Teaching Virtue

What We Have Learned

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K-12 teachers are being called on to intensify their efforts in teaching ethics and character to students.

At the same time that K-12 teachers are being called on to intensify their efforts in teaching ethics and character to students, we must all--teachers and officials, university scholars, and parents--pay informed and close attention, so that what takes place in the classroom under the heading of ethics education makes a genuine difference.

Based on 15 years of experience in implementing programs on ethics and character education in the schools, I can identify four of the most important issues that we must address in any program aimed at cultivating good character in our young people. These four issues run very deep. Solutions to them will take much discussion and resolve.

Of first concern is teaching. Too many willing and wonderful educators attempt to teach ethics without the requisite background and study. This ineffective time with students can never be retrieved. Teachers have far more impact in discussing private decency and virtue with their students when they are themselves well-grounded in the subject (have studied, thought about, conferred with colleagues and others, and written about ethics and character).

This is the biggest mistake that most schools make in initiating character education programs: They try to reinvent the wheel. Those character traits that will lead to human beings' pursuing the most fully flourishing lives have been the subject of intense study by the best minds for three thousand years: Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Kant, William James. From such study, other telling works from, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., Hannah Arendt, Arthur Ashe, Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, Simone Weil, and Abigail Adams, make more sense and become a powerful part of daily lesson plans.

How can teachers engage in serious discussions with their students if they cannot adequately explain the meaning of such words as ethics, virtue, courage, justice, self-control, wisdom, friendship, cynicism, skepticism, relativism, and dilemma? Words matter. Enriching classroom discussions with personal experiences and excerpts from Nien Cheng, Franz Kafka's and Pablo Neruda's short stories about friendship, Arthur Lobel's stories about "Frog and Toad," Aristotle's findings about friendship in Book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, or, by using segments from videotapes of such films as "Groundhog Day" and "Pinocchio," also matters.

Strangely, a few so-called experts and consultants have whipped themselves into a frenzy attacking former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his books on character, including The Book of Virtues. These critics are silly. My teachers consistently report that their students, grades K-12, love the stories from Mr. Bennett's resources, request that they be read to them, and understand that these literary works from around the world are relevant to their lives. Teachers must be prepared to draw on such stories when engaged in planned and anticipated discussions with their students about topics such as "What is compassion and how does it differ from sentimentality?" and "How does the doctrine of the mean fit with a definition of 'courage'?'' A teacher discussing courage with students could use, for example, a short story, "Sailing Against the Wind," then tie this to a film clip of the bus scene in "Forrest Gump," and later apply the virtue of courage in terms of Aristotle's descriptions of rashness and cowardice to "Horatius at the Bridge." Teachers must challenge and encourage students to practice courage in their everyday lives. Students who regularly spurn discussions or actions that humiliate other students or who ask that such discussions and actions cease are practicing good habits.

Teachers should participate regularly in service projects, so they are informed when they encourage their students to cultivate good habits of action.

Students also enjoy learning from cartoons, articles related to current events, and their own experiences and observations. Many teachers are still unaware of the useful materials on ethics published in issues of The American Educator (the journal of the American Federation of Teachers) in the early 1980s.

Teachers should not be hesitant or embarrassed to draw heavily on the best that Western thought has provided. The West borrowed from other cultures and continues to be our primary heritage. Given this base, students with other backgrounds should be drawn out to discuss virtues in their cultures: Students will soon see they have a great deal in common. In addition, teachers should participate regularly in service projects, so they are informed when they encourage their students to cultivate good habits of action. Without this grounding, class discussions quickly focus on the public issues of the day: "What do you think about abortion?"; simulations such as "You are in a lifeboat ... "; enthusiastic chatter similar to "What do you feel ... ?"; or instruction via a ''teacher proof'' set of published lessons including "Ask the student what he likes to do ... " What really works better is a serious and informed discussion regarding the significance of private decency in our students' lives. When I observe my teachers responding to students, leading a discussion, or seizing a teaching moment related to ethics and character, I can see clearly the difference in the quality of the discussions that comes from their having participated in the school's annual summer seminars with national scholars versed in these subjects.

