Commentary

Teaching Moral Responsibility in the Schools

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Science has shown our planet to be an insignificant footnote in the Encyclopedia Galactica. Our life span is too short to justify an entry on the timeline of the universe. Our human freedom is mere superstition, the behavioral psychologists tell us.

It's discomfiting to think that the whole enchilada--our lives, our culture, our future--might be nothing more than the punch line in a vast cosmic joke. And it does not help us much as we try to make it from one day to the next. For that, we need a sense of purpose, a sense of moral responsibility.

Morality requires not only the carrying out of mutual obligations, but a "center of certainty"--a sense that some things are, and always will be, important. Inadvertantly, I believe, science has helped to undermine the foundations of moral responsibility. As we have been led to the conclusion that the universe is pointless, scientific relativity has encouraged moral relativity.

But if ever there was a subject lacking a "center of certainty," it is the matter of how to teach morality alongside 20th-century science and what role the schools should play in such teaching.

I proceed on the basis of two assumptions. One, there is no turning back the clock of scientific knowledge. (We wouldn't want to even if it were possible.) Two, regardless of how insignificant our lives might ultimately be in the grand scheme of things, we can't live in a civilized fashion without strong moral restraints that come from deep-seated beliefs about what's right and what's wrong. With these assumptions in mind, I propose that:

  • Teaching moral responsibility in the schools may be a nearly impossible task, but to try to do so is worth the effort. In fact, we have no choice. Moral decisions are made all the time by students and teachers. It would be a tragic mistake, I think, to argue, as some parents do, that moral instruction should take place only in the home and at church. Morality has a place in the curriculum.
  • Although it can be argued that over the long run there are no moral absolutes, in the short run of daily living there are a great many rights and wrongs that children must learn to deal with effectively. In fairly self-contained, homogeneous environments like the home, the school, and the community, it is possible to establish islands of objectivity in the sea of subjectivity. Teachers must be willing to say not only that there are rules, but what they are. Moral responsibility doesn't come out of thin air. Teachers have to be willing to establish visible standards of moral behavior within their own classrooms. Students will still, of course, test the limits, but at least the teacher will have a clear standard for dealing with individual problems as they arise.

    One standard might be that all ideas as ideas are worthy of respect and that all students as people are entitled to respect. It isn't easy, but someone has to say, "It doesn't matter what the standards are in the streets, in this classroom we will honor the concepts of free speech and human dignity."

  • We must temper the "values clarification" approach somewhat. Using a technique that emphasizes that there are no right or wrong answers tends to encourage the glorification of student opinion. Yes, of course, we are all entitled to our opinions, but our students should also recognize that the weight of experience makes some opinions more valuable and authoritative than others. So, if moral-dilemma case studies are used, I think it is wise to avoid those with which the students have no direct experience. Avoid especially artificial cases on war. When we want to introduce the moral dilemmas associated with war, we are better off simply stating them rather than encouraging student opinions, which, in the case of American students, are based on insufficient experience. Stick to examples closer to home, such as the dilemma of friendship versus honesty in a case of cheating.
  • Although we shouldn't grant equal weight to all opinions, neither should we suggest to our students that we can learn only from experience. Experience may be the best teacher, but it is not the only teacher. Intelligence counts for something. We should remember that although any fool can learn from experience, it takes intelligence to learn from the experience of others.
  • Students must be taught to accept the consequences of their own behavior. They should not be allowed to find scapegoats. Never let a student off the moral hook just because other students might have got away with similar transgressions.

If President Lyndon B. Johnson can be said to have been partly responsible for My Lai, that in no way releases Lt. William Calley from his personal responsibility. I remember an incident at the University of Massachusetts during the Cambodian incursion in 1970 when some of the students were boycotting classes. A philosophy professor continued to hold classes, including a scheduled examination. Outraged at the professor for holding the exam when he couldn't be there, a boycotting student verbally assaulted him. The student said that his mother would be furious if he flunked out of school. Thoreau's notion of civil disobedience appears to have been lost here.

  • With a mature high-school class, teachers might want to tackle the big question head on--that is, is there really any meaning to the concept of moral responsibility? Have students reflect on Schopenhauer's words, "Man does what he wills, but does not will what he does." Then have the students read some of B.F. Skinner's work. The implications are enormous, and the teacher will need a fall-back position with which he or she can reintroduce the notion of moral responsibility. I would emphasize the experience of freedom--our minds might lead us toward determinism, but our hearts and souls testify persuasively for free will. Man is an emerging process, not a static product. Most of us feel free and most of us feel responsible. We have to take advantage of those feelings and to build a positive program for teaching moral responsibility.
  • Finally, we can live with science if we can understand the seeming paradox that we are at once the least significant and the most significant. Life isn't always rational and reasonable. After all, our government was founded on Lockean principles of natural law and continues to function smoothly despite the fact that 20th-century man no longer accepts Locke's theological assumptions concerning the existence of natural law. We are wedded to the 18th-century principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence even as we reject the objective existence of natural law. Democracy has become a habit of the mind; with practice, so can moral responsibility.
  • Vol. 01, Issue 26, Page 24

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