How Not to Teach Morality


In learning right from wrong, young people ought to have the benefit of ideas that have been around for a while. Beginning in the 1960s, however, educators have vied to outdo one another in rushing the newest developments and techniques into the classroom and into young heads.

"It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people," quipped G. K. Chesterton in 1910. If that guarded approach applies anywhere, moral education would seem to be the place. In learning right from wrong, young people ought to have the benefit of ideas that have been around for a while. After all, when researchers experiment with new treatments in medicine, the policy is to ask for adult volunteers, not to round up children. Common sense would seem to suggest a similarly cautious approach to experiments in teaching values.

For a long time that was the guiding policy in American schools. Teachers understood their main task to be the transmission of the culture: passing on to each new generation the lessons — some of them costly — that had been learned about right and wrong.

The 1960s, however, saw Chesterton's formula turned on its head. In that decade and the next, educators vied to outdo one another in rushing the newest developments and techniques into the classroom and into young heads. Nowhere was this done more avidly than in the field of moral education. The oldest ideas were, in effect, banished from the classroom. Almost overnight, concepts such as virtue, good example, and character formation fell out of favor with educators. We have already examined some of the concepts that took their place. In view of what was at stake, it was a surprisingly bloodless revolution. Teaching right from wrong has as much bearing on a culture's survival as teaching reading, writing, or science. Yet the radical innovations met with little resistance. For the most part they were embraced.

What accounts for this willing acceptance by the schools?

One possibility is that good behavior on the part of youngsters — aside from the normal quotient of rebellion and mischief — was something that educators were able to take for granted. Many educators at the time believed strongly in the idea of natural morality. And the relatively well-behaved youngsters in their classrooms seemed to prove the point. If their charges were, perhaps, somewhat more restive than students of the previous decade, that could be explained by the difficulty of adjusting to the new climate of freedom. What was generally ignored, of course, was the possibility that morality has more to do with culture than with nature: the possibility, that is, that character education had done its job well, and that the relative calm they enjoyed was not the fruit of nature but the lingering benefit of an earlier educational culture. Whatever the case, educators apparently felt they could afford to experiment.

Another explanation for this bloodless coup is simply that the time was ripe for it. Those were the days of the free speech movement, of flower children and campus sit-ins and Woodstock. It was also a time of violence — the murder of civil rights workers, the assassination of King and the Kennedys', the Vietnam War. Something was radically wrong with our culture — or so it seemed to many. And the revelations about Watergate in the early seventies did not help matters. The main sentiment — and it was a sentiment widely shared by educators — was that the culture was something to be ashamed of, not transmitted. It would be better if students started from scratch and developed their own ideas about society.

This was the atmosphere into which the so-called decision-making model of moral education emerged. It was a model that relied on students to discover values for themselves, and it promised that this could be done without indoctrination of any sort. Students would be given tools for making decisions, but the decisions would be their own. The idea gained ready acceptance in schools. Decision making was exactly what educators were looking for, and they rushed to embrace it.

The decision-making model developed along two different fines. One approach, called "Values Clarification," emphasized feelings, personal growth, and a totally nonjudgmental attitude; the other, known as the "moral reasoning" approach, emphasized a "critical thinking" or cognitive approach to decision making. Although both shared many assumptions and methods, it is important to understand the differences. Values Clarification got its start in 1966 with the publication of Values and Teaching by Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sidney Simon — all professors of education. What the authors offered was not a way to teach values but a way for students to "clarify" their own values. The authors took pains to distance themselves from character education and traditional methods of teaching values. In fact, Simon once expressed a wish that parents would stop "fostering the immorality of morality." It was Simon, also, who took the lead in popularizing the new method. His Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students was published in 1972, and quickly became a best-seller among teachers. According to the promotional blurb on the book's back cover, Values Clarification makes students "aware of their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs ... their own value systems."

But Values Clarification was not exactly a new idea. In reality, it was an outgrowth of human potential psychology. The developers of Values Clarification had simply taken Carl Rogers's nondirective, nonjudgmental therapy technique and applied it to moral education. Indeed, the authors of Values and Teaching were so committed to therapeutic nonjudgmentalism that they felt obliged to note that "it is entirely possible that children will choose not to develop values. It is the teacher's responsibility to support this choice also."

