Articles from the October 1997 Unification News


The Necessity for Moral and Ethical Education

by Tony Devine-NYC

In a recent New York Times article the writer, a freshman at Yale College, laments how he and four other students cannot, in good conscience live in a place where women are permitted to stay overnight in men’s rooms, and where visiting men can traipse through the common halls on the women’s floors-in various stages of undress-in the middle of the night. He is speaking of Yale’s promiscuous anything goes dormitory situation, which runs counter to his religious and moral upbringing (New York Times, 9/9/97).

The moral climate at Yale is not conducive to serious learning and an increasing number of educators are recognizing that American education at every level, from elementary through college, is in a state of crisis.

What is Education?

In our highly developed and scientific world, education has come to be referred to as the development of the mind or intellect. Thus, we usually think in terms of the academic and technical education of our formal school systems. However, such a view ignores the broader and deeper aspects of education which pertain to the development of a person’s character. As young people gain greater knowledge and technical ability, it becomes necessary to check if they are also becoming people of virtue. Without this emphasis students will learn to follow what Boston University President John Silber has called the blind forces of appetite and circumstance.

Thomas Jefferson believed that education should aim at the improvement of both one’s morals and faculties and this has been the dominant view of American education for over two centuries. But a fundamental change occurred in the early seventies when values clarification programs began taking root in the public schools. According to this philosophy, the schools were not to take part in their traditional task of transmitting sound moral values, but were to allow the child to clarify his own values, which teachers and parents had no right to criticize. This form of moral relativism promoted the idea that no set of values was right or wrong-that all values were subjective, relative and personal. According to former secretary of education William Bennett, this movement did not clarify values, it clarified wants and desires, and this destructive view took hold with a vengeance (The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Children and Our Culture, 1994).

Parental Position Attacked

Along with this, and perhaps a more dangerous problem, is the subtle avocation of total disregard for parental authority in most of the psychological conditioning courses that have taken a foothold in schools. These programs are as pervasive as they are little known, with appealing names such as Values Clarification, Affective Education", "Decision Making", and Quest. In her book, Changing Bodies, Changing Lives (1987), Ruth Bell and her co-authors write that parents are just ordinary people with faults and weaknesses and insecurities and problems just like everyone else, completely missing the deeper and more relevant point that the parent-child relationship is the most significant relationship anyone is ever likely to have.

When parents were asked about their basic responsibilities, they were virtually unanimous in their response: putting a roof over the children’s heads and teaching them right from wrong (Barbara Whitehead Defoe, Institute of American Values). Such a basic concept as what is right and what is wrong is the question that has become a national obsession. When the issue of universal values arises, the question invariably arises, Whose values? in today’s value free atmosphere can there be a case for core principles? Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, argues that there are fundamental working principles of ethical behavior which are important, and we’re not indoctrinating our students by making a conscious effort to make them understand, appreciate, and live by those principles"(Higher Learning, 1986).

The development of character is very much associated with overcoming selfishness. In part, this is a process which takes place naturally and gradually in the early stages of human life. Babies are inherently self-centered. Their world revolves around their bodily needs. As they grow physically, so does their consciousness of the world around them. As children they develop relationships with others and in the process, they learn that certain responsibilities and codes of behavior are expected in those relationships. To a certain degree they will learn the virtues of respect, trust and sharing within a conducive family environment.

Centrality of the Family

What happens in the home is by far the most consequential factor in determining the development of a morally healthy person. Martin Luther King, Jr., termed the family as the main educational agency of mankind. (Charles E. Finn, We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future, 1991). Nothing is as powerful as the parents’ communication of core values and attitudes to their children coupled with their own good example.

In their book Bringing Up the Moral Child (1985), Schulman and Mehler state that the main aim of early moral education is to teach children to be kind and just. They argue that this generally takes place in three steps. 1) the internalization by the child of the parents’ moral values. 2) the development of empathy or sympathetic concern for the feelings of others. 3) the development of personal moral standards of right and wrong.

These stages of moral development are not inevitable but must be cultivated and nurtured in the same way that we help children to become good readers, athletes or musicians. The place where this begins is in the home with the example of parents. When serious teachers were asked the single most important improvement that could be made in education, they invariably said greater involvement and cooperation on the part of the parents.

Often parents either adopt the traditional model of being authoritarian or the permissive approach of recent decades in which no firm rules apply. Thomas Lickona maintains that adolescents who are most likely to follow their conscience in the face of peer pressure are those who grew up in authoritative (as distinguished from authoritarian) homes (Educating for Character: How our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, 1991). In an authoritative home rules are firm but clearly explained and justified. In authoritarian homes, rules are laid down without explanation. In permissive homes, there are few firm rules. There is now widespread agreement among experts that normal moral development requires firm parental authority in the early years, along with a stable environment and a clear and consistent direction.

Formal, Moral and Ethical Education

Beyond the family the school plays a vital role in the further development of a child’s character. Through the formal education of morals and ethics, the child can come to a clear understanding of the difference between right and wrong, between proper and improper behavior. This type of education can aid in the development of a child’s conscience through which virtues such as honesty, respect, loyalty, tolerance and responsibility become an ingrained part of one’s character.

Ultimately, ethics and morals must become more than simply a set of rules to obey. They are meant to be a natural expression of an unselfish heart, which is the deepest and determining aspect of human character. A person who has sincere love and concern for the well-being of others will automatically live morally and ethically. Moral and ethical standards cannot be imposed from the outside, but must be stimulated within a person.

The moral crisis in American education reflects the broader crisis in society and points to the family as the primary source of the problem. Hope lies in the realization that the family is also the critical agent in solving our problems. The centrality of a morally rooted family in the teaching of values is irreplaceable to the development of children, especially in their early years. The school should simply be in continuity with the family.

Only on the basis of a developed and ethical conscience can people be responsible to utilize their intellectual and technical training purposefully for the benefit of all. Establishing a society based upon human virtues is not an ideal dream. Indeed, it has become a necessity.

Tony Devine is the vice president of the International Educational Foundation (IEF).

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