Consensus Is Sought on Instilling Moral Values
WASHINGTON--If public schools are to help instill moral values in students, adherents of differing religions must first come to an agreement on what those values should be, a leading religious historian said here last week.
While this task may appear difficult, it can be accomplished, argued Martin E. Marty, a professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago.
Mr. Marty, who is also a Lutheran minister, was the keynote speaker at a conference on "Education and Religion in a Multireligious Society'' held at George Washington University. He has written 39 books on religion and history and is president of the American Academy of Religion.
"We have, or we are convinced we have, a crisis in values,'' Mr. Marty said. "And there is massive agreement that we are failing our students by not teaching moral values.''
The "value neutral'' approach to teaching advocated by some educators over the past two decades was a reaction to the diversity of religions in the United States, Mr. Marty said.
"It's not the 'religion of secular humanism' that is keeping us back from teaching values,'' he said, alluding to the recent Alabama court case in which a federal judge ruled that "secular humanism'' was being taught as a religion in the public schools. "It is our multireligious society that so confounds us.''
In the current debate over "values education,'' he continued, too much emphasis has been placed on the responsibility of public schools to teach morality. It is up to America's religious communities to agree on what values students should be taught, he said, noting that all relig-ions are based on similar moral codes.
Another speaker at the conference, Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, said his group had established a project to identify a common core of values shared by many religions, including honesty, civility, responsibility, and understanding.
Echoing recent studies criticizing the minimal coverage given religion in many school textbooks, Mr. Marty added that teaching about religion should become a standard part of public-school curricula.
"Bring religion into the curriculum--even if students merely understand its weight, role, and importance'' in culture and history, he said.
For example, Mr. Marty said he could not imagine teaching about the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville without discussing Puritanism.
Other conference participants agreed that schools should attempt to instill values and to teach students about religion, but disagreed over how to approach values instruction.
Margaret Bartley, who teaches comparative religions at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md., said religious values and social values can be separated, and that values can be best taught by school rules.
"You can teach honesty if you make it a rule that students must not cheat,'' she said. "You try to stress that cheating is wrong because it's not right and hurts students, not because God says it is wrong.''
But Seyyed H. Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, said values should not depend on enforcement. He said Ms. Bartley's approach would "substitute a policeman's big stick for God's big stick,'' and would promote the thinking that "you can do anything if the policeman's not around.''
In Cairo, he said, one can walk the streets at night without fear of being robbed, because the people there strongly believe that stealing is morally wrong.
Michael Woodruff, the director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society, argued that educators must take a more active role in understanding the beliefs of religious families.
"The constitutional obligation rests on public education to observe a benevolent neutrality toward religion and religious values,'' he said. But omission of religion from the classroom, he contended, is the equivalent to hostility toward religion.
Efforts to become more accommodating will require "rethinking the goals of education,'' he said.