Education Opinion

Ethics Is Not a Luxury; It’s Essential to Our Survival

By Rushworth M. Kidder — April 03, 1991 14 min read
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Some months ago, a friend who teaches in a public high school in Maine made a sobering admission. “I teach ethics,” he said, “but I can’t call it that.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because,” he replied, “you’re not allowed to teach Ethics in the public schools here.”

I was startled. Not being a teacher, I had naively supposed that schools were dedicated to building character, establishing moral foundations, instilling basic values. As a parent and a journalist, of course, I’d noticed that all was not well. I was aware that two-thirds of our high-schoolers tell national pollsters that they cheat on exams and intend to lie to achieve their business objectives. But I hadn’t faulted the schools. I guess I’d always assumed that something external to education--television, divorce, greed, automobiles, advertising, too many shopping malls, too little sleep, or some other often-cited scapegoat--was to blame.

Not a bit of it, I find. Solidly embedded in the pedagogy of contemporary America is an unspoken commandment of immense authority: Thou shalt not teach ethics. Nor is it simply the teachers who espouse it: My friend was responding to an attitude promulgated by his school board and supported by his administration.

Having brooded on his remark, I think I can see how that attitude developed. In the days of the McGuffey Reader and the schoolmarm’s switch, the typical community had an ethics delivery system that rested on the three legs of home, church, and school. Modern society, it appears, has kicked away the first two legs. The churches are often out of touch with the majority of the young. And the family, once a source of moral instruction and a cheerleader to the efforts of teachers, is abandoning those roles. Result: There are few extracurricular occasions where ethical behavior is discussed and encouraged.

So what’s a school to do? Faced with having to create a one-legged stool, many educators understandably choose to sit on the ground. Why teach ethics, after all, if half the time your instruction finds no reinforcement after the last bell--and the rest of the time you get blasted by a few parents and religionists who accuse you of teaching the wrong ethics? Safer, surely, to repair to that unspoken commandment.

Safer, but not sustainable. In the last several decades, the society beyond the school has been going through a profound transition. Schools may still resist ethics. But for the public it’s an increasingly hot topic. Some evidence:

The Dartmouth College ethicist Deni Elliott, counting stories listed under “ethics” in the New York Times Index between 1969 and 1989, found a 400 percent increase. Is that the Times trying to save the world from sin? Hardly. That’s a bunch of very canny editors who know how to sell papers by giving people stories they want to read.

In corporations, hospitals, law firms, engineering groups--everywhere you turn, in fact--ethics organizations are mushrooming up. These days, annual conferences of professional societies routinely include sessions on ethics. They tend to be packed--and lively.

Several years ago, in doing a book for The Christian Science Monitor, I asked a group of leading thinkers around the world to identify the most pressing issues on the agenda for the 21st century. Among the six big ones capable of destroying the future if unaddressed, they put ethics. Right up there with a nuclear catastrophe or an environmental disaster, in other words, was a breakdown in moral values.

A recent provocative report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, drawing together information from numerous sources, asserts that “the moral fiber of our country is weakening,” especially among the young. The fact that the report generated an astonishing amount of media coverage, including some vehement objections and retorts, shows yet again the public appetite for ethical discussion.

So we’re in an odd predicament. On one hand, many schools stand pat on their no-teach commandment. On the other hand, the world beyond the schools clamors for more discussion of ethics. To be sure, some school districts are beginning to explore “character education,” often with pleasantly surprising results. There’s even a Congressional bill calling for the establishment of a national commission on values education, which would actively “promote the teaching of values in American schools.” Even so, the mismatch between school and society persists.

How to close the gap? That brings us to the point. Unless one fundamental problem is corrected, any effort to promote character education will meet with only modest success. Simply stated, that problem is ethical relativism--the entrenched conviction that all values are relative, that there is no body of universal principles upon which to stand, and that ethics is always fluid, negotiable, situational. Unless that problem is faced squarely, the ethics of ensuing generations will continue to fray.

It’s not that we haven’t tried teaching a kind of “relative” ethics. Remember the once-faddish “values neutral” curriculum? That experiment taught a valuable lesson: that there’s a world of difference between so-called “values clarification” and the formulation of principles by which to live. There’s a difference, in other words, between talking about ethics and being ethical. On that subject, Gary Edwards of the Ethics Resource Center in Washington says it best. “With that kind of ethics teaching and a gun,” he quips, “you can rob the 7-Eleven.”

