The Moral Life Of America's Schoolchildren

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The picture that emerges reminds us that there are substantial differences in the ways our children come to think about what is right and what is wrong, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done. Some of them (16 percent) call upon God, the Bible, church, or synagogue for major guidance. Others (18 percent) essentially fall back upon themselves, their own wishes, feelings, interests, or moods. Still others (25 percent) look to the world around them, to their neighborhood or community, to the nation and its standards. A certain number look to what is useful for them, what seems to work (10 percent) or to what has traditionally been upheld as desirable or undesirable (19 percent). The rest (11 percent) struggle with the moral dilemmas they face with no clear-cut form of moral logic or reasoning to help them decide.

Here, for instance, is a 10th grader who exemplifies the children who rely mainly on what feels right to them personally when they face tough moral choices. The boy, who attends a suburban high school in New England, talks quite candidly about his moral life, including such matters as cheating and lying, as well as sexual activity: "We go to church sometimes, but not a whole lot. My dad tries to do the best he can; he's a businessman. My mom works in an insurance office. They're good folks. They want me to get ahead, and I'll try. I'm no great whiz at school, but I'm no idiot, either--in the middle.

"I decide a lot of things on how it hits me in the gut. It's my instinct, I guess you could say. You have to do what feels right inside you--that's what I've learned: Act upon your true feelings. I don't mean do anything you feel like doing, no.'' (I had asked.) "I guess I mean this: So long as you don't hurt the next guy, it's basically up to you what you do. When I'm in a bind, I talk to myself: 'Hey,' I say, 'what's going on inside you-- what feels right?' That's how I come out on something--me talking to me, and getting the answer from me.''

In the same town, however, a boy of similar age and socioeconomic background has quite another point of view: "You have to decide [what's right and wrong] on the basis of the whole town here. In school, too, there's got to be some rules, and they deserve obedience. My dad and mom tell me: 'You're a citizen, so act like one!' I try to be independent; I try to be my own person. But I try to do what's best for everyone concerned. You have to think of others, not just yourself!''

Another student, a 9th grade girl from a Midwestern town, has a much different perspective. She doesn't just think of others; she also calls upon her religious faith. "You have to live up to the Ten Commandments,'' she says. "You have to remember what Jesus said, when He spoke to the crowds that came to hear Him. If you don't live up to your religion, then it's no use going to church. You should stop yourself, and say: Is this what the Lord wants me to do, or am I falling away [from Him]? It can be hard sometimes, I know, but you have to remember that God has told us what is right, and it's up to us to check with Him before we decide what to do.''

Not that all children, by any means, "check'' with God, or with themselves and their personal feelings, when they consider a course of action. A good number of children call upon convention--that is, they conform to what they believe is required by tradition. Or they call upon a notion of what is useful for them, or "practical,'' or what "works''--meaning what helps them in their various objectives, purposes, and plans.

This reliance on the traditional or the utilitarian increases as children grow older, and has, by the high school years, become a firm part of the thinking of many youths--as with this Atlanta girl: "I'm not always sure what to do. I usually decide by saying to myself: 'Do the best you can,' and hope it'll work out. I try not to do something that will get me in trouble. I try to stay with the crowd, I guess. My mom has always told us to be 'practical,' and that's my yardstick, I'd have to say.''

A friend of hers, a girl one year older, is also "practical,'' but she adds this dimension to her justification for what is to be done or not done: "I try to stick by the rules: If you break them, the next thing you know, you're in trouble. I try to be popular, I'll admit--and that affects what you decide. You don't want to be standing alone, with your hand the only one raised in the class. If people have lived a certain way all these years, there must be a good reason for it. I feel that, mostly. I'll admit, I might have my own opinion sometimes, but I'm not one to go running off with them, without checking on how the people next to me are deciding.''

As children grow older, and this form of moral reasoning becomes more and more common, their reliance on social and religious authority declines and, not surprisingly, most children begin to turn away from adults as the primary source of advice on moral issues. Increasingly, adult advice takes a back seat to peer influence, so that by high school, the majority (58 percent) rely mainly on their peers for moral guidance. Of course, younger children, more directly dependent on adults, seek out the advice of parents, teachers, and other responsible adults more often.

Age and the maturation process associated with it are not the only factors that differentiate how children relate to moral issues. Boys, for example, tend to be practical utilitarians in deciding difficult moral issues, while girls tend to be more altruistic in their orientation. Wealth and poverty also make a difference. Affluence, it seems, tends to lead to moral uncertainty; the higher the family's income level, the less clear a youngster is about right and wrong.

While these factors are important, a child's relationship to God and religion in general is just as important in understanding the moral choice he or she makes. The various forms of moral logic that children use have an important influence on their moral decisionmaking that transcends age, gender, and class. This logic and the moral assumptions on which it is based function as a "moral compass'' that helps children cope with the moral uncertainty and challenges they face. (See "Marching To Different Drummers,'' page 49.) When the basic moral assumptions are oriented toward self gratification or enhancement, similar moral decisions follow. When a real concern for others, or social and religious authority, are at the core of the decisionmaking process, more altruistic decisions emerge.

The results of this first phase of our research reveal a nation whose children are morally divided--by virtue of their ongoing personal development, their sex, their race, and their social and economic circumstances. And, most important, their underlying ethical assumptions all combine to give shape to their notion of what is right and wrong.

