Education Opinion

Teaching Integrity: The Boundaries of Moral Education

By Edwin J. Delattre — September 05, 1990 8 min read

It is, after all, possible to train and habituate the young with respect, generosity of spirit, and intellectual honesty. It is possible to help the young learn habits of integrity without “imposition” and it is possible to teach them and help them learn to think with real acumen and rigor.

Teachers and administrators who object to moral education express fear of stirring unwanted controversy within diverse student populations and families. Some refuse, as a matter of principle, to teach values--on the grounds that moral education destroys separation of church and state. Others insist that “it would be dangerous, sad, and boring to have one view of morality imposed on our people.”

No one familiar with programs that have been foisted upon schools, teachers, and students under the banner of “values” or “moral” education can be entirely unsympathetic to these fears and concerns.

Some programs, such as “values clarification,” are based on a mindless reduction of morality to a matter of personal and arbitrary taste. Students are taught that whether you like genocide or bigotry is roughly the same as whether you like broccoli. Schools are clearly better off avoiding such dangerous folly, especially because these programs teach students nothing about the real nature of principled judgment and conduct.

Other programs are impositional, in the sense that they make pronouncements about morality that are ill-informed, dogmatic, and highly questionable. I have seen students told that there are clear litmus tests for identifying decent people--including where they stand on the rightness of abortion, of homosexuality, or of specific U.S. foreign policies.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Such pronouncements thwart students’ learning the undeniable fact that decent and conscientious people can disagree about complex questions of conduct and policy. They are therefore an affront to intellectual honesty and do not belong in schools. Programs with this tone mislead in another way: students deserve to learn that no matter what views individuals hold on complex questions, they may still be deplorable people in their habits of daily life and therefore unworthy of respect and admiration. After all, a person who betrays the trust of others through insider trading is contemptible no matter where he or she stands on abortion.

What this array of harmful and benighted programs shows is that “moral education” can be and frequently has been done badly. But since virtually everyone knew that already, this was never one of the fundamental questions about moral education.

The fundamental questions for centuries have been these:

  • What is morality?
  • Can morality be taught?
  • Can morality be learned?
  • Can adults possibly avoid influencing the moral habits and attitudes of the children and youths who keep company with them?

Despite popular prejudices and confusions, these are not unanswerable questions. Broadly put, morality is the achievement of good character and of the aspiration to be the best person you can be. But what is good character and what kind of person should one aspire to become?

The answers are that a good person is one who has integrity and that all of us should aspire to achieve integrity as fully as we can. Literally, integrity means wholeness--being one person in public and private, living in faithfulness to one set of principles whether or not anyone is watching. Integrity is to a person as homogenization is to milk--a single consistency throughout.

But this answer remains too general, because a person can, unfortunately, have bad character in both public and private; a person can be rotten in dealing with strangers and family alike. So, what kind of wholeness is genuine integrity and thus worthy of respect and emulation?

First, it is the habit of treating other people fairly--giving them equal initial consideration--just because they are people, and without regard to race or ethnicity or gender. The habit of recognizing other people as important in themselves--and not as objects to be used merely for our own gratification--is called justice. It means being able to see things from inside the skin of other people, and no one can do that who hates others because of their skin. It also means making decisions from the principle that everyone deserves to be treated fairly by our daily conduct. Where the habit of justice becomes second nature, it inspires the habit of compassion--the habit of real sensitivity to the pain or suffering of others.

Second, it is the habit of controlling ourselves amid promises of pleasure, and of confining ourselves to healthful pleasures that are not selfishly sought at the expense of others. This habit is called temperance.

Third, it is the habit of controlling ourselves amid threats of pain or loss--facing up to clear duties even when doing so risks adverse peer pressure or loss of some other kind. This is the habit of courage, and it must be distinguished from cowardice and also from the recklessness to which the young are frequently inclined.

Fourth, it is the habit of gathering evidence conscientiously and relying on it in reaching conclusions and decisions, and the habit of not using deception to manipulate other people for ulterior purposes. These are the habits of intellectual and moral honesty.

Now, suppose that a person achieves such habits, achieves a substantial degree of integrity. Where will that person stand on abortion? Is it right? Is it wrong? Should it be illegal? Where will the person stand on affirmative action--on the ascription of rights to individuals and of rights to groups?

We cannot know where the person will stand. We can know only that the person will take such questions seriously and seek to answer them conscientiously and with rigorous, logical reasoning and deliberation. We can know that the person will extend humility toward others who are likewise decent enough to be serious. We can know that a person of integrity will understand that morality is above all a matter of taking life and its conduct seriously and will feel kinship toward others who show such seriousness in their lives. This, students should have the chance to witness and to grasp.

Can morality be taught? Can it be learned? Since achieving integrity or character excellence is a matter of forming habits, and since both good and bad habits can be formed only by repeating actions over and over again, morality cannot be taught. But because people can become habituated by repeated behavior under responsible and loving training and supervision, the habits of morality can be learned.

Moreover, it is only when such habits have been learned, when the habit of giving consideration to other people has become second nature, that anyone can recognize moral problems, issues, and dilemmas as problems worthy of attention and reflection. For a person who has achieved no habits of justice or temperance or courage, questions of whether to take unfair advantage of others, where to stand on abortion, whether to use illegal drugs, whether to go along with the prevailing fashions of peer pressure, and so on, are not questions at all. At most, conversation about them will be only a word game--perhaps a contest to see who can be most clever--insubstantial and without meaning or consequence.

It is for this reason that putative moral education consisting of classroom discussion of controversial issues and putative dilemmas begs all questions of moral decency and moral motivation. Real moral deliberation presupposes learning habits of integrity; what can be taught is the principles of intellectual rigor and reliable thought as they are applied to questions of all kinds--in philosophy, the sciences, history, literature, theology, and all the other disciplines of inquiry and discovery. This, surely, no administrator, teacher, or school worthy of the name would ever seek to evade. Neither would any responsible educator shirk teaching that respect for pluralism and disagreement does not embrace mindless tolerance of behavior and attitudes that are transparently unjust (such as racist supremacism of every kind), or selfishly intemperate (such as violent criminality against others), or manipulatively dishonest (such as cover-ups of corruption), and so on.

Finally, is it possible for adults to be value neutral, to avoid all influence in the formation of the moral and intellectual habits and attitudes of the young? The answer is obviously no. As the great classicist and teacher, Gilbert Highet, put the point, "[I]t is impossible to have children without teaching them. Beat them, coddle them, ignore them, force-feed them, shun them or worry about them, love them or hate them, you are still teaching them something, all the time.”

Most teachers know that they teach about right and wrong by the way they behave. Teachers who behave as if they were value neutral in the presence of the young succeed only in teaching their students that they are being deceptive, probably manipulative. Some students will infer, perhaps unjustly, that their teachers are both liars and cowards. And the more astute students will soon see that attempting to convey value neutrality as an appropriate way to believe and behave condemns life to triviality and education to insignificance, thereby becoming as thoroughly impositional as any other uncritical dogmatism.

It is, after all, possible to train and habituate the young with respect, generosity of spirit, and intellectual honesty. It is possible to help the young learn habits of integrity without “imposition” and it is possible to teach them and help them learn to think with real acumen and rigor.

If their teachers, who are supposed to care about them, and their parents, who are supposed to love them, do not take life that seriously, then the young will learn their habits from the streets, from demagogues, and from entertainment and commercial media that neither care about them nor love them. That is a consequence no adult of integrity can be willing to tolerate.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Teaching Integrity: The Boundaries of Moral Education