Printer Friendly

Not just read and write, but right and wrong; our schools need to teach values, too.

Not Just Read and Write, But Right and Wrong

In a suburban high school's crowded classroom, a group of juniors explained to me why drugs are difficult to control. "You see, Mrs. Townsend, what if you want a new pair of Reeboks? You could sell drugs and make $250 in an afternoon. It's a lot easier and quicker than working at McDonald's. You'd have to work there a whole week."

In my work helping teachers, I've walked into countless high schools where I could have filled a garbage bag with the trash in the halls. Yet I rarely hear teachers asking students to pick up the garbage - or telling them not to litter in the first place.

Of course, many students obey the law, stay away from drugs, and perform selfless acts: they tutor, work with the elderly, or run antidrug campaigns. But too many lack a sense of duty to a larger community.

A survey recently conducted for People for the American Way asked just over 1,000 Americans between 15 and 24 what goals they considered important. Three times as many selected career success as chose community service - which finished dead last. Only one-third said they could countenance joining the military or working on a political campaign. During one focus group interview for the study, some young people were asked to name qualities that make this country special. There was a long silence until one young man came up with an answer: "Cable TV."

The study concluded, "Young people have learned only half of America's story...[they] reveal notions of America's unique character that emphasize freedom and license almost to the complete exclusion of service or participation...they fail to perceive a need to reciprocate by exercising the duties and responsibilities of good citizenship."

Thomas's promises

While it is easy enough to blame this problem on the "me-ism" of the Reagan years, it's time to recognize that it's also the result of deliberate educational policy. One principal I know speaks for too many others. "Schools," she says, "cannot impose duties on the students. Students come from different backgrounds. They have different standards."

Twice since 1982 the Maryland Department of Education has sent out questionnaires to local education departments soliciting opinions about values education. The answers are typical of those found across the United States. Many respondents were indifferent, simply stating that values education is "inherent" in teaching. Other answers were more hostile: "Specific training in values is a new development which we do not consider essential," and "A special effort would cause trouble."

The consensus of the high school teachers and administrators participating in a curriculum workshop I ran last summer said it all: "Values - we can't get into that."

Schools across America have simply refused to take responsibility for the character of their students. They wash their hands of the teaching of virtue, doing little to create an environment that teaches children the importance of self-discipline, obligation, and civic participation. As one teacher training text says, "There is no right or wrong answer to any question of value."

Is it any surprise that students tend to agree? These days it seems they're all relativists. A collection of high school interviews quotes one 11th-grader as saying, "What one person thinks is bad or wrong, another person might think that it is good or right. I don't think morals should be taught because it would cause more conflicts and mess up the student's mind." One of her classmates adds, "Moral values cannot be taught and people must learn what works for them. In other words, `Whatever gets you through the night, it's alright.'"

Now, it's obvious that the public schools are a ticklish arena for instilling values. Our pluralistic society is justly worried about party lines of any kind. That means that teaching values in the schools - whether as an integral part of the traditional classes or as a separate course - requires subtle skills and real sensitivity to student and community needs. Of course, families and churches should play a part, but neither are as strong or effective as they were a generation ago. Only the schools are guaranteed to get a shot at kids. That's why their current fumbling of anything smacking of right and wrong is so disastrous.

The importance of teaching values in the schools was barely mentioned last fall at the education summit presided over by George Bush at the University of Virginia. The meeting was dominated by talk of federal funding and drug education. The underlying valuelessness of American education - an obstacle to the intelligent use of scarce resources and a root cause of drug problems - really didn't come up.

Such a curious oversight at Thomas Jefferson's school! Jefferson fought for public education because he believed that the citizen's virtue is the foundation of democracy. Only virtous citizens, he knew, would resist private gain for the public good. And to know the public good, you have to study literature, philosophy, history, and religion.

For many years, Jefferson's wisdom about education prevailed. James Q. Wilson attributes America's low level of crime during the 19th century to the efforts of educators to instill self-discipline. "In the 1830s," he explains, "crime began to rise rapidly. New York had more murders than London, even though New York was only a tiny fraction of the size of London. However, rather than relying on police forces or other government programs, the citizens concentrated on education.

"Sunday schools were started. It was an all-day effort to provide education in morality, education in punctuality, in decency, in following rules, and accepting responsibility, in being generous, in being kind.

