Making Room for Moral Questions In the Classroom

If it is true that everything is different after Sept. 11, then let us use this moment to reflect on what constitutes a meaningful education.

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In one of my first years of high school teaching, I asked my students to memorize and recite some lines from "Macbeth," which we were studying. On the day the memorization assignment was due, one of the students called out the following lines from her seat:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

I then did what I understood to be my job as an English teacher: I helped the students understand the definitions of the words "struts," "frets," and "signifying." I asked them to comment on the central metaphor, in which "life" is compared to an actor. We pounded out the rhythm of the lines on our desks, noting that the first, fourth, and fifth lines do not fall neatly into iambic pentameter and discussing why Shakespeare might have departed from his norm for these lines. We had a passably interesting discussion about the meter and the words.

If it is true that everything is different after Sept. 11, then let us use this moment to reflect on what constitutes a meaningful education.

Neither I nor my students, however, thought to discuss the heart of the passage, the real questions being raised here: What are we to make of human pain and suffering? What meaning does life have? I knew that English teachers were supposed to teach about figures of speech and vocabulary, and I knew how to do that. I was neither equipped nor expected to explore what it means to be human. And so our discussion stayed safely out of the realm of meaning and morality. Focusing on the play's external structures rather than on its existential core, I unfortunately ignored the very elements of the play that I myself find most important and exciting and that I believe might have held most interest for my students.

The approach that I took to teaching "Macbeth"—"teaching" the technical aspects of the subject rather than exploring its significance for me and my students—is all too familiar to anyone who has spent time in middle and high school classes. What John Goodlad reported over a decade ago remains true: the preponderance of classroom activity involves "listening, reading textbooks, completing workbooks and worksheets, and taking quizzes"—not discussing important issues. Across the curriculum, students are graded on "the recall and feedback of memorized information—multiple choice, true or false, matching like things, and filling in the missing words or phrases."

As we attempt to make sense of and respond to the tragedies of Sept. 11 and the current war in Afghanistan, we see more clearly how much we value the ability to think deeply about moral and existential questions. We see more clearly the importance of our children having the tools to grapple with the questions that occupy us now—and that have always formed the core of the subject matters we teach. But though we cherish the ability to deliberate thoughtfully, most teachers, myself included, have not conceived of our role as "facilitators of explorations of moral and existential questions."

Much of the context of schooling today promotes the idea that school subjects are essentially things-to-know.

We have not seen ourselves in this way partly because it is not immediately obvious that big, morally charged questions do form the core of the subjects we teach. Indeed, much of the context of schooling promotes the idea that school subjects are essentially lists of things-to-know. As Arthur Applebee asserts in his critique of the current curriculum, curriculum planning usually begins "with an inventory of important skills and concepts." In this model, teachers must be deliverers of information, focused on "covering" material, focused on particular facts and skills. In the past few years, teachers have been pressed to deliver the information ever more quickly and efficiently, to help students pass ubiquitous and fateful standardized tests.

But if it is true, as so many have said, that everything is different now, then let us use this moment to reflect on what constitutes a meaningful education, on what it means to be an educated person. The truth is that the most important intellectual and moral achievements require the development of habits of mind—traits such as empathizing with people whose experience differs from our own, seeking out multiple strategies to resolve conflict, being able to collaborate with others, knowing where to find more information, asking original questions, reflecting on and learning from experience—that are not fostered by the rush to cover the contents of our textbooks and syllabuses.

We need not continue to conceive of our curriculum as a long list, and of the role of teachers as the couriers of the list. Arthur Applebee suggests conceiving of curriculum as conversation; John Dewey urged us to connect the record of humanity's great inquiries—the curriculum—to the curiosities of the child. I would put our challenge this way: For every subject we teach, we must continually search for how it matters in our lives, how it links to the questions of morality and meaning that students, like all human beings, perennially ask.

Many of these perennial questions are the same questions of morality and meaning that have taken on special poignancy and urgency in these grief-filled days of autumn 2001, and these are the questions which should frame and guide our curriculum and class discussions. As horrific and shocking as the events of Sept. 11 were, the questions they raise are the questions that we should always have been exploring as a part of education for a democracy. As justified and inevitable as the American response seems to many of us, it too, raises questions that all American citizens should explore in depth as part of their education.

The most important intellectual and moral achievements require habits of mind not fostered by the rush to cover the contents of our textbooks and syllabuses.

I am not making an argument in favor of relevance over content knowledge, nor for merely providing room for students to express their feelings and opinions about these events, as important as that is. I am arguing that we have operated in schools under the illusion that we can separate out neutral, academic, intellectual content from controversial, complex, morally charged questions about life. And this separation doesn't work. It undercuts the intellectual life of schools, even as it leaves us ill-equipped to deliberate about moral issues.

Educators have spent so much time in recent years working on curriculum standards, in many cases laboring over exactly which topics are worthy of being covered by everyone. Certainly, in the textbooks written from now on, the attacks of Sept. 11 will be included. But if they are taught as most of our history is taught, students of the future will memorize the date, the number of people who died, the names of the attackers, and perhaps the name of the president in office in 2001.

Now, when things don't seem as certain as they once did, we have an opportunity to create a different kind of curriculum—one built around questions—that would simultaneously promote rigorous intellectual work and the ability to grapple with moral issues. Questions like these could frame our curriculum: Is killing justified when the killer believes he or she is pursuing a higher good? What's the difference between "war" and "terrorism"? What is race and how does it matter in our society and in the world? What are the tensions between freedom and security? Are there scientific advances that are simply too dangerous for us as a society to pursue? Investigations of such questions might include very wide-ranging content, from history, literature, and science.

Whatever the particular sets of content studied under such overarching questions, these explorations would demand careful garnering of evidence and would provide practice in its interpretation. They would help students come to see the difference between having an opinion and having an informed opinion—and the difference between learning history, literature, and science and learning from history, literature and science. We have an opportunity to think about all of our teaching—far beyond conversations about the current crisis—as the way in which our society helps young people deepen their understanding of themselves as human beings and develops their capacity for moral deliberation and action.

Using what Theodore Sizer has called "essential questions" to frame courses is not a new idea. But what seems more clear than ever is that the questions essential to an understanding of the subjects we teach are largely moral and existential questions. This means that teachers must be ready and willing to delve into moral matters, far more than I was when I taught "Macbeth." A brief story highlights the point:

In a 9th grade English class I visited, the students were studying Elie Wiesel's Night, a memoir of the author's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. A student, Gary, raised his hand to ask, "How can Elie Wiesel still believe? How is it possible for anyone to believe in God after the Holocaust?" The teacher told him that it was a very important question—and he should bring it up with his clergyperson. The teacher went on to point out symbolism in Mr. Wiesel's work. The class had a few minutes at the end of the period to continue reading.

We have an opportunity to think about teaching as a way in which our society helps young people deepen their understanding of themselves as human beings.

The emphasis in this literature class was clearly on recognizing and being able to name themes from the text, not on grappling personally with those themes. The teacher did not see it as her role to discuss in a more personal way Gary's and Elie Wiesel's implied questions: Why do human beings hurt and kill one another? What does this imply about God? What does it mean for me, as I witness cruelty and suffering? What does it mean for me as I grapple with understanding my own connection, if any, with my "enemies" and with God? English class has been the forum for analyzing literature, not for examining one's own beliefs.

Teachers are not clergy. They neither have special training nor generally consider themselves experts in the problem of suffering in the world or in other moral questions. It is not surprising that teachers would be reluctant to tread this ground, especially in the public sphere, and especially when there are tests to prepare for. But if we care about supporting and encouraging students to use their minds well, we must face the irony of avoiding hard questions and sticking only to the facts at school.

Our task is to find a way to conceive of the subject areas so that teachers—in their capacity as thinking, feeling human beings with a love and understanding of their disciplines—can feel comfortable engaging themselves and their students in these questions. It's a moment for us to get more serious about what education means.

We all—teachers, students, citizens—want to understand this wrenching, frightening, beautiful, awe-inspiring world. School could be a place where, wrestling with questions that matter, we begin to make sense of our lives.

Katherine G. Simon is the director of research at the Coalition of Essential Schools, where she leads seminars in "Essential Moral Questions." She is also the author of Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork, published this month by Yale University Press. She can be reached via

Vol. 21, Issue 10, Pages 51, 68

Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as Making Room for Moral Questions In the Classroom
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