True to its origins in the human potential movement, Values Clarification also puts a heavy emphasis on feelings — so much so that it virtually equates values with feelings. That this is the case is indicated in the very first strategy in the Values Clarification handbook. It is titled "Twenty Things You Love to Do." This exercise is not a prelude to deeper thought ahead. Rather, it sets the tone for the whole book. A value is essentially what you like or love to do. It is not an ought-to but a want-to. In his book Educating for Character, Professor Thomas Lickona relates the story of an eighth-grade teacher who used this strategy with a low-achieving class only to find that the four most popular activities were "sex, drugs, drinking, and skipping school." The teacher was hamstrung. The Values Clarification framework gave her no way of persuading them otherwise. Her students had clarified their values, and they were able to justify their choices with answers they found satisfactory ("Everyone drinks and smokes dope"; "Sex is the best part of life").

Another problem with Values Clarification is that, despite its claim of being value-neutral, it actually conditions children to think of values as relative. This is apparent in strategy number three, "Values Voting." The exercise starts off innocuously enough with questions from the teacher such as, "How many of you like to go on long walks or hikes?" "How many enjoy going on a picnic?" "How many like yogurt?" and so on. But before long, questions of a weightier nature begin to appear in the list: "How many of you approve of premarital sex for boys? for girls?" "How many think we ought to legalize abortions?" "How many would approve of a marriage between homosexuals being sanctioned by priest, minister or rabbi?"

No effort is made to set these loaded questions apart. They are simply interspersed with the innocuous questions in random fashion, as if no significant differences existed among them. In the context of picnics and long walks, however, some of these "items in life's cafeteria," as Simon once called them, seem wildly out of place — like a guest appearance by Madonna on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. At least it would seem that way to a thoughtful adult. But Values Clarification is about getting in touch with feelings, not thoughts. The exercises are designed so that a young student will come away with the impression that all values are simply a matter of personal taste — like eating yogurt. Reading through the Values Clarification book of strategies, one is forced to conclude that its authors are more interested in circumventing the rational mind than in stimulating it.

Values Clarification has suffered some setbacks in the last decade. The anti-intellectual bias is hard to ignore; so is the research, which shows Values Clarification to be ineffectual at best and potentially harmful. Moreover, Values Clarification has come under attack from parents' groups in dozens of states. Despite these difficulties, however, Values Clarification has shown amazing powers of survival. Those who favor the approach have adopted the simple tactic of changing the name while retaining the method. Values Clarification often shows up under the guise of drug education, sex education, and life-skills courses. Although I have put these curriculums first in this book, in actual point of time they came after the introduction of Values Clarification, and relied heavily on its techniques. For example, years before writing drug education curriculums for Quest, Howard Kirschenbaurn had coauthored the Values Clarification handbook with Sidney Simon. Although his newer curriculums contain different exercises, the old message — a value is what you like to do — still comes through clearly.

The moral reasoning approach — the other strand within the decision-making model — seemed to offer a good alternative to Values Clarification. It was the brainchild of Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, a man who was, in many ways, the opposite of Sidney Simon. Whereas Simon was a laid-back popularizer with a mind singularly tuned to the changing moods of the sixties, Kohlberg was a serious scholar whose ideas were buttressed by philosophical arguments, and whose research was highly regarded. Although Kohlberg, like Simon, rejected character education (he called it the "bag of virtues" approach), he had something other than feelings to offer in its place. Kohlberg wanted to turn children into moral thinkers, to teach them a valid process of moral reasoning. Children would still make their own decisions, but their decisions would be based on reason.

How could students be brought to higher levels of moral reasoning? Kohlberg felt that the Socratic dialogue — the method used by Socrates and Plato — was ideal. The Socratic dialogue provided a way of drawing out ideas without imposing values or moralizing. Moreover, the dialogue seemed to create an atmosphere of equality between student and teacher — a goal that at the time seemed highly desirable.