"The process was so successful that in the second half of the 19th century, despite urbanization, despite the enormous influx into this country of immigrants from foreign countries all over Europe, despite the widening class cleavages, despite the beginning of an industrial proletariat, despite all those things which textbooks today teach us cause crime to go up, crime went down. And it went down insofar as I, or any historian, can tell because this effort to substitute the ethic of self-control for what appeared to be the emerging ethic of self-expression succeeded." In 1830 the average American drank 10 gallons of distilled liquor a year. By 1850, it was down to two.

The flavor of this 19th-century approach to education is preserved today in many state constitutions. North Dakota's is typical in declaring that public schools should "emphasize all branches of knowledge that tend to impress upon the mind the importance of truthfulness, temperance, purity, public spirit, and respect for honest labor of every kind." In current educational jargon, this approach is called "values inculcation."

The inculcation consensus started to break down around the start of the 20th century. Science gained greater respect on one hand, and on the other hand Catholic bishops and conservative evangelists denied that moral instruction could be carried on apart from religion. Science emphasizes testing, experience, reliance on what works, not abstract notions of right and wrong. And education was influenced by the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which rejected metaphysical notions of human conduct.

In addition, the establishment of college departments of cultural anthropology and the publication of studies of distant cultures by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict popularized the idea that all values are culturally determined and hence relative.

Take my wife

In 1981 the California State Assembly considered a bill that spelled out values that should be included in public school instructional materials. Among those values were: honesty, acceptance of responsibility, respect for the individuality of others, respect for the responsibility inherent in being a parent or in a position of authority, the role of the work ethic in achieving personal goals, universal values of right and wrong, respect for property, the importance of the family unit, and the importance of respect for the law.

The bill was defeated.

How have we reached the point where a list of basic values like that is considered unsuitable for schools?

Until the sixties, schools taught values more because of habits bred in the 19th century than because of conscious intellectual commitment. There were few courses or books in education schools about the teaching of values. That changed with the civil rights and antiwar movements, which challenged the old values as immoral. One immediate consequence was the rise of a new theory of moral development, called "values clarification": It's wrong for teachers to endorse any values; all they can do is help students discover their own.

One widely used teacher training guide, Values and Teaching by Louis Raths, makes no bones about this: "The idea that we should use all the resources available to us to produce a certain kind of character is repulsive. We believe that each person has to wrest his own values from the available array....We are concerned with the process of valuing and not the product....The method recommends that no moral judgment be made by the teacher....It should be increasingly clear that the adult does not force his own pet values upon children. What he does is create conditions that aid children in finding values if they choose to do so. When operating with the values theory, it is entirely possible that children will choose not to develop values." (Emphasis added.)

Anti-inculcation textbooks are typically stockpiles of classroom questions and dilemmas. The following example intended for high school students comes from Hypothetical Dilemmas for Use in Moral Discussions, a 1974 book prepared by the Center for Moral Development at Harvard:

"A number of married couples who knew each other were thinking of `swaping' (changing partners for sexual intercourse). The couples lived in the same neighborhood and knew each other quite well. They were people in their late thirties or early forties. They felt like they would like to have new sexual experiences. They felt that after being married for so long and having sex with the same person, sex had become quite dull.

"1) If all the couples agree to it, would it be alright for them to change partners? Why or why not?

"2) Recently there have been a number of `swapping' cases reported in the newspapers. The public's reaction is very negative. Why do you think people react this way? Do you agree or disagree with them? Give reasons.

"3) If the couples had children, would this make any difference? What effect do you think `swapping' would have on the children? What could some of the positive effects be?

"4) What could some of the negative effects be?"

Values Clarification: A Handbook for Teachers and Students by Sidney Simon - a high-school text that has sold 500,000 copies - has the following exercise: Have the students sit in a circle and pretend that they are on a life raft and that in order for the group to be saved, one of them has to be thrown overboard. Each student must justify why he shouldn't be the one. Finally, the kids vote to decide who gets tossed out. After the vote, the students discuss the values implicit in the decision.

In one 12th-grade classroom, a young man uncomfortable with the exercise said he'd jump overboard. One can hardly blame him for wanting out. The exercise makes teenagers worry about the value of their lives but abstains from reassuring them about it. What could be more destructive than that? Rather than spending precious school time having the students consider ways to build a community, teachers are having them debate wife-swapping and decide who to kill.

Surveys and bestsellers have alerted us to the shocking inadequacies of American students' basic knowledge. In our public schools, the atmosphere of confused neglect fostered by values clarification turns this factual ignorance into a moral wasteland. In a recent survey of American students' knowledge of history, one girl's answer to "When was the Civil War?" was "I don't know and I don't care."

