Talk of the Good Is Good Talk

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By overwhelming majorities, pollsters tell us, parents and teachers support moral instruction in school. Yet despite this endorsement, many educators remain skittish about making moral teaching a curriculum priority. What appears troubling to them is the judgmental nature of morality--good implies bad; moral, immoral; virtue, vice. Teachers want to restrict their judging, so they circumscribe their evaluative language. "Good," for example, is used comfortably when embedded in specific behaviors, such as "good reading," or "good work." The "good" in such instances, however, refers to the execution of nonmoral accomplishments (fluent reading, correct work). In the same way, teachers will say to a child, "I like the way you read," or "I like the way you work," supplementing performance approval with personal approval. But this, too, is not moral approval.

Educators also may make moral comments in the context of classroom management, when the child has engaged in a specifically "bad" or "good" act. For example, a child grabs a jar of paste. The teacher reminds her, "You need to share." Or a child, when requested, offers to assist another with his reading, and the teacher comments, "You were good to help Tommy." Although these comments are in the moral domain--the goodness of sharing, the goodness of helping--goodness is incidental to the lessons. The curriculum objectives are pasting and reading, the moralizing is opportunistic, unplanned. Under such circumstances, the child presumably learns that in particular contexts, when asked, you share and help. But she may not know whether you are expected to share your paste even when not asked, or whether sharing, like reading, is of overriding importance.

Commending good acts that occur within the school day is not the same as promoting goodness as a school aim. Had morality an equivalent status to academics, then teachers would select activities because of their potential for promoting moral instruction--as reading a book is selected to promote literacy. And they would refer to "being good" or "being kind," as they refer to "reading well"--the meeting of a standard.

The self-restriction on moral language, because it is judgmental, ignores the obvious fact that school personnel are in the constant business of judging children, both what they do and who they are. They judge a child's reading and writing performance; they judge the appropriateness of a child's conduct. They make broader judgments on a child's overall literacy level, general behavioral status, and even his intelligence and mental health.

Moral language unquestionably can be abused.

It seems obvious that the words we use to talk about children alert us to the traits we value and, arguably, the words we use contribute to the development of those traits. For example, it is hard to imagine that using the term "intelligence" does not draw children's attention to our valuation of it, and equally improbable that given its importance to our society we will stop using it. If moral education is a high priority of educators and parents--as pollsters suggest--isn't it essential that we use moral language in our daily dealings with children? While there are valid reasons for our uneasiness, if we are genuinely determined to increase children's moral sensitivity, avoiding moral language also exacts a cost.

One objection to advocating a self-conscious focus on the moral domain, as opposed to a limited focus on particular behaviors, is that moral discourse is often so vague. What does it mean to say "good," "respectful," and "responsible"? Does it mean children should follow the class rules, even if they are unfair? Submit to a teacher when falsely accused? Be tolerant of a bully? The club of moral language could be wielded to enforce some very unsavory practices. One easily can imagine the abuse of a child in the name of teacher "respect" or, in the name of "responsibility," forced obedience to a classroom convention contrary to one's cultural practices. By taking it upon themselves to pass moral judgments, professionals may act to destroy inquiry, independence, nonconformity and, most seriously, stigmatize minority and dissenting groups. Inadvertently, they will promote the very intolerance they want to deter. Are we then not better off describing behaviors or using moral terms in carefully circumscribed contexts--as in "you are good to share the paste"--and avoid broader, more transcendent use of "the good"?

Moral language unquestionably can be abused. Its use to increase moral sensitivity in the classroom assumes a general community consensus, or the forging of such a consensus, on core moral values--one of which, of course, is tolerance. If sharing and helping, honesty and tolerance are not core community values, then a teacher cannot promote them as examples of goodness. However, the experience of character educators is that while there may be disagreement around the edges of the moral domain, where relative "goods" conflict (sometimes a lie may be justified out of compassion), communities, in general, agree on basic values. Further, it is only by bringing moral talk into the light of day that we can explore our differences.

Another criticism of moral terms is that they burden children with feelings of shame and guilt; shame and guilt undermine the sense of self-worth and extinguish initiative. A child's constant concern over doing what is expected may even, perversely, inhibit the development of a rational autonomous conscience, just the opposite of what guilt is supposed to effect. Contemporary mental-health experts caution educators to avoid instilling guilt whenever possible.

Amitai Etzioni, in his widely quoted book The Spirit of Community, engages this issue. He describes a psychiatrist at a conference on bone-marrow transplants who argues that it is not proper to ask someone to donate bone marrow to his sibling, even though the procedure is risk-free. Why? Because if the sibling refuses, you might be inducing guilt. Mr. Etzioni disagrees: It is right to ask, and the refusing sibling should feel guilty. Guilt and shame are important control mechanisms; they alert the conscience to action, much as pain alerts one to seek treatment for injury or illness. And just as the anticipation of pain increases the likelihood that we will avoid an injury and prevent an illness, so too the anticipation of shame and guilt increase our inclination to avoid wrongdoing and to act rightfully.

Of course, moral talk and the guilt it engenders can be excessive, but should that possibility inhibit reasonable use of moral language?

On the other side of the ledger, an increased infusion of moral language has much to offer children. Morality can begin to compete with other values: money, possessions, peer approval, chemical and sexual highs. Striving to become a worthy moral agent offers children another set of ambitions to consider, another track to self-fulfillment and self-esteem. Not everyone can get A's or be a star athlete, not everyone can be in the popular crowd, but everyone can cultivate virtue, though it is not easy ... and that very difficulty can increase a child's satisfaction. In many of his books, Robert Coles describes the delicious joy, the profound satisfaction children find in their moral and spiritual lives.

Striving to become a worthy moral agent offers children another set of ambitions to consider, another track to self-fulfillment and self-esteem.

Educators who increase their use of moral language are likely to be more vigilant in monitoring their own morality. They would ask themselves, and struggle with, the purpose and justification for their actions. Teachers concerned with moral issues inspire the respect of students; respectful students are better learners.

Finally, consider the consequences of raising children who are without an operative moral language. A graduate student in education recently told me she thought it foolish to study or talk about moral values. They were irrelevant to her professional life. I asked her if, as a teacher, she never reacted to bullies and victims, or to the kindly generous act? "Of course," she responded, "but that is part of my classroom management, not my morality." Unaware of the link, she was also unaware of the moral values, choices, questions, and lessons implicit in her "management" techniques.

A decent society requires a shared understanding of, and language about, good and bad. Without such a language, even productive disputation is not possible; there is nothing "there" about which to dispute. Values are transmitted through vigorous talk, as well as action, and may fade away if not given voice.

The less a language is used, the more awkward it begins to sound. In today's climate, there are those who feel less priggish, prudish, and self-righteous engaging in sex talk than in moral talk. Yet, as with sexuality, the consequence of keeping silent is that acts not discussed become ignored or take on exaggerated importance. Instead of seeing moral lapses as daily mistakes to be conscious of and to correct, they are either overlooked or highly privatized. Is it not ironic that we avoid moral talk in school because the moral domain is too sacrosanct and, by so doing, risk its becoming irrelevant?

Vol. 17, Issue 4, Pages 32, 35

Published in Print: September 24, 1997, as Talk of the Good Is Good Talk
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