Moral Illiteracy

A recent survey of high school students is forcing teachers to think twice about the way they teach ethics. Two thirds of all high school students admitted to cheating on an exam within the past year. One third said they'd stolen something. More than a third said they would lie on a job application. These were not inner-city kids brought up in crime-ridden neighborhoods; most of them were from middle-class communities. The Josephson Institute of Ethics, which conducted the survey, says part of the problem is the way values are taught in schools. Most public schools use a decision-making approach, which tells kids there is no right or wrong and that they're entitled to make up their own minds. In his book Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong, William Kilpatrick says classrooms have taken on the style of talk shows, where the only rule is that everyone has a right to his own view, no matter how bizarre. But the Donahue-style classroom is not a very good way to teach kids morality—as the recent survey shows. The alarming thing, however, is that most teachers are still fiercely attached to it. Kilpatrick is often invited to speak in schools, and he asks audiences to suppose their own child's school is instituting a course in moral education. The school is considering two programs. Program A exposes students to provocative ethical dilemmas, tells them there are no right or wrong answers, and encourages them to make up their own minds. By contrast, Program B holds up certain virtues as admirable, such as justice, charity, and self-control; it exposes students to illustrations from history and literature, and encourages them to practice the virtues themselves. Which of these programs would you choose? The vast majority of parents, Kilpatrick says, choose Program B, the one that stresses character training. But teachers invariably choose Program A, the one based on individual decision-making. In fact, many teachers tell Kilpatrick they would never use Program B under any circumstances! Clearly there is an incredibly wide gap in outlook between parents and many educators. Organizations like the Josephson Institute for Ethics are trying to close that gap. The Institute recently held a conference in Aspen, Colorado, that drew together several youth and education organizations. The conference led to a trail-blazing agreement that the decision-making approach doesn't work and that schools need to start training kids in character— teaching core virtues such trustworthiness, fairness, civic virtue, and citizenship. Studies show that character education can be effective. A pilot project in several Los Angeles schools resulted in a 25-percent drop in major disciplinary problems such as fighting, drugs, and weapon use—with even larger drops in minor problems like tardiness. The principal at one school reported a 75-percent decrease in disciplinary problems. Proverbs says, Train up a child in the way he should go. When we fail to teach children standards of right and wrong we are abdicating our adult responsibility, no matter what the education experts say. Donahue is bad enough for television; we certainly don't want Donahue-style classrooms in our schools.


Chuck Colson


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