One or two glances at her textbooks and you can begin to see why she feels that way. There is little there of historical controversies, conflicts, glories, or tragedies. Little there to engage the student, to disturb, to make her think, to excite her, to make her dream. That's all been blanded out. In Triumph of the American Nation, one of the most widely used high-school history textbooks, a text that People for the American Way calls "substantive and well-written," Martin Luther King is described as leading the Montgomery bus boycott in response to discrimination against blacks, but there is no sense of who he is, of how he came to believe in nonviolence, of the profoundly religious and spiritual person that he was. In this book, racial discrimination is described as a legal issue resolved by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Equally disturbing is the short shrift such books accord George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. One high-school textbook finds it fit to spend two pages on the use of water rights during the Civil War, but offers no analysis of Lincoln. And textbooks describe the Pilgrims as "people who take long trips." In fact, according to Paul Gagnon, a University of Massachusetts history professor, in every one of the five most popular high-school history texts, more space is given to Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller than to Abraham Lincoln. Little is said in those books about the deeper reaches of character in Wilson and FDR, their backgrounds, or their political and religious principles.

Parents are for Nazis

A teacher's guide put out by the National Education Association favors values clarification over character inculcation. It condemns "attempts to inculcate a set of given virtues, e.g. the Boy Scout code.... This approach has often been used by people advocating a stringent adherence to white middle-class values - as they themselves choose to interpret those values." The guide states, "All of the authors in this volume,the editor,and the National Education Association, have chosen tp help students discover their options,envision likely consequences,then make their own choices about what is good and honorable rather than trying to instill certain 'correct values."

A recent article by a philosophy professor named Gerald Paske in Educational Leadership,the principal publication of the 91,000-member Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,attacks a proposal for teaching traditional values on the grounds that their application may have little relevance to modern life. For example,Paske argues that the value of "honoring elderly parent" may have bad consequences because "such things as taking them into our homes,providing for their economic support, and preserving their lives...would today be inappropriate, often impossible,and frequently inhumane. The introduction of retirement programs and Social Security the dispersion of family members throughout the nation,and the great advance in medical technology have generated many situations in which the traditional conduct would frustrate rather than promote the honoring of one's parents."

In another article in the same issue,Robert Primack, an education professor,condemns the idea of teaching character in these words: "Assume for the moment that the schools...accept the notion of the great tradition in education and they begin teaching patriotism. How do they distinguish among patriotisms? It must ne pointed out that...the teaching of the great tradition by indoctrination characterized the German school system during much of its history prior to the Nazi take-over and certainly during the Nazi takeover itself."

These comments are typical of the ideas your children's teachers are trained on. Do we really want our kids to revile the Boy Scouts,abandon family ties, and believe that character-building is for Nazis?

A recent article in The New Republic by David Hamilton describes Boston University's takeover of the Chelsea school system, in which the newest building dates from 1910,less than half ninth graders pass state-mandated tests (as compared to a 79 percent pass rate statewide), and 52 percent never complete high school; the system has one of the highest student pregnancy rates in the state. With all these problems to be solved, Hamilton is worried because BU's president John Silber wants to emphasize "moral education," a program of teaching students respect,courage,emphathy,and integrity. Hamilton asks; "Will the Chelsea schools teach unwed pregnant teenagers that abortion is immoral? Moral education could well become a euphemism for instruction in [Silber's] particular brand of moral convertism." Isn't it alarming that the fear of moral guidance for students runs that deep? So deep tha it surfaces even where its obvious the lack of values is having the most miserable consequences.

The major critism of not teaching values is very simple: There are some values that teachers should affirm. Not all values are the same. My daughter is the only girl on her soccer team,and recently some of the boys on the team spit at her. The coah shouldn't have the boys justify their actions. He should have them stop. He should make sure they know they were wrong. That's what he should do. What he actually did tells you a lot about the schools today. He did nothing.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:part 1
Author:Townsend, Kathleen Kennedy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:How oversight is overlooked by Congress.
Next Article:Sentences that make sense; making the punishment fit the crime.

Related Articles
RELIGION, POLITICS, and the Fear of Whole Language Education.
An online textbook case: you've heard the hype, but are online textbooks coming to a computer near you anytime soon? Find out what these districts...
Developing good responses to students' errors.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters