Teaching About Values Called Key Part of Schooling

By Cindy Currence — March 14, 1984 4 min read

New York--Schools that do not teach values and ethics are doing their students a disservice, several speakers told members of the National Association of Independent Schools at a conference here early this month.

Although the conference included sessions on topics ranging from “microcomputer options in science instruction” to “the emotional and social needs of early adolescents,” the themes of ethics, values, and moral education arose in many of the sessions, said Anne Rosenfeld, spokesman for the association.

“The big trend now is in teaching ethics and morality in schools,” Ms. Rosenfeld said, “and that went right through the conference.”

No ‘Value-Neutral’ Education

Although some speakers suggested that private-school educators may have more license to discuss values with students than do their colleagues in public schools, others argued in broad terms that the education of all students must include exposure to ethical and moral questions.

“We cannot have a value-neutral education,” Ernest L. Boyer, presi-dent of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and author of High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, told conference participants.

“Communicating values is at the very heart of education, whether it takes place in a Catholic school, a Jewish school, a military academy, a Baptist institution, or Public School 118,” Mr. Boyer said.

“The social and moral imperative of education is to help all students see the connectedness of things, an insight that touches the very foundation of morality--social, personal, and religious,” he said.

Mr. Boyer advocated teaching students to understand “that there are no solitary, free-living creatures” and that every form of life is dependent on all other forms. By examining questions such as “How can we reduce the poisons in the atmosphere?” and “Can we have a proper balance between population and the life-support system of this planet?,” Mr. Boyer said, students will see the “connections” and gain moral and ethical perspectives.

Touching a ‘Raw Nerve’

In a later interview, Mr. Boyer said that both public and private schools have obstacles to overcome in discussing moral and social issues in classrooms.

If the implications of information are explored beyond the basic “facts,” Mr. Boyer said, “it may touch a raw nerve in a person or a community.” For example, he said, a course in earth science may lead to discussions about the nuclear plant down the street.’

“And then a parent might say, ‘Why are they teaching the politics of that? Why aren’t they teaching the basics?’ I do think that public-school teachers and administrators work in a more difficult climate at times,” Mr. Boyer said, “but most private schools also have their own constraints. I do not think that one sector has a corner on values and the other is impoverished.”

Critical Thinking Needed

In another session at the conference, Robert Swartz, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, discussed the role educators can play in fostering the process of critical thinking about current moral and social issues, such as the nuclear-arms race.

“If we in our schools do not do much to help students think through these issues, we are doing them a great disservice,” Mr. Swartz said.

Several teachers, expressing concern that as authority figures they would unduly influence their students’ thinking, asked Mr. Swartz how to respond to students who demand to know the teacher’s point of view when the class discusses controversial issues.

“If a kid asks your view, you should tell them what it is,” Mr. Swartz advised them, adding that a teacher should explain the controversial nature of the issue and offer balancing viewpoints.

Moral Leadership

Moral leadership involves every aspect of school life from plant management to curriculum planning, said Barbara E. Jones in another session.

Ms. Jones is the director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools, an independent membership organization that develops religious curricula and community-service programs.

“What you are trickles down,” she said. “I am struck by this nearly tangible quality as I visit hundreds of schools each year. You set the tone and climate. Within a short time on campus, I can sense something of the person, character, and moral strengths of the school head.’'

In another discussion, school leaders talked about the discrepancies between what promotional literature promises and what a school is actually able to deliver. Because the values schools themselves represent are revealed by such practices, Ms. Jones called on conference participants to be “ethical” in characterizing their offerings.

The annual meeting, the association’s twenty-second such event, drew an international group of more than 7,500 independent-school educators, according to Ms. Rosenfeld. It was the largest conference in nais history, she said.

Ms. Rosenfeld attributed the large turnout from the group’s 1,000 member schools to the quality of the conference program and the fact that it was held on the East Coast, which has a large concentration of independent schools.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 1984 edition of Education Week as Teaching About Values Called Key Part of Schooling