But isn’t ethics always relative? Not at all. The pedagogy of ethical relativism hardly arose until early in this century. It was then, according to the British historian Paul Johnson, that a combination of Freud and Marx, overlaid with a misconstruction of Einsteinian relativity that presumed there were no longer any universal principles, gave rise to what he calls “moral anarchy.” Prior to that, he notes in Modern Times, “the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty toward a settled and objectively true moral code,” was “at the very center of 19th-century European civilization.”

That’s not to argue for a return to Victorianism, with its stifling mannerisms and intolerant narrowness. It’s merely to argue for honest reappraisal. Have we not, perhaps, been led intellectually astray? Are there not, possibly, a handful of moral precepts that operate universally--rather like the speed of light, or Planck’s constant, or Avogadro’s number--no matter what culture you might inhabit?

Yes, says Professor Ron Howard, who teaches ethics at Stanford University. His favorite precept concerns property rights, codified in Judeo-Christian traditions as the commandment against stealing. Is that universal? Well, he says, try parachuting yourself into some unknown country. Walk up to the first person you see. Take away whatever he or she is holding. Run away with it, and see what happens. Presto: You’ve discovered the principle of property rights. You didn’t impose it on the natives through your own belief system. You found it.

Since disproving a generality requires only one example, Professor Howard’s case opens worlds of promise. Are there other principles? Well, how about doing to others what you want them to do to you? We in the West think of it as Biblical and call it the Golden Rule, unaware that the Bible never uses that phrase. It comes instead from Confucius, who formulated the identical rule--which, by the way, is also found in the Talmud, the Koran, and the writings of Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and the rest of the world’s great religions.

Those are two principles, then, with a fair claim to universality. I suspect we could go on--through honesty, fairness, justice, no resort to fraud, no violence, respect for elders, integrity, and a host of others. But that’s not the point. What matters is to recognize that a body of principles can indeed be defined that will do no violence to community standards, will offend no moral or intellectual sensibilities, and can be taught.

And, I would add, must be taught. If modern society is delivering one message to the school, it is this: You’ve got to help the next generation become more ethical. Sure, you’ve also got to teach them to reason, to compute, to analyze. And you’ve got to help them combat our immediate problems--drugs, teenage pregnancy, abuse, homelessness, and the rest. But those are just symptoms of an underlying set of values, or lack of values, that fosters such problems. You’ve got to go deeper.

The message, in short, is that ethics is not a luxury. It’s as essential to our survival as clean water and sunlight. Not to teach ethics--explicitly, winningly, and steadily--is to compound the very problems we’re struggling to overcome.

Honor Codes: Teaching Integrity and Interdependence

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 28, April 3, 1991, p 31

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Honor Codes: Teaching Integrity and Interdependence

By Lewis Cobbs

Halfway through his senior year, Greg is not sure he wants to complete his precollegiate education at the competitive independent school he entered as a kindergartner.

With the backing of several of his classmates, Greg recently reported four of his peers for cheating. The results of the test in question appeared to corroborate the allegation. When confronted, however, the accused students denied the charge; judged guilty and suspended by a disciplinary committee of students and teachers, they threatened the school with legal action. And when the headmaster still refused to alter the decision, the offenders and their parents offered to “plea bargain” the case. What mattered most to them, it seemed, was not the original question of academic honesty or even the larger issues of character, but rather the possible repercussions of any action on college-admission decisions.

The case stirred controversy among the school’s students. A disturbingly common ethic among adolescents dictated the response of many: According to this outlook--which might be called the “Milli Vanilli syndrome"--the ends of personal gain or fame justify means perceived as questionable only because risky; the offenders in the cheating episode deserved to be punished not so much because they did something wrong as because they were caught. And while a sizable contingent supported Greg, an equally large number felt that, by violating the immemorial code among young people against “ratting,” he had committed a more grievous offense than the cheaters’.

Greg’s own distress resulted less from the isolation and bullying he has had to endure than from disillusionnment with his peers’ values and frustration with the school’s inability to respond quickly and decisively to such situations.

Ironically, in a year when the school had suspended its long-dormant honor system for review, these events underlined the usefulness of just such a guideline as a vital element in moral education.

In deference to the cultural diversity of their student bodies and the moral relativism of the times, most public schools and many nonparochial private schools forgo explicit efforts to teach values. If they address ethical issues at all, they are more likely to do so in a format that, without advocating any value as “right,” exposes students to different sets of beliefs, or teaches ways of anaylzing moral questions and defending alternative resolutions.

To the ears of many, the term “honor” itself sounds archaic, and the designation “honor code” connotes an elitist, vaguely militaristic outlook that is long outmoded and better left dead and buried, like the hero of a lost cause. But the principles of adademic honesty defy cultural boundaries and historical eras. Beyond providing a means of enforcing academic accountability, honor systems can foster in students respect for ideas, for classmates and teachers, and for themselves; they can teach integrity.

The proposition of honor codes is clear and elegant: that ideas belong to those who create and articulate them; that to submit work that is not one’s own is to insult the efforts of one’s peers; that to claim the thoughts or works of another as one’s own is to steal from the originator and to deceive those to whom the material is presented; that to cheat or lie or steal--ideas or property--is to degrade oneself.

And just as important, honor sytems clarify and reinforce the practice of community: Students learn that responsibility for maintaining values shared by a group must lie with each of its members, and that violations undercut trust not just in the offender but among all those connected with the school. When they work properly, the systems function as much more than mere means of identifying and punishing cheaters; they become methods of education in human interdependence.

Indeed, since schools cannot assume any sort of shared ethic among their entering students, honor codes must take education, in all senses of the word, as their first charge. For many young people, participation in an honor system will initially be based on compulsion rather than choice: Whether or not they have selected the school they attend, it imposes its standards on them. Explanation of attitudes that may be new to many must be unambiguous and convincing,enforcement consistent.

And from the start, students must teach students. Even in schools with active honor systems, the commonplace adversarial attitude of young people toward teachers prevails when students’ voices are subordinated to adults'--and teenagers perceive the system as simply one more weapon for repressing their individuality. To see why they should accept an honor code, students must be directly involved in its operation.

The steps by which honor systems are instituted and run should mirror these principles of education and student involvement. Primary responsibility for teaching the values of academic honesty and reviewing violations typically rests with a committee consisting of students elected by their peers and teachers appointed by the school head. Students constitute a majority, and the committee is chaired by a student. The faculty membership guides and counsels; it shares the accumulated experience of the school and of individual adults but does not dictate decisions.

Teaching should occur regularly in both large-group (grade level or entire student body) and small-group (homeroom or advisee cluster) meetings. Student members of the honor committee lead all sessions, with the presence and support of teachers. While the frequency of such meetings will vary depending on the needs of the school, they should take place, if at no other times, during the opening days of the term and during examination weeks or other periods of heavy testing.

In addition, honor committees may publicly announce and explain briefly any actions they have taken. The purpose of this step is to educate students about the nature and gravity of acts that might be considered honor offenses, not further to punish or humiliate guilty parties. To protect the latter, their names can and should be withheld, and the announcements made on a regulary scheduled (monthly or quarterly), rather than an ad hoc basis.

At appropriate times during the year--for instance, as a class begins work on a research paper--teachers review particular points of the code as they apply to the task at hand. On each written assignment, students pledge that they have neither given nor received assistance.

Beyond their strictures against cheating, lying, and stealing, honor codes may require students to report offenses they witness. Such a provision, at which even some of the most zealous of a system’s student supporters may balk, is virtually impossible to enforce. There is no sadder testimony to the narcissistic relativism of the times than the common rationalization among students that “it’s up to them to catch us; why should we turn each other in if teachers don’t see what’s going on?” And even the best-intentioned of young people will often hesitate to report a violation when one consequence will be ostracism. Moral courage is just as rare among adolescents as it is among adults--and its absence more easily forgiven.

But even as schools concede that many students who respect the honor system will nonetheless falter on this point, they should also recognize its symbolic importance: No other component of the code can suggest so clearly that academic honor is a set of values fostered within and among individuals, rather than a disciplinary regimen imposed from without. If an honor system is to be the foundation for a self-regulating community of trust, the willingness of students to participate in its sometimes painful responsibilities is crucial.

Even the most effective honor system will not eliminate cheating or lying, nor will it obviate the need for vigilance by faculty members. This approach’s emphasis on education, after all, rests on the premise that lapses are likely and that growth is nourished by experience and instruction. But with the moral guidance imparted by honor sytems, young people can gain an understanding vital to their flowering as adults: that the good of others--as individuals or as group--is also their own good.

Lewis Cobbs, formerly Commentary editor of Education Week, is chairman of the English department at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 1991 edition of Education Week as Ethics Is Not a Luxury; It’s Essential to Our Survival


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