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Schools Urged Not to 'Narrow Focus' When Teaching Moral, Ethical Values

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Blacksburg, Va--Called together to comment upon what one speaker called "the current fervor to enhance the moral influence of the public school," experts in the study of values suggested here this month that schools should resist external pressures to "narrow their focus" to the teaching of specific religious or moral doctrines.

And both educators and the public who have so often been critical of education in recent years should also resist "the temptation to place more responsibility for moral education on the schools than these institutions can reasonably be expected to carry," said Samuel M. Craver, professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Attended by about 100 principals, superintendents, teachers, and others from the region, the three-day conference was sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. It was convened in response to the increasing public criticism of the public schools' role in the teaching of moral values, according to Thomas C. Hunt, conference co-chairman and professor of education at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

According to public opinion polls, some 70 percent of the respondents favored instruction in values and ethics in the schools, and a majority said the schools do not spend enough time on developing children's moral character. "Students' lack of respect" ranks in the top half of the list of problems.

Classroom teachers and guidance counselors attending the conference expressed reluctance to conduct classroom discussions on contemporary issues such as the military draft and sex education.

Mr. Craver and others argued that schools cannot alone counter the broad social forces that influence the behavior and thinking of American young people. The media, the family environment, and the peer group are more pervasive--and often more powerful--influences on moral development than the schools, they suggested.

James P. Shaver, associate dean for research in the college of education at Utah State University, said, "It is crucial that those who discuss ethics education keep in mind that much, probably in most cases the most fundamental and lasting, of moral education takes places outside the school."

The dilemma this poses for many Americans is, Mr. Craver said, "how to counteract the destructive tendencies of rapid change on the institutions, traditions, and values that are cherished.... Indoctrination is advocated as a way to slow things down and to give children a sense of more permanent values."

But what the advocates of religious and moral indoctrination overlook, he continued, is that "there are some other, equally basic and traditional values that go against indoctrination, and one of them is that morality should proceed on a personal and reflective basis, a tradition that can be trace back to Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers."

Part of that tradition, he asserted, that "the only education fit for a free people is that which liberates them from the bondage of ignorance and other similar forms of tyranny."

In fact, the speakers argued, America's schools do teach students about ethical matters every day, whether they intend to or not. The behavior and teaching choices of teachers and administrators, the policies of the schools and school boards, the rule-making of students and adults--these, said Mr. Shaver, constitute a "hidden curriculum" in ethics that operates as a powerful influence on students.

He and other speakers also noted that ethical questions arise constantly in the classroom, regardless of the subject matter.

"The question," Mr. Shaver said, "is, how can [moral] education be made more thoughtful and thus more reflective of the democratic ethic, so that students, too, will become more thoughtful about and more appreciative of human dignity and its attendent values in decision-making and action?"

Schools cannot shoulder the entire social burden for developing the moral character of young people, the experts agreed, but they can and should aim to develop the capacity of their students to "reflect" on questions of value, particularly those that relate to the nation's "democratic" traditions.

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