Accordingly, Kohlberg and his colleagues developed a curriculum based on the discussion of ethical dilemmas. Like Socrates or Plato, the teacher poses one of these dilemmas and then encourages an exchange of ideas and opinions while keeping his own values in the background. Here is an example of one such dilemma:

Sharon and Jill were best friends. One day they went shopping together. Jill tried on a sweater and then, to Sharon's surprise, walked out of the store wearing the sweater under her coat. A moment later, the store's security officer stopped Sharon and demanded that she tell him the name of the girl who had walked out. He told the store owner that he had seen the two girls together, and that he was sure that the one who left had been shoplifting. The store owner told Sharon that she could really get in trouble if she didn't give her friend's name.

The dilemma, of course, is to decide what Sharon should do.

A skilled teacher could get quite a bit of mileage out of a quandary like this. Some of the issues that might come up would be lying versus loyalty, self-sacrifice versus self-protection, the cost to the public of shoplifting versus the cost to the girl if she's arrested. In addition, the teacher may further complicate the situation by asking hypothetical questions: "Suppose Jill comes from a poor family and can't afford to buy new clothes?" or "Suppose you knew that other children had been making fun of Jill because of her unstylish clothing?" or "What if Sharon offers to pay for the sweater herself? Should the store agree to drop the matter?" The teacher may go a step further and have students get the feel of the predicament by role-playing the various parts in the shoplifting scenario. Here's another dilemma:

Suppose a ten-year-old boy is hit by a car and brought by ambulance to the emergency room of a hospital. He needs surgery right away but the doctor needs the parents' permission. When the parents arrive they refuse consent for an operation. They are Christian Scientists and believe in the power of prayer rather than medicine to heal. The doctor could get a court order to override the parents but that might take too long. Should the doctor go ahead and operate despite the parents' objections?

You can see why the dilemma approach became popular. In the hands of any moderately capable teacher, it's a surefire formula: the educational equivalent of a roller-coaster ride. Opinions go back and forth, up and down; the argument takes sudden, unexpected turns. Does the class favor an immediate operation? Then the teacher can play devil's advocate. He can say, "So you don't really care about freedom of religion. How would you like it if your freedom to practice your faith was taken away? Suppose your religion forbids you to salute the flag, and you are expelled from school for not saluting? Would that be right?" Or he may switch the focus to parental rights: "How would you feel if you were a parent and doctors operated on your child without your permission?" At any moment the discussion can go spinning off in a new direction.

Like a roller-coaster ride, the dilemma approach can leave its passengers a bit breathless. That is one of its attractions. But like a roller-coaster ride, it may also leave them a bit disoriented — or more than a bit. That, as a growing number of critics are suggesting, is one of its drawbacks.

The question to ask about this admittedly stimulating approach is this: Do we want to concentrate on quandaries or on everyday morality? Not many children will grow up to face the doctor's dilemma described above. More to the point, it is not a dilemma any of them currently face. A great deal of a child's moral life — or an adult's, for that matter — is not made up of dilemmas at all. Most of our "moral decisions" have to do with temptations to do things we know we shouldn't do or temptations to avoid doing the things we know we should do. A temptation to steal money from her mother's purse is a more common problem for the average girl than deciding whether or not to turn in a friend who is shoplifting. It is certainly more common than deciding whether to perform surgery on an injured child.

The Jill and Sharon dilemma is actually a rather mild example of the form. Dilemmas about homosexuality, wife swapping, extramarital sex, abortion, and even cannibalism are routine on the junior high and high school levels and often make their way into elementary classrooms. The Donner Party dilemma, for example, tells the story of westward-bound settlers trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and faced with the alternatives of death by starvation or cannibalism. Another Kohlberg dilemma concerns a mother who must choose between the lives of her two children. A Values Clarification dilemma places the student in the position of a government bureaucrat who must decide which of several people are to survive in a fallout shelter and which are to die of radiation poisoning.

The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic. After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students will conclude that right and wrong are anybody's guess. They will gain the impression, as Cornell professor Richard Baer has pointed out, "that almost everything in ethics is either vague or controversial ..."

Youngsters are often much more perceptive than adults in sensing where this fine of reasoning leads. As one teacher admits, "I often discuss cheating this way, but I always get defeated because they will argue that cheating is all right. After you accept the idea that kids have the right to build a position with logical arguments, you have to accept what they come up with."

What Chesterton said about teaching "the oldest things" seems to apply here. Classroom time might be better spent in talking about the virtues of friendship, loyalty, and honesty, and how to practice them, rather than in dredging up situations where honesty might not be the best policy or where loyalty and honesty conflict or even where cannibalism might be a legitimate course of action.

Why isn't it done that way? The answer is that the developers of these curriculums are proceeding on the basis of a dubious assumption. They seem to assume that such things as honesty, property rights, and human life are already highly valued by youngsters and, therefore, the only difficulty is to choose among these values when they conflict. That is, they assume a sort of natural goodness and integrity in the child, whereby he or she will always want to do the right thing. If there is a problem, it's only a problem of getting in touch with one's feelings or of learning to reason things out. The old idea that many of us suffer not from a defect in reasoning but from a defect in character is not considered. Thus, in the Jill and Sharon dilemma, it is assumed that boys and girls have already mastered the ABC's of morality, that the kinds of dilemmas they are grappling with are of the higher-order kind that faces Sharon ("Shall I be loyal to my friend or truthful to the authorities?") rather than the lower-order kind that faces Jill ("Shall I take this sweater?"). But what if stealing a sweater is not a dilemma at all for me but my habitual mode of action?

Some of what is wrong with this assumption is revealed in a conversation Kohlberg had with Edwin Delattre shortly before Kohlberg's death. Delattre, who is professor of applied ethics at Boston University, tells it this way:

He [Kohlberg] expressed perplexity about the ineffectiveness of his methods in prisons where he had been working. He told me that he posed for inmates one of his favorite dilemmas: "Your wife suffers from an incurable and potentially terminal disease for which she must take regular doses of a very expensive medicine. The medicine is manufactured by a single company, and you have exhausted all of your financial resources in past purchases of the medicine." The question he posed is whether you should let your wife die or steal the drug.
The convicts were unperplexed. To a man, and without hesitation, they said, "Steal it." "But why," Larry Kohlberg asked them, "would you do that?" Laughing, they answered, "Because we steal things. We wanna know why the stupid husband didn't steal it in the first place."

The point is that the decision whether or not to steal is only a dilemma for those who already think stealing is wrong. As Delattre observes, "no one can really have a dilemma or moral problem without already caring to be the kind of person who behaves well, the kind of person who wants to discover the right thing to do and to have what it takes to do it."

At issue here is the very nature of the moral life itself. Kohlberg's conception seems to be that morality has to do with solving difficult ethical problems. His tendency to view it this way may stem in part from his own experience. As a young man he was involved in the struggle to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He and the men and women he worked with were constantly faced with difficult, unprecedented, and dangerous dilemmas involving the lives and freedom of others.

The superheated atmosphere in which Kohlberg worked may help to explain the system he later developed. The question remains, however, whether his emphasis on dilemmas is rightly placed. As one of Kohlberg's critics points out, "Not all of what constitutes one's morality consists of responding to problematic social situations ... a person's morality is an ongoing quality of life and not disjointed responses to isolated situations."

In fact, as Delattre suggests, it is the kind of person one is in the first place that determines what will and will not be a "dilemma" in one's life. For a person of good character a temptation to cheat on one's spouse or to cheat a business partner will we recognized as just that — a temptation and not a dilemma. On the other hand, for those lacking character interesting "dilemmas" are always arising. For example, one Kohlberg exercise — the "swapping" dilemma — concerns a number of married couples who want to exchange partners for sexual purposes. Quite obviously, however, this is a dilemma only for people who allow themselves to entertain such possibilities.

"This approach," as Delattre observes of Kohlberg's model, "obscures the fact that relatively few of our moral failings are attributable to inept reasoning about dilemmas. Many more arise from moral indifference, disregard for other people, weakness of will, and bad or self-indulgent habits." The hard part of morality, in short, is not knowing what is right but doing it. And if this is so, the remedy lies not in forming opinions but in forming good habits.

This is not to say that the dilemma approach should never be used. If used judiciously and in an age-appropriate way, it can be a useful teaching tool — particularly in discussing policy issues or current events in the upper grades or in college. But as the first line of approach for developing values, it is woefully inadequate. It involves young people in repeatedly questioning values that may never have taken hold for them in the first place.

In short, it's a strange way to teach morality. An analogy would be an American history course in grade school that concentrated on the ambiguities rather than the achievements — for example on Jefferson's ownership of slaves rather than his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, or on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s adulteries rather than his leadership of the civil rights movement. There is a time and place for learning such facts, but to put them first in a child's experience and then expect him to develop much loyalty to the nation or its values would be foolish.

The same holds true for moral education. Debunking moral values before they are learned is not a good policy. Before students begin to think about the qualifications, exceptions, and fine points that surround difficult cases they will seldom or never face, they need to build the kind of character that will allow them to act well in the very clear-cut situations they face daily. The basics ought to come first. "We should not," as former secretary of education William Bennett points out, "use the fact that there are indeed many difficult and controversial moral questions as an argument against basic instruction in the subject. We do not argue ... against teaching biology or chemistry because gene splicing and cloning are complex and controversial."

But what about Socrates? And what about Kohlberg's claim to be following in his path? There is certainly much to be admired in Socrates' calm, reasonable method of inquiry and in his patience and goodwill, but Kohlberg seems to have missed a key point about the Socratic method: it was not meant for youngsters. No one speaks more authoritatively about the Socratic method than Plato, and Plato maintained that it was to be reserved for mature men over the age of thirty. "One great precaution," said Plato, "is not to let them [students] taste of arguments while they are young" — the danger being that they would develop a taste for arguments rather than a taste for truth. Young minds, like young puppies, said Plato, would only "pull and tear at arguments." Such a method might keep youngsters entertained but it would certainly not make them virtuous. For Plato it was much more important for young people to learn a love of virtue than to argue about it. The dialogue was for those for whom the love of virtue was already in place.

This is the problem with using the dialogue method prematurely. Another problem is that not everyone using it has the wisdom, integrity, or maturity of a Socrates.

I occasionally used a dialogue/dilemma approach when I was teaching eighth grade in the mid-sixties. Though Kohlberg hadn't come along with his curriculum at that time, it was easy enough to find dilemmas or make them up. I thought I was allowing my students to think for themselves, but I can see now that I was more interested in having them think like me. That was not difficult to accomplish using the dilemma approach. It tended to knock my students off base. I could see that it sometimes also had the effect of alienating them from their parents' beliefs — particularly if their parents had traditional or conservative views. That didn't bother me at the time, but it bothers me now. (By the way, both Socrates and Plato were charged with leading youth away from their parents. I think most scholars of the classics would agree that the charge was not entirely without merit.) In order to make reparations for my past misuse of the dilemma approach, I make a point each semester of telling my college students what is wrong with it. I find I can get the point across by making an analogy to television talk shows, the kind hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. Such shows have a lot in common with current moral education classrooms: They thrive on the exchange of ideas and opinions, and they have the same ground rule — all views are to be respected. Moreover, the tendency of these programs to concentrate on the more unusual arrangements that crop up in life (swapping clubs, the Man/Boy Love Association, mothers and daughters who date the same man) parallels the focus on thorny and rarely encountered dilemmas in the moral education class.

What is the cumulative effect of shows like this on the home viewer? Is he or she converted to swapping or to the cause of man-boy love? Probably not. But there is another effect. Watching the shows makes for increased tolerance for differing viewpoints and behaviors. The viewer may not adopt such viewpoints but he now sees that there is something to them, or at least, that they can be defended in an articulate way. Living in a pluralistic society, we tend to think this is a desirable outcome. It is not stretching the point very much to say that in our culture, tolerance and open-mindedness have become the chief virtues.

It may be important to recall, however, that "tolerance" was not included in the four classical virtues or in the three Christian virtues that were later added to them. The notion that all ideas are to be respected is a fairly recent one-and not an easy notion to defend. Do the values of the Ku Klux Klan deserve respect? How about the values of the Mafia or the Colombian cocaine cartels? Do we owe respect to the values of the pornography industry? Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, notes that this cultivation of tolerance also occurs in moral education classrooms. "But," she adds, "when tolerance is the sole virtue, students' capacity for moral indignation, so important for moral development, is severely inhibited." Whether in classrooms or on TV, a constant parade of alternative "Values" tends to undermine the virtuous instinct that some things are and ought to be repugnant.

My question to my students about the talk show and the dilemma-centered classroom alike is whether such discussions can do more than develop a generalized — and sometimes excessive — tolerance. More precisely, can a person develop good moral character through participation in a talk show? through classroom rap sessions? Is this the way to develop traits such as courage, self-restraint, perseverance, or integrity? Students grasp the point immediately. Character is not about your skill in debate, it's about the kind of person you are.

Why then is the dilemma approach still in widespread use? One answer is that although it won't do much to develop a love of virtue or a hatred of vice, it will often do a lot for a teacher's popularity. Neil Postman, a professor of communications at New York University, suggests in a recent article that in order to compete with television, teaching has been reduced to a form of popular entertainment:

Consequently, drawing an audience — -rather than teaching — becomes the focus of education, and that is what television does. School is the one institution in the culture that should present a different worldview: a different way of knowing, of evaluating, of assessing. What worries me is that if school becomes so overwhelmed by entertainment's metaphors and metaphysics, then it becomes not content-centered but attention-centered, like television, chasing "ratings" or class attendance. If school becomes that way, then the game may be lost, because school is using the same approach, epistemologically, as television. Instead of being something different from television, it is reduced to being just another kind of television.

Kohlberg himself was quite serious about education; he never tried to be an entertainer. Nevertheless, his projects tended to produce educational fiascoes. In 1974, in an attempt to create not just a curriculum but a whole school based on his principles, Kohlberg founded the experimental Cluster School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The "just community" school, as it was sometimes called, lasted only five years. According to Professor Sommers's account,

these student-citizens were forever stealing from one another and using drugs during school hours. These transgressions provoked a long series of democratically conducted "town meetings" that to an outsider look very much like EST encounter groups. The students were frequently taken on retreats ... where many of them broke the rules against sex and drugs. This provoked more democratic confrontations where, Kohlberg was proud to report, it was usually decided that for the sake of the group the students would police one another on subsequent retreats and turn in the names of the transgressors.

None of this worked, however, and serious problems with drugs, theft, sex, and racial division continued unabated. And this despite the fact that the school had only thirty students, who were tended to by six specially trained teachers, dozens of consultants, and Kohlberg himself. In 1978, writing In The Humanist, Kohlberg said:

Some years of active involvement with the practice of moral education at Cluster School has led me to realize that my notion ... was mistaken ... the educator must be a socializer teaching value content and behavior, and not only a Socratic or Rogerian process-facilitator of development ... I no longer hold these negative views of indoctrinative moral education and I believe that the concepts guiding moral education must be partly "indoctrinative." This is true, by necessity, in a world in which children engage in stealing, cheating and aggression.

But, as with Maslow, followers and enthusiasts of the Kohlberg approach seemed to tune out these second thoughts and reassessments. Since the failure of the Cluster School, sixteen school systems have instituted "just community" schools — thus confirming Sommers's observation that "in American professional education nothing succeeds like failure." Newsweek recently described one such school in New York City:

West Indians snub the Bronx blacks, Dominicans won't eat with Puerto Ricans. Today's meeting verges on chaos. Tessa, a sophomore from Belize, has the chair and the attention of perhaps a third of the kids there. The question: should RCS [Roosevelt Community School] make community service a requirement for graduation? Five sullen boys talk steadily in the rear. Kids wander to the sandwich table, chat, write in their diaries. Debaters shout: "Hey, Tiffany, why you opposed, ya dumb bitch?" Allan Sternberg, the history teacher who runs the program, struggles to maintain order.

In the end the students vote against mandatory community service. "Sternberg," reports Newsweek, "tries a plaintive note of regret, but they cut him off. 'You asked us, we said "no," now it's over with,' says one member." Somehow Newsweek manages to find a vague "fragmentary" progress in all this. But it's not, I think it safe to say, the sort of progress parents would like to see.

I have a question that I sometimes pose to groups of parents. It goes as follows:

Suppose your child's school was instituting a course or curriculum in moral education at the fifth to seventh grade level. As a parent which of the two models below would you prefer the school to use?

A. The first approach encourages students to develop their own values and value systems. This approach relies on presenting the students with provocative ethical dilemmas and encouraging open discussion and exchange of opinion. The ground rule for discussion is that there are no right or wrong answers. Each student must decide for himself/herself what is right or wrong. Students are encouraged to be nonjudgmental about values that differ from their own.

B. The second approach involves a conscious effort to teach specific virtues and character traits such as courage, justice, self-control, honesty, responsibility, charity, obedience to lawful authority, etc. These concepts are introduced and explained and then illustrated by memorable examples from history, literature, and current events. The teacher expresses a strong belief in the importance of these virtues and encourages his/her students to practice them in their own lives.

The vast majority of parents will choose B — the character education option. But when I ask groups of teachers and teachers-in-training which of the two models they would choose to teach, they invariably prefer model A. Many teachers say they would not use the second approach under any circumstances.

Parents and teachers in America have been on different wavelengths for quite some time, but I don't think it's necessarily the parents who need to make an adjustment. I believe they prefer character education over the experimental model not because of some knee-jerk conservatism, or because of their limited knowledge of theory, but because they have a better grasp of what is at stake, and because it is their own children who are in question.

A colleague who administered this "questionnaire" to parents in a working-class neighborhood overheard one of them say in reference to the decision-making model, "Make up his own mind? Are they serious?" Not very articulate, but I would wager that what she said was based on a lot of practical knowledge.

Sooner or later, each person does have to make up his or her own mind. However, a person who has learned something of courage, respect for truth, and concern for others, who has begun to put these ideals into practice, and who cares about doing the right thing is better equipped to reach sound moral judgments than one who has been schooled only to exchange opinions. To introduce a child to the complicated and controversial issues of the day without some prior attempt at forming character is a formula for confusing him, or worse. To do it in a format that suggests there are no right answers compounds the confusion and amounts to a loading of the deck. One doesn't have to be exclusively liberal or conservative, religious or nonreligious to be troubled by this scheme.

Like the talk show, the dilemma approach leaves a boy or girl no objective criteria for deciding right and wrong. The only criterion is "what feels right to me," or — in the case of the better managed classes — what I can rationally defend." But, as we know from the talk show, rationality is an all-purpose tool that will serve any master. Morality seems to require acquaintance with something more basic which, for want of a better term, we can call "moral premises." Moral premises are not reasoned to but are seen or grasped by an intuitive act. And being able to grasp them, as Aristotle suggested, may well be a factor of being virtuous in the first place — or at least, beginning to practice the virtues. There are many things in life that can't be understood from the outside. We don't really understand tennis or chess, for instance, until we begin to play them. In the same way, we can't understand the rightness of charity until we begin to practice it. "Objective," noncommittal discussions of other people's moral behavior allows students to stay outside the "game" while misleading them to believe they are in it. In the absence of deeper foundations, it seems likely that students will simply become adept at "pulling and tearing at arguments" like Plato's young puppies. At the same time, they will gain a facility for rationalizing whatever it is they have an inclination to do. Nothing more is being asked of them.


Kilpatrick, William. "How Not to Teach Morality." Chapter 4 in Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong and What We Can Do About It. edited by J.H. Clarke, (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1992): 78-95. Reprinted by permission of William Kilpatrick.


William Kilpatrick is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston College and the author of five previous books, including Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, and Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values Through Stories. His latest book is Great Lessons in Virtue and Character: A Treasury of Classic Animal Stories. His areas of interest include: the use of stories in moral development; psychology and literature; and character education. William Kilpatrick is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1993 Touchstone books

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