Far too many well-meaning and serious teachers have not been prepared by their university experiences to take on such a powerful and important area of teaching. If most schools of education--and their colleagues in the liberal arts colleges--do not prepare the nation's future teachers to teach effectively about ethics and character, matters will certainly grow worse. Institutions without a core curriculum for prospective teachers in their schools of arts and sciences contribute heavily to the problem. Boston University's school of education has an unusual course for its undergraduates that I highly recommend. Prospective teachers study significant texts, such as Virgil's Aeneid and Plato's Republic; develop plans and their teaching craft to teach those texts; draw on art from Boston-area museums; and practice teaching the texts to real students. These undergraduates share and learn from their experiences. Prospective teachers are thus prepared for the challenges associated with the teaching of ethics--in these cases, the teaching of self-control and justice.

Even if the teachers are well prepared to discuss virtue with their students, though, how many teachers in a school are really involved? Questions must be asked and attempts made to develop a critical mass of teachers in a school who make a collective difference in teaching ethics to students, so that ideas might stick. One or two teachers who teach ethics in a school building are about as effective as one or two teachers who attempt to enforce the dress code and the rule about gum-chewing. The entire school community must make a commitment to the idea that there are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, that those behaviors make a difference in the life of the classroom and the school as well as the students' own lives, and that if the acceptable forms of conduct are taught early on and consistently--within a partnership including the students' "first teachers," their parents--the odds improve that good habits will be formed.

Too many willing and wonderful educators attempt to teach ethics without the requisite background and study.

Most of the schools that do not make such a commitment, I have found, include a lineup of teachers who (a) are not well-grounded in content, serious, and consistent about teaching ethics and character to their students; (b) know they should be engaged in such teaching and don't feel confident or competent to do so; (c) feel that they are already teaching ethics and character and don't need any special training or background; and (d) are suspicious of the idea of identifying right and wrong--after all, "Who is to say?" This latter attitude seems to be more prevalent with private school administrators and teachers than those in the public schools. Be wary of any school that announces that "the total school teaches ethics and character." The truth of the matter is that a few teachers are doing it well and when they leave, the program generally collapses. A few are "waving at it," many are resisting for various reasons, and many teachers and students have no idea it is happening at all.

It is "common knowledge" among teachers and administrators that ethics and character education programs should and do lean heavily toward integration with what teachers are already using for literature and activities and lean less on formal courses. My experience tells me that programs should include integration in all disciplines, include minicourses and formal courses beginning in grade 6, and draw on opportunities such as assemblies, adviser programs, the arts, outdoor education, and athletics. Comprehensive programs should also include activities that encourage students to practice good habits as well as offer a periodic, formal parent course. Parents should know and support (or question) what is being taught to their children. In other words, virtue should be talked about routinely in different settings throughout the school.

Most schools and programs do not establish a framework, a reference for all teaching and learning about ethics and character. Students do not understand that what they are discussing and doing has a lot to do with how they will live their lives. At my school, our framework is explained to students in this way: Students, if you are to have a good life, you must attempt to lead a good life. To lead a good life at home, at school, and later on, you must develop character. You cannot buy character; you must work on it every day. You know you are on the right track in developing character when you meet the definition of "integrity"--that you act the same in public as you do in private. To develop character, you must cultivate your intellect (read literature about right actions) and cultivate good habits (treat others fairly and be of service to others).

These four areas--grounding teachers in the study of ethics, including the entire teaching community, integrating study into every aspect of the school, and providing a framework for students' understanding of what they are learning--must be areas of concern for all educators and parents who realize how important it is that our students know and practice good habits of thought and action. There is a difference between "wishing" that a school were teaching ethics and character and "willing" that education to happen.

Vol. 17, Issue 21, Pages 46, 52

Published in Print: February 4, 1998, as Teaching Virtue
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