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

WHY JOHNNY CAN'T TELL RIGHT FROM WRONG: Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education

by William Kilpatrick (Simon & Schuster, $23.)

During the 1960s and 1970s, Kilpatrick argues, a shift occurred in American culture that led to the eventual dissolution of moral education and the cataclysmic explosion in teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. Whereas schools and families once upheld timeless moral virtues—for example, loyalty, honesty, courage, and temperance—toward which young people must unflaggingly strive, they now, influenced by our culture's self-indulgent celebration of feeling and autonomy, encourage children to choose values for themselves as if guests at an ethical smorgasbord. In this scenario, the teacher becomes a talk-show host who values openness above all else; being judgmental is the one moral sin. Marshaling evidence for the prevalence of this moral relativism, Kilpatrick cites among an arsenal of examples the far-reaching Quest drug education program, which suggests that teachers avoid “advising, evaluating, or moralizing,” and a sex educator who congenially informs her students of a variety of sexual options, abstinence least among them. The problem with such “values clarification” training, Kilpatrick claims, is that it not only lends viability to destructive choices but also falsely assumes that morality is a matter of intuiting or thinking through choices instead of having the character to resist temptations that children know, or should know, are wrong. What Kilpatrick advocates, then, is “character education” based on the idea that “there are traits of character children ought to know, that they learn these by example, and that … they need to practice them until they become second nature.” In brief, morality has less to do with solving dilemmas than with the development of good habits. While some may disapprove of Kilpatrick's emphasis on moral inculcation over critical thinking, the author does us a service in reminding us that to trust too much in the child's ability to make good moral decisions can only be an abdication of adult responsibility.


by Phillip Jackson (Teachers College Press, $11.95.)

“This book,” Jackson writes in the preface to this meditative collection of four lectures given at Teachers College, Columbia University, “is about the influence teachers have on their students, though not the kind of influence that shows up on tests of achievement or other conventional measures of educational outcomes.” This influence is indeed intangible, and, at times, Jackson expresses a metaphysical doubt as to its existence. He wonders why, for instance, he feels so indebted to Theresa Henzim, his school-marmish freshman algebra teacher in 1942, whose continual refrain as students worked problems on the board was “keep your wits about you.” Was it the sense of seriousness she imparted? The realization that difficult things become easy if you master them one step at a time? While the author is uncertain, his sense of indebtedness is real, and both Jackson and the reader begin to understand that the most important lessons are learned at the far margins of consciousness. At the heart of Untaught Lessons, then, is a belief in the edifying power of a teacher's personality—ironically, the very thing some behaviorists want to eradicate in order to make teaching more scientific and efficient.


edited by James Sears (Teachers College Press, $21.95.)

Those who feel that some kinds of sex education promote sexual activity are unlikely to be comforted by this collection of essays written by scholars and sex education teachers. Indeed, the editor's foreword criticizes programs designed to promote abstinence. “Young people,” Sears writes disapprovingly, “are taught to control their sexuality rather than to affirm it.” This statement constitutes the general thesis of the book, as essay after essay talks about helping adolescents become more comfortable with their sexual desires while teaching them “how groups manipulate [their] sexual desires for their own ends.” The naiveté of this approach seems—at least to me, anyhow—astounding. Not only does it assume that sexuality can be benign, untainted by coercion, but also that adolescents can experience sexual relationships with the equanimity of mature adults. Sexuality and the Curriculum is ammunition for parents who would like to banish sex education from the schools.

Vol. 04, Issue 04, Page 31

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