before we have established a satisfactory new way of life–adulthood-at-an-earlier-age. A key principle here, once again, is that teachers and students must work together to ensure that both the speed and the direction of change are appropriate. Eventually, however, it is possible that the moral orientations we now describe as “adult” will become common at a much earlier age, as they were in some communities and eras in the past.3 A CONCEPTION OF MORALITY FOR USE

In what has been said so far a conception of morality for application in moral education programs with junior high students (and others) is starting to emerge. The time has come to spell it out more systematically. Morality is based largely in human needs, of oneself and others. It is grounded in goods such as friendship, fellowship, self-respect, health, happiness, fulfillment, a sense of meaning in life. Following Aristotle, there is a strong emphasis here on human nature and basic human desires and tendencies.4 Many moral and social values, then, such as self-control, truthfulness, promise keeping, loyalty, fairness and so on are largely means to ends rather than ends in themselves. They should be seen (and taught) as components within a total value system, the ultimate purpose of which is to enable humans, individually and as groups, to achieve human goods.

This in no way diminishes the importance of moral and social values but shows that they, like all other values, must be weighed against one another rather than be seen as absolutes. Members of subgroups (such as adolescents) have a right to pursue their distinctive interests rather than subordinate them completely to general societal values. They also have a responsibility, of course, to integrate their values with others as much as possible and look for areas of shared values. Morality in both its foundations and its daily implementation involves feelings, desires, and life forces (such as those we have noted in adolescents). It is “a work of life, not of death.”

It is not purely mental. The mind does not simply control feelings in morality; rather the two are constantly interacting or working together to give direction to life and moral motivation.6 Moral autonomy is an important ideal, and the notion of the child as moral philosopher is crucial.7 However, young adolescents are dependent on their peers, their parents, and their teachers for moral support, encouragement, and guidance. They should be basically in control of their own lives, but it is rare that they will be able to think or act completely by themselves, nor is it clear why that would be a laudable moral ideal.8 Religion plays an important role in morality for many people, but it is possible to be moral without being religious.

This follows from the rootedness of morality in human nature and human life. One could develop a broad definition of religion according to which it would be necessary to be religious in order to be moral.9 But in the everyday sense of religion there is no necessary connection between the two. For a great many people, however, their religion is in fact the mediator (in part at least) of their morality, and if they lost the one the other would suffer, temporarily and perhaps permanently.10 Ethical questions are objective. Here we part company with “values clarification” and other relativist positions. Moral issues are deeply embedded in the hard realities of life, and no matter how much we clarify our values, we can still be wrong, objectively.

For example, we may firmly believe that it is always wrong to tell lies, but one day come across a case where, given all the facts, we are forced to admit that telling the truth would be wrong, since it would clearly do more harm than good. This does not mean that the same things are right or wrong for everyone: Relevant differences abound in circumstances and temperament. But for a given person or group in given circumstances one can in principle objectively determine which actions would be better and worse morally. Moral questions are enormously complex, but nevertheless soluble in many cases.

Morality has often been seen (and taught) as a matter of following a few simple rules, the main obstacles lying not in finding out what is right but in bringing oneself to do what one knows to be right. The view I have presented, rather, is that moral questions are difficult–hence the need for moral education–but that humans have the capacity to weigh a wide range of considerations and, in many cases, arrive at sound conclusions. THE PRACTICE OF MORAL EDUCATION

In the present context, we only have room to highlight a few elements in moral education, ones which follow from preceding discussion and are especially relevant in the junior high school. The following are some key principles and strategies. Teachers (including administrators) and students are growing together; they are engaged in joint inquiry. On many matters students know as much as teachers and on some they may know more (e.g., bullying, fighting in the school yard, parent-teen-ager relationships, early teen-age sexual needs). The teacher’s input may be quite strong: information, ethical theory, tough questions, possible answers, persuasive arguments. But it is given as grist for the mill, not as the last word. Teachers should embody in their behavior and the way they run the school their view of how one should live. This view, however, is constantly developing. It is not the established “right” way: We do not yet know fully what that is.

Furthermore, it is a view that the students are helping to develop. School behavior and organization should, for teachers and students together, be an ongoing experiment. Modeling sound attitudes and behavior is an important aspect of the teacher’s role, but it should not become a vehicle for indoctrination through the transmission of unquestioned moral beliefs. The school as an institution should be used to illustrate some of the “hard realities” of life. It is unlikely that we will be able to make the school a great deal better than other societal institutions, since it is inextricably bound up with the rest of society. But we can discuss why the school is the way it is, in terms of embedded injustice, the bureaucratization of society, cultural inertia, parental, teacher, and student convenience, institutional imperatives, sexual discrimination, age discrimination.

We should work with the students to try to correct moral wrongs in the school; but it is crucial that, in addition, we help them understand situations of this kind and how to make the most of their lives within them. The school is an ideal laboratory for learning both how to change an institution and how to live with what (for the moment at least) cannot be changed. The discipline system of the school should be used to help students and teachers learn how to create sound power structures and how to live within them. Students should have genuine involvement so better decisions are made and students gain a deeper understanding of the issues. Teachers should not be afraid to exercise authority when appropriate–e.g., stopping a fight, punishing use of prejudiced language, insisting that homework be done–but should see the explanation and discussion of their actions as a major means of moral education.

Teachers should not be embarrassed to be “in charge,” since this is their assigned leadership role and does not necessarily imply superiority. Participation in curriculum discussion and decision making is an essential tool of moral education in the school. Students need to understand why learning is necessary, why particular branches of learning are important, and what is the place of the school in the total cultural, economic, and social fabric of society. Obviously, once again, these are questions to which many teachers have only very sketchy (and perhaps incorrect) answers, and which must be addressed jointly with the students whose experiences and interests are crucial data. The quality of social experiences in the school should be enhanced, both by increasing the opportunities for social interaction and by including the study of friendship and other human relationships in the curriculum.

The school is a setting in which students can make a great deal of progress in relationships with both peers and adults. This is so because of the large amount of time spent in school, and also because of the many contacts it provides beyond the immediate family and neighborhood. Making room for genuinely social occasions and improving the quality of interactions should be an integral part of the moral education program.11 There should be extensive study of morals in the school. If students and teachers are to benefit substantially from other aspects of the moral education program, they must grow in their moral knowledge and understanding. Of course, moral discussion can take place as issues arise incidentally in the life of the school, and also in the context of decision making about school organization, social life, and curriculum. But the issues are so many and so complex that there is need for a more systematic treatment, whether in separate courses or within other school subjects.

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