What the study reveals is that American schoolchildren do indeed act on moral assumptions, but these assumptions are not uniform and therefore are difficult to address in a uniform fashion. Teachers who try to establish an orderly classroom and try to encourage in their children certain standards of effort and work, certain standards of what is permissible and what is absolutely out of order, will no doubt have to contend with such disparate assumptions. Too often, teachers don't address some of these assumptions or, for that matter, challenge them.

In many respects, teachers cannot be blamed for their reluctance or inability to take a stand. Teachers struggle every day with issues of character, but their hands are tied. They can't say what is absolutely wrong, what is evil, without risking being accused of promoting religion.

Once, teachers were invested with a kind of moral authority. Religion was taught in the schools, and children prayed at the beginning and end of the day. Children stood and saluted the flag.

We're not advocating a return to those days, for clearly the line between church and state had become dangerously blurred. Under such conditions, individual freedom, particularly individual religious freedom, can erode very quickly. We must be constantly on guard to make sure the line is not crossed again. But the point remains that when religion was removed from the schools, nothing came along to take its place, and teachers were stripped of the moral authority they once had.

Perhaps, in our haste to redress a constitutional wrong, we didn't stop to think about the repercussions. In effect, we have removed right and wrong from school. And when you do that, you remove discipline. How can you have discipline when nothing is wrong?

And it isn't just that we've gotten rid of religion. The whole society has become self-centered, resulting in the attenuation and the weakening of civic responsibility.

Consequently, a lot of kids have been brought up not to be anxious or to ever feel guilty. Shame, after all, is a moral position, and some of these kids have no language to express this. We find it personally very worrisome that almost 60 percent of the children in our survey rely on moral standards that have, as their main purpose, self-gratification.

A high school teacher in Massachusetts, perplexed at having to deal with students' moral problems, says this: "I have trouble enough getting the work before the students. I guess I have my assumptions, too-- that they'll want to do the work, and that they will, and that they'll be honest. Of course, I know not all of them live up to that.''

Indeed not. Our survey, for instance, shows a disturbing willingness of young people to cheat in school, a willingness that increases with age and with educational experience. In elementary school, 21 percent of the children we interviewed would try to copy answers or glance at another student's test for ideas. That's appalling. But far worse is that an astonishing 65 percent of high school students say they would cheat.

We've all heard kids talk about cheating in school, but we are frankly surprised at the willingness of so many to entertain it as almost a casual alternative. Our hunch is that 20 to 30 years ago we would not have seen such a high percentage of children admitting to behavior that is unquestionably wrong.

This tendency to think of cheating as permissible is not, however, something that emerges independent of a child's moral assumptions. The children whose moral standards are rooted in religion, and in a sense in civic responsibility, show the most resistance to the temptation to violate an extremely important rule-- thou shalt not cheat--which every school needs to enforce an honest standard of grading.

Only 6 percent of the children who said they rely on God or scripture to help them decide what is right said they would copy answers from another student, compared with almost one out of five of those children who said they do what makes them feel good when confronted with a moral dilemma.

But perhaps some children merely reflect the values of their society: The notion of "what works'' is "what works for me.'' Given their membership in a highly competitive, SAT-conscious culture, some children can very easily entertain the notion of cheating. It shows the ambitiousness of some of these kids: They're so fiercely committed to using the schools to achieve their own ends. Sadly, as so-called "cultural literacy'' grows, what could be called "moral literacy'' declines.

This survey really reminds us that we are not one nation indivisible. We have some children who still live up to the Judeo-Christian tradition, or adhere to some civic-oriented sense of duty and responsibility, and others who really don't. We regret to say that, even at Harvard, we see a lot of kids who are bright, but whose conscience is not all that muscular.

In spite of this rather pessimistic assessment, there is in all of this a ray of hope: Almost half of the children, when confronted with the various moral dilemmas posed in our survey, put up a good, stiff fight. In terms of the moral logic, however, only 38 percent rely on traditional religions or social authorities. The rest rely either on what makes them feel good, what works for them, or what would be best for everybody involved.

Perhaps more and more of us who teach will want to consider not only what we require intellectually and morally of our students, but what the sources are for their assumptions and ours: why we believe what we do, what our values, ideals, and principles are. Perhaps, too, we teachers need to explain vigorously what we expect of our students and why, and engage them in a spirited discussion of alternative rules or moral standards--and their consequences. Maybe this would help clear the air in our high schools, where one assumes moral questions are constantly being put to the test by the various challenges and temptations in and out of the classroom.

We hope that this survey will give teachers the strength to stand up for what teachers have always stood for. And they don't have to resort to the Bible as the source of their authority. They can get it from political theorists and social essayists--from George Orwell, Robert Frost, Leo Tolstoy, John Cheever, and Hannah Arendt.

The challenge for teachers is to address the issue of moral reasoning and logic in a direct way, without violating constitutional standards or community norms. It's important for teachers to remember that they do have the tools.

Robert Coles, M.D., professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University, is the author of The Moral Life of Children and The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination.

Louis Genevie, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is currently a research associate with Robert Coles at Harvard. He is the author of The Motherhood Report and The Samson and Delilah Complex.

Vol. 01, Issue 06, Page 1-24

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories