Let me take you on a brief journey through the history of American education.
It is 1890, and we are observing class in a quaint one-room schoolhouse. The children are sitting up straight in their chairs, and the desks are arranged neatly in rows. An American flag is in the corner, and on the wall is displayed a list of rules, including, “Be not proud. Respect those who are older, and know more than yourself.” The children prepare for their daily lessons in spelling, penmanship, grammar, arithmetic, history, geography, and literature. In the course of the day, they will recite the “silent e” rule, chant the states and capitals, do multiplication drills, and read excerpts from the speeches of Patrick Henry and George Washington.
The teacher asks the students to take out their McGuffey Readers. Those working on the first reader hone their basic reading and spelling skills as they read a story about three boys, each of whom had a “fine, large cake.” They read: “James ate too much of his cake. It made him sick. Frank kept his so long, that it was not fit to eat. But Willy gave some of his to each of his schoolmates. He then ate some himself and gave the rest to a poor, old, blind man. Which, do you think, made the best use of his cake?”1
Older students improve their reading, writing, and speaking skills as they learn the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, study definitions of words found in the Sermon on the Mount, and memorize poems about the transience of life on earth and the eternity of heaven.
Let us now leave this one-room schoolhouse, and move ahead three-quarters of a century, to a public school in the 1960s. The school is a large, institutional building, housing hundreds of students. No walls separate the classes. A sign reads, “Question Authority.” Gone are the desks arranged in rows, with the teacher presiding at the head. In their place are “work stations” or “activity centers.” The class is fluid and bustling, and there is a constant din as the students confer on projects. History, literature, and composition have been abandoned as too abstract and remote from the experiences of a child. They have been replaced by “social studies,” realistic stories, and vocational training.
On this day, the teacher gathers the students together, and they sit in a circle on the floor. The following dialogue ensues:
TEACHER: So some of you think it is best to be honest on tests, is that right? (Some heads nod affirmatively.) And some of you think dishonesty is all right? (A few hesitant and slight nods.) And I guess some of you are not certain. (Heads nod.) Well, are there any other choices or is it just a matter of dishonesty vs. honesty? . . .
TRACY: You could be honest in some situations and not in others . . .
SAM: It seems to me that you have to be all one way or the other.
TEACHER: Just a minute, Sam. As usual we are first looking for the alternatives that there are in the issue. Later we’ll try to look at any choice that you may have selected. . . . [emphasis added] Later, we will have buzz groups in which you can discuss this and see if you are able to make a choice and if you want to make your choice part of your actual behavior. That is something you must do for yourself.
GINGER: Does that mean that we can decide for ourselves whether we should be honest on tests here?
TEACHER: No, that means that you can decide on the value. I personally value honesty; and although you may choose to be dishonest, I shall insist that we be honest on our tests here.2
Now let us move ahead again, this time to a public school today. The classroom, with its thirty-five or forty students, appears to be bursting at the seams. The walls are adorned with posters of Nelson Mandela and Sacagawea. A sign at the head of the classroom reads, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize and celebrate those differences.” The students are studying the United Nations in social studies, acid rain in science, and Maya Angelou in English.
The teacher has set aside part of the day for values education. She gets her lesson plan from a book called Living Values Activities for Children, an educational program supported by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and used in thousands of schools around the world. The lesson of the day illustrates the virtue of simplicity. Reading from the Living Values guidebook, the teacher says to her students, “Simplicity is learning from the Earth. Simplicity teaches us economy—how to use our resources wisely, keeping future generations in mind.” The goal of the day’s activity is for students to discuss the success of native cultures in using resources efficiently, and how we in modern society can learn from them and better practice the virtue of simplicity. She reads again from the handbook:
Many native cultures in Africa, the Americas, Australia, Asia, and the Pacific Islands showed respect for the Earth and its resources in their gathering and hunting practices. For example, Native American Indian tribes were simple, economical, and wise in their use of plants and natural resources. Indians in the deserts of what is now California used each part of the ocotillo plant—the roots, leaves, and stem. . . . The Indians considered themselves to be rich, as they were warm, were well fed, and had plenty of time for their arts and prayers.3
These three classrooms are representative of three major trends in the history of moral education.
The moral education of students has long been of concern to parents and educators, and for good reason. We all want the best for our children; we want them to grow up to be responsible, productive, law-abiding, happy adults who maintain healthy relationships. But there is no guarantee that they will achieve this ideal. Children, like adults, have free will; they make choices, day in, day out, over the course of their lives. Some choose characteristically well, others not so well, still others very poorly. Unfortunately, many children choose self-destructive behavior: irresponsibility, lethargy, dishonesty, even criminality. Our concern as teachers and parents is to provide them with a means of making good, life-promoting choices and avoiding bad, life-thwarting ones. The tool they need is morality: a code of values to guide their choices and actions over the course of their lives.
On some level, all conscientious parents and educators know this, and we strive to teach our children and students accordingly. We do this not only for the children’s sake, but also for our own; we want to live in a healthy society, one populated by good, rational, productive people—people who respect individual rights and rule of law—people with whom we can trade and enjoy life. What children are taught about morality or values, and how they are taught it, is of great concern to us.
So let us turn to the three major approaches that have been taken to values education and see what they offer.
The first approach, which was prominent in the 19th century, is to teach explicit lessons in traditional moral values. The second, which reached its zenith in the ’60s and ’70s, is to teach students that values are relative and to encourage them only in the development of their own, personal values—whatever they may be. And the third approach, which is dominant in many of today’s schools, is to promote both moral relativism and (seemingly paradoxically) two allegedly incontrovertible absolutes: the multiculturalist idea that all cultures are of equal value and the environmentalist idea that man’s conquest of nature is dangerous and immoral. As we will see, although each school of thought purports to offer children a proper moral education, in reality all of them fail to give children an understanding of those values that are necessary for happy, successful, mature life. Moreover, each school fosters contempt for morality while encouraging self-destructive behavior. We will look first at the approach epitomized by our first classroom.
In the late-19th and early-20th-centuries, educators agreed that the responsibility of schools is to train the mind cognitively and morally. In the primary schools, lessons focused both on the three R’s and on the basic rules of good behavior. The McGuffey Readers were the most popular textbooks of the time, selling more than 120 million copies. They taught skills such as reading, penmanship, and elocution through morally didactic stories and poems. Generations of children were raised on these readers.
Today’s Christian conservatives look back nostalgically on the era of the McGuffey Readers. They condemn the public school system for banishing the Ten Commandments from the classroom and forbidding prayer in school—and, more broadly, for being “anti-morality.” They urge the reintroduction of what they regard as basic American values into the classroom. Bookstores abound with titles such as Building Character in the Schools, Educating for Character, and Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, all of which urge educators to make the teaching of morality fundamental to primary education.
One of the most vocal spokesmen for the reintroduction of moral education in schools, which is sometimes called the “character ethics” or “character education” movement, is former Secretary of Education William Bennett. In a speech before the House of Representatives, Bennett said, “Our public schools once placed the building of character and moral discernment on a par with developing the intellect. And they can once again. We can get the values Americans share back into our classrooms. And we will work to do this.”4 The Book of Virtues, Bennett’s anthology of moral stories for children, has been one of the most popular best-sellers in recent years. Like the McGuffey Readers, Bennett’s anthologies contain poems and stories carefully selected to convey moral lessons and teach moral virtues.
Advocates of character education urge teachers to take an active and direct approach to instilling moral values in their students. Teachers who take this approach set aside time to conduct abstract discussions of values. Many even have “value-of-the-month” programs, in which each month a new value, such as honesty, faith, or loyalty, becomes the subject of class discussion and a theme around which to integrate other elements of the curriculum.
Teachers of this persuasion explicitly offer moral lessons throughout the academic curriculum. Works of literature are selected with an eye to the values they convey, and emphasis is given to these moral lessons in class discussions. Aesop’s fables and contrived, McGuffey Reader-style stories are central to the effort. History lessons are designed to serve as didactic instruction in such values as courage, patriotism, and honesty. In an American history course, for instance, a teacher subscribing to the character ethics approach would focus extensively on the ethical issues involved in George Washington’s valor in battle or Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of the revolutionaries. Because shaping the student’s character is held to be at least as important as if not more important than training the student’s mind, the content of the curriculum in every course is selected with the goal of moral education firmly in mind.
Leaving aside for a moment any problems with the content of the values students are being taught in this approach, there is a fundamental problem with the method involved. Many of the issues under discussion are far too abstract and require far too much prior knowledge for children meaningfully to understand, given their extremely limited life experience. As a result, character education inevitably becomes moral indoctrination.
The “value-of-the-month” program and other such moral lessons in the classroom get students thinking about and discussing morality abstractly; they require students to define, discuss, analyze, and justify extremely broad moral ideas. Students are asked, for example, to think about honesty—not as it arises from a classroom situation or from the curriculum—but honesty as such: whether or not one should lie to oneself or others in all of the myriad situations where that possibility can arise.
To take another example, Thomas Lickona’s book Educating for Character urges educators to ask ten-year-olds questions such as, “What is a conscience?” and “What advice would you give to other people about their conscience?” He recommends that teachers ask older students to identify in principle the defining characteristics of an ethical person, to study and critique moral codes from various professions (e.g., the Hippocratic oath) and to apply moral principles to resolve complex world problems (e.g., the Israeli–Palestinian conflict).
Even setting aside the moral content offered in this approach, the approach is a big mistake. Thinking about and understanding moral issues on such an abstract level requires a multitude of life experiences, a high degree of psychological maturity, and a basic grasp of both human nature and history. To ask a ten-year-old to give other people advice about conscience is a brazen violation of the hierarchy of knowledge—the order in which content must be taught if it is to be grasped by the student.5 In the character education approach, students are expected to understand highly abstract, philosophical concepts and conclusions before they have the necessary range of experiences to give meaning to those concepts and conclusions.
Insofar as students are being “taught” in this way—insofar as they are being told whether or not honesty, faith, charity, and so on are universal virtues—they are being asked to accept dogma.
Advocates of this approach, however, proudly defend the dogmatism. They argue that there are uncontroversial moral absolutes that students can readily grasp and must be taught at an early age. The acceptance of moral principles, on this view, is not a matter of rationally understanding the practical need of such principles through experience, observation, and logic; rather, it is a matter of faithfully embracing the unsupported assertions of an alleged authority. In other words, moral education is to be achieved by means of indoctrination.
This approach is methodologically wrong. There is no such thing as an uncontroversial moral absolute. Because moral questions are highly abstract and subsume a wide variety of concrete situations, a great deal of knowledge and experience is required even to think about them, let alone to understand them. To “teach” moral principles as if they were obvious, revealed truths to be accepted and unthinkingly applied in this way is to dismiss the need of actually thinking about what they are and why they matter; it is to deny the importance of reason and facts in considering and understanding what is right and what is wrong; it is to deny the fact that morality is a rich subject with numerous facets that one learns over a lifetime.
One consequence of this method is that morality, in the child’s mind, is reduced to a short list of dogmatic and highly conventional “dos and don’ts.” I call this the “Top Ten” method of teaching values. Educators bypass the diverse, complex range of concrete experiences from which children properly learn moral principles, and reduce all of morality to a handful of lessons conveyed by a stock list of didactic stories. The stories are selected for the values they convey, and since this entire approach eschews real thinking on moral matters, the values sought in the selection process are the conventionally accepted, unscrutinized values du jour. Stories that hammer home conventional moral lessons make the cut; those that don’t, don’t.
To indicate what students are deprived of in this approach, consider the following example from my school. Several years ago, my students were reading a novel called The Bronze Bow, in which a young boy is training for war. Because he is young and inexperienced, his leader gives him simple, mundane tasks. The boy resents these chores and longs to be thrust into the thick of battle, despite the fact that he is thoroughly unprepared for the responsibility. When we discussed this story, one of my students remarked, “He is just like Taran, from The Book of Three.” In The Book of Three, Taran was apprenticed to a sorcerer, but because of his youth and immaturity, he was required to spend more time tending animals on a farm than learning dangerous spells. The boys in both of these novels later learn by experience that they were focused only on the glory and power of adult responsibilities, and did not consider whether they were really prepared to handle them. Over the course of the stories, they gain maturity and patience, and come to understand the importance of growing a step at a time.
This was an excellent integration for my student to make, and in making it he no doubt learned a moral lesson—the necessity of acknowledging one’s own state of maturity in deciding what goals to pursue—a moral lesson he would never have learned from the character education approach. This is not the sort of lesson that would make the “Top Ten,” because is not a clichÈ example of an often-talked-about virtue. Nevertheless, it was an important and valuable connection for my student to identify.
The character education approach not only fails to teach values properly; it also interferes with the core academic content of classes.
In literature, for example, the McGuffey Readers method is stilted and condescending. Children justifiably recoil at contrived, phony, moralistic stories. When they read stories they want to read stories, not heavy-handed lessons dressed up as stories. The story should not be merely a spoonful of sugar to help the moral medicine go down. Further, by reading bad, propagandistic stories, children miss out on the fundamental value that literature has to offer: the ability to step inside a universe shaped by the author’s view of the world, a universe full of memorable characters and plots that often hold real (but not proselytized) truths about life.
A related problem follows from the frequent presentation of moralistic stories. When the curriculum consists largely of stories with a moral message, teachers will often make the mistake of overemphasizing the moral of a story, and students will try desperately to find a moral in everything they read. After I taught some of my students a series of stories with overt moral messages, I found that I had to work to undo their conclusion that all stories have moral principles as their themes.
One of my classes read and memorized Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” a dramatic story of a captain’s desperate attempt to save his daughter when his ship faces a storm at sea. In one line, early in the poem, an old sailor warns the captain that a storm is coming, but the captain laughs scornfully at his advice. Many of my students wanted to ascribe to the poem the didactic goal of teaching the reader that you should always follow good advice. If students always approach a novel or poem with the goal of extracting some moral, much of the world’s great literature will be lost on them.
Now that we have seen what is wrong with the method of character education, let us turn to its content.
The more fundamentalist advocates of character education unabashedly push Christian values. There is no morality without God, they argue, and the decay of our nation is a product of the heathen abandonment of good, solid, traditional religious values—such as faith, hope, and charity.
Other advocates of the approach want to make their content palatable to a pluralistic society, so they make it less restrictive. It is true, they say, that the people of this country come from diverse religious, ethnic, and social backgrounds. But they point out that despite the great diversity of religions and moral codes in the population, certain values are held in common among virtually all of them. What values? In Building Character in the Schools, Kevin Ryan and Karen E. Bohlin, founders of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, say, “The devout Southern Baptist who is trying to follow Jesus and the agnostic struggling to make her life a work of art both agree that they should treat the underprivileged with care” and “they usually agree on certain moral standards and virtues that are instrumental in advancing the common good.”6 Similarly, in his popular book Educating for Character, Thomas Lickona says that there is a universal, natural moral law on which men of divergent beliefs agree. That moral law, he says, can be defined in terms of two basic principles: respect and responsibility. What does this mean in practice? “It means orienting toward others, paying attention to them, responding to their needs.”7 In other words, no matter how disparate the ethical views of various groups in America may be, they all agree on one thing: altruism—that the good consists of selfless service to others, that self-sacrifice is the highest virtue.
The goal of moral education in the schools, on this approach, is to curb the self-interest of the children and teach them that their moral responsibility is to sacrifice. Ryan and Bohlin, in their treatise urging character education in the schools, say that becoming a person of character means “gaining control of one’s own clamoring desires, developing a deep regard for others, and being ready to put aside one’s own interests and sometimes even one’s needs in order to serve others.”8 Children, on this view, are considered inherently selfish and therefore immoral creatures who must be indoctrinated with altruistic principles if they are to reach spiritual maturity and accept their duty to serve others.
While this altruistic approach is pitched as consistent with the American tradition and as conducive to raising happy, responsible adults, it is neither. The essence of the American ethic is not selfless service to others, but the individualistic pursuit of happiness: “the American dream.” America’s founders viewed men primarily as rational beings who can and should use their minds to improve their lives. Reason, the founders held, is the means by which people must deal with one another if they are to live together harmoniously, protect individual rights, and achieve happiness. While the founders accepted some remnants of religion, they largely rejected the Christian notion that men are sordid beings stricken with original sin, who, left to their own devices, will be at each other’s throats.
To inculcate children with the alleged virtue of self-sacrifice and to attempt to rid them of the alleged vice of self-interest is to teach them that their lives are morally significant only insofar as they selflessly serve others—that their personal success and happiness are morally unimportant. To the extent that students swallow this, they will not strive for achievement, for success, for fulfillment in their careers—these are clearly selfish values. To teach students that morality is at odds with personal success is to present them with the false alternative of being moral or being successful. In other words, such an education leads children to believe that success requires unprincipled, unethical behavior.
Children should be taught—in stages, as they are capable of understanding it—the value of respecting the rights and prerogatives of others. But they should not be told that they have a duty to live in servitude to others.
One justification offered by the character ethics movement for the necessity of drumming altruism into children is that the sustenance of our unique political system depends on the virtue of its citizens—virtue, in their conception, being self-sacrifice. They cite (with dubious applicability) the famous words of Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good, but if America ever ceases to be good America will cease to be great.” And they quote the Founding Fathers as urging the development of an educational system that would imbue its citizens with good moral sense, because freedom is possible only to a virtuous people.
In what sense is the virtue of selflessness a prerequisite of freedom? Advocates of this position assert that “with freedom comes responsibility”—the responsibility to commit oneself to the welfare of others. Freedom, they acknowledge, enables us to live our lives as we choose—and this means we could choose to live selfishly. If we are going to be free, therefore, we must embrace altruism, which will quash our selfish urges and incline us to sacrifice for others. If we do not accept the virtue of selflessness, it is believed, we will collapse into the self-destruction of anarchy.
As popular as this view is, it faces a formidable counterexample: the whole of American history. America was founded on the principle that in order to live properly, men must be free to pursue their self-interest while respecting the rights of others to do the same. This founding principle, when put into practice, led to the wealthiest, happiest, most just country in history.
Indoctrinating children with the alleged virtue of self-sacrifice is not necessary for freedom; it is antithetical to freedom—just as it is antithetical to children’s success, self-esteem, and happiness. If these are our concern, this approach will not do.
Let us turn to the “values clarification” movement of the 1960s.
The academic, character education curriculum of the one-room schoolhouse was destroyed by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. Educational theorists regarded the traditional focus on academic subjects such as history, literature, and math as “impractical,” “unrealistic,” “antisocial,” and “irrelevant to the needs of a child.” They urged the schools to become more “child-centered” and “socially conscious.”
John Dewey, the father of “Progressive” education, condemned the traditional academic curriculum, stating that the goal of education should not be to convey facts, laws, and information. These, he said, are tools of selfishness and thus serve no moral purpose. Quoting Dewey: “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.”9 The teacher, Dewey argued, should instead follow the interests and impulses of the child, encourage him in his natural, spontaneous development, and “[saturate] him with the spirit of service.”10
Another leader of the Progressive movement, John Franklin Bobbitt of the University of Chicago, author of the first textbook on curriculum development, wrote, “So much useful knowledge is now needed that there is no longer any necessity of including ancient, musty, useless studies merely for the intellectual gymnastics they provide.”11 And Junius L. Meriam, director of a school lauded by John Dewey as a “new school of tomorrow,” said, “The teacher’s arbitrary assignment of the next ten pages in history, or nine problems in arithmetic, or certain descriptions of geography, cannot be felt by the pupil as a real problem and a personal problem.” In the 1930s, it became clichÈ to say, “We teach children, not subject matter.”12
The Progressives won—and tore down the academic curriculum. Schools were left with the vague injunction to nurture and encourage the child in his “natural development,” to make the curriculum less structured and didactic and more like “real life,” and to place primacy not on intellectual development but “social spirit.”
In the radically subjectivist, emotion-focused climate of the 1960s, educators agreed that the primary purpose of the schools should be not to train the mind but to nurture the psychological and social well-being of the students. In 1969, a journal put out by the National Education Association contained an article entitled “Education for the Seventies.” This article stated: “Ten years hence it will be more accurate to term [the teacher] a learning clinician. This title is intended to convey the idea that schools are becoming clinics, whose purpose is to provide individualized psycho-social treatment for the student thus increasing his value both to him and to society.”13 “Cognitive education,” the training of a child’s intellect by providing him with basic knowledge and skills, was replaced by “affective education,” the nurturing of a child’s spirit by focusing on his feelings.
This new approach to education manifested itself in one of the most popular and influential theories in the history of moral education: “values clarification.” Progressive education in the form of the values clarification movement was pioneered by Louis Raths (a student of John Dewey) and then transmitted to teachers by some of Raths’ disciples, who wrote the immensely popular book Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students. The theory of values clarification holds that all values are relative, and that the role of the teacher should therefore be to help children to become more consciously aware of their own personal, moral values. The focus of the theory is not on the content of values, which its advocates hold to be subjective, but on the process of forming values, which they aim to define and systematize. In essence, values clarification offers teachers a carefully planned, step-by-step, methodical process to help students identify and embrace whatever they happen to feel is right.
According to values clarification, the teacher must never guide children in the direction of his own “pet values.” In any discussion of values, the teacher must avoid “moralizing, criticizing, giving values, or evaluating.” The teacher must exclude “all hints of ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘acceptable,’ or their opposites.”14 He must remain morally neutral, and simply encourage students to consciously affirm their own values. For the teacher to suggest that the students should arrive at certain predetermined conclusions when it comes to moral issues would be to indoctrinate them and deprive them of “freedom.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, this approach spread rapidly across the country, and the Values Clarification handbook became a best-seller. In the anti-establishment culture of the time, this movement to allow children to make “their own” moral judgments—rather than subjecting them to the commandments of authority—was hailed as an educational revolution.
In what form did this revolution take shape in the American classroom? Here is an indication: Strategy number 1 in the Values Clarification handbook is called “Twenty Things I Love to Do.” The purpose of this activity, in the words of the authors, is to “help students examine their most prized and cherished possessions”—no matter what they happen to be. After creating their list of favorite things to do, the students engage in follow-up activities, including discussions with classmates as to how, when, and where they like to do their favorite things. I can only imagine the conversations that ensued when an eighth-grade teacher did this exercise with her students, and found that the four most popular activities were “sex, drugs, drinking, and skipping school.”15
Implicit in every one of the activities outlined in the Values Clarification handbook is the message that every point of view is sacred. A child’s choice of values need not be grounded in facts, consistent with other ideas, or based on any definable standard. His values are his values, and the “clarification” process helps him only to become more aware that they are his values.
Some activities ask the student to express his views on complex, often highly controversial issues. In this sense, the activities are similar to those used in character education, but their intended purpose is different. Whereas the character education teachers employ such activities because they regard values as dogmatic injunctions to be swallowed and applied by rote, the values clarification teachers employ them on the grounds that there can be no right or wrong values, and thus no right or wrong ways to apply them to issues, no matter how complex. “All opinions are valid,” as it were.
The “Public Interview” strategy, for example, has a teacher question a student about his values in front of the class, to give him an opportunity to take center stage and share his positions publicly. Recommended topics for these interviews include: “What is your opinion on public welfare? Should your school give seniors full birth control information? Are there injustices in your community you feel need attention? How do you feel about homosexuality? Do you think social studies books should have more about Black History?”16 and so on. No assurance is made that the students have the prerequisite knowledge to consider these questions, and no process is taught as to how to think about the issue—quite the opposite. Such activities serve only to enshrine the students’ own unsupported, arbitrary, and predictably immature opinions. Far from causing them to make rational, reflective judgments, this method fortifies students with an abrasive pseudo-certainty about their randomly held judgments.
While students subjected to these activities have little knowledge from which to draw their judgments—and no clear method by which to make them—they are expected to have an opinion, so they have to get it from somewhere. Rather than ensuring that students are “prepared to make their own responsible choices,” as claimed, this method fosters the false alternative of either blindly accepting social conventions or blindly rejecting them. Unequipped to make their own decisions, most students adopt the fashionable ideas of the time.
One source of the fashionable ideas is inevitably the authors of the values clarification movement themselves. Despite their insistence on the moral neutrality of the approach, the questions asked by the teachers are, as they would have to be, morally loaded.
Consider, for instance, the questions asked in the activity called the “Rank Order” strategy, which has students respond to questions by ranking the merit of the possible answers provided to them. Questions include:
Which of these jobs would you like most?
____school teacher on an Indian reservation
____director of an inner city project
____coordinator of social action projects for a liberal suburban church.17
Which of the following measures should be taken to alleviate the population problem?
____limit each family to two children and sterilize parents afterwards
____distribute birth control information everywhere
____trust people’s common sense to limit the size of their family.18
Another way in which the authors of this method slant their questions even while they preach moral neutrality is to rule out one category of opinions: extreme opinions. The “values continuum” strategy asks the teacher to draw a long line on the board, with opposite positions on a controversial issue at either end. The explicit purpose of this activity is to help students “realize that on most issues there are many shades of gray” and “move away from the either-or, black-white thinking which often occurs when controversial issues are discussed in the classroom.”19 The extreme ends of the spectrum are parodied with derisive and comical names. For example, on the issue of premarital sex, the two ends are, “Virginal Virginia—Wears White Gloves on Every Date” and “Mattress Millie—Wears a Mattress Strapped to Her Back.”20 On the issue of the draft, the extremes are, “Cannon Fodder—Volunteers Before Being Called” and “Pacifist Pete—Bombs the Induction Center and Destroys Their Records.” (I love that that last example has a pacifist bombing a building.) Clearly these exercises set up false alternatives, but even if we were to grant that they accurately represent two views that are truly in opposition, they rule out the possibility of any principled stand, characterizing it as “extremism.” Thus students are taught to look down on, as “extremists,” those who defend values like justice and freedom on principle.
The alleged purpose of the values clarification method is, as its label would suggest, to help students develop clarity in regard to values. But what they are to become “clear” about is that there are no blacks or whites, only shades of gray. The goal of the movement, in other words, is for students to become clear that they should be confused.
Nothing works better to induce moral confusion than a far-fetched emergency situation—also known as a “lifeboat ethics” situation. As a way to help students learn “how hard it is to objectively determine the ‘best’ values,” values clarification offers the moral dilemma of the “fallout shelter.” In this lifeboat situation, World War III has broken out, and survival depends on making it into a fallout shelter. The students must choose who among a group of ten will be given access to the shelter, which holds only six. In making their judgment, they are to keep in mind the possibility that these six might be the only ones left to start the human race over again. The list of ten candidates from which they are to choose includes “a retarded girl, a prostitute, a drug pusher, a confirmed racist, and a person just released from a mental institution.”21 When I described this lesson to a friend, he called it “Lifeboat Ethics meets Pulp Fiction.” If the goal is for students to become clearly confused, the authors of values clarification have invented an ideal method.
The goal of presenting dilemmas such as the fallout shelter is not to demonstrate that the proper application of moral principles can be complex and must take into account the full context of the situation in question. Rather, the goal of presenting such dilemmas is to tear down the idea that any objective moral conclusions are possible.
Far from being “value-neutral,” the values clarification approach indoctrinates students more successfully than the so-called character educators could ever have dreamed of doing. In The Ominous Parallels, philosopher Leonard Peikoff writes: “The goal of the Progressive indoctrinators was not to impose a specific system of ideas on the student, but to destroy his capacity to hold any firm ideas, on any subject.”22 Values clarification ultimately leads students to be clear about only one thing: that there is no such thing as clarity about values. It teaches them that every subjective, unsupported, disintegrated value judgment is as good as any other—and it urges them to hold their own baseless views with passion and conviction. Such teachings have played a part in producing legions of thoroughly uneducated yet highly opinionated Americans.
Although values clarification was most popular in the 1960s, its essence remains in schools to this day—schools that are only getting worse. Children in today’s schools are learning little or no history, literature, or science, and are uniformly indoctrinated in subjectivism. In defaulting on the responsibility to identify rational principles and standards, the subjectivists always latch on to the cultural dogmas of the time, which today are multiculturalism and environmentalism. I observed a memorable instance of this union of subjectivism and dogma several years ago when I attended a debate between Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute and a professor at the University of California, Irvine. The topic of the debate was “The Arab–Israeli Conflict: Who is in the Right?” Dr. Brook’s opponent, who described himself as a “Buddhist Agnostic Jew,” challenged the whole premise of the debate, and, with the crowd rallying behind him, argued that the conclusion of the debate should be that no one is right or wrong, that the Arab–Israeli conflict is complex, impenetrable, and morally gray. His rallying cry—and that of his student minions in attendance—was that there are no absolutes, no principles, no objective evaluations. But, when Dr. Brook dared to suggest that the values of the West are superior to those of the Middle East, the audience rose to its feet in rage. Dr. Brook’s response was perfect. He said, “Apparently there are no absolutes, except that I’m wrong.”
The reaction of that audience directly reflects the current state of education. Today’s schools have an atmosphere of relativism and contempt for any assertion of principles or abstract truths, but along with this air of subjectivism comes a violently dogmatic insistence on the equality of all cultures and the necessity of preserving nature from the brutal, materialistic hand of man.
The indoctrination going on in today’s schools is fairly well-documented, so I will restrict my discussion to just a few horrific examples.
The author of a program called “Socially Responsible Science Education” argues for discussions that will “dispel the notion that science . . . can always deliver ‘right answers.’”
Here are two topics of discussion recommended in this science curriculum:
1. If studies show that all people in the world could have enough to eat if food were better distributed and if land devoted to cattle were used to raise food for people, should we expect millions of meat-eaters to change their diets?
2. Is it right for some people to spend what amounts to millions of dollars each year on “luxury” operations when thousands of infants die each year because their mothers could not afford prenatal care?23
Keep in mind as you hear these examples that the textbook guidelines issued by the state of California now require that all California science texts include the discussion of ethical issues.
To illustrate what has become of history in today’s classrooms, consider a federally funded program known as Facing History and Ourselves. A nationwide network of thirty thousand educators pushes this program, which reaches more than a million and a half junior high and high school students yearly. The program has gotten the attention of the Today show as well as the support of celebrities such as Steven Spielberg and Matt Damon.
The Facing History and Ourselves curriculum is a six-month, in-depth study of the Nazis and the Holocaust, with the goal of getting students to reflect “on the causes and consequences of present-day prejudice, intolerance, violence, and racism.” Set aside the absurdity of devoting six months to the Holocaust and asking for deep analysis of it from teens ignorant of history, and just look at one segment of the curriculum.
Because its goal is the promotion of tolerance and respect for “diversity,” the curriculum includes a program to address September 11. This program involves a variety of lessons, all with the same basic theme. One lesson employs The Dictionary of Global Culture, a book that was written to encourage people to adapt to the new, less “Eurocentric,” global world, and to respect the great diversity of traditions. In another exercise, students read the prayers that were offered by religious leaders around the world after September 11, and are then asked to discuss the fundamental values all religions have in common and the importance of an “interfaith dialogue” among the world’s religions. In yet another lesson, students learn details about the life of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers. They learn about his alleged torment as a Muslim surrounded by the temptations of the modern world. They are asked to discuss in what way Atta was unsettled by the traditions of the West, and to give their thoughts as to why some people find the modern world unsettling. The message in common among all the lessons is: the importance of tolerance or non-judgment. Don’t condemn the culture of the Middle East—embrace the great diversity of world cultures. Don’t condemn Islamic Fundamentalism—encourage understanding among religions. Don’t blame the hijackers and their many supporters—understand and sympathize with their plight.
Are such lessons going to lead to a generation of children able to understand the value of America and defend it?
Having examined some of the major trends in the history of moral education—the character ethics movement with its dogmatic lessons in the “core values,” the values clarification movement with its “anything goes” attitude toward morality, and the current movement with environmentalism and multiculturalism as the default dogmas of the day—let us briefly examine the basic approaches to morality that lead to such problems. These approaches are best designated as intrinsicism and subjectivism.
Intrinsicism, a term coined by philosopher Ayn Rand, is the view that knowledge, including moral knowledge, exists intrinsically in reality and is somehow automatically imprinted on man’s consciousness. For the intrinsicist, values are features of reality separate and distinct from man. The good is good in itself; it derives from some external reality and is imposed on us from the outside. Values are not derived from experience and cannot be validated by reason; they must be accepted on faith. The intrinsicist, therefore, must teach values either by sheer assertion, independent of the rest of the curriculum, or by contriving lessons that will stealthily promote his arbitrary commandments. In other words, he must choose between overt dogmatism and covert dogmatism.
Subjectivism is the view that real knowledge is a fiction, and that all we possess is pseudo-knowledge created by the individual or the group (i.e., the “subject”). For the subjectivist, therefore, moral values have no relation to facts and are not determined by reason. Values are the products of man’s consciousness alone and are chosen by whim. This is why subjectivists divorce discussions of values from the curriculum entirely. Values, on their approach, cannot be grounded in facts, so understanding the events of history or the characters of literature is irrelevant to their selection and validation. For the subjectivist, values are products of aimless musing and baseless preference, needing no further justification than the fact that they were chosen by the valuer.
To avoid the negative consequences of the intrinsicist and subjectivist approaches to values education, we need a very different understanding of the nature and source of values. We can find such an understanding in the ideas of Ayn Rand.
As Ayn Rand observed, values, properly understood, are neither products of the human mind unrelated to the facts of reality, nor intrinsic features of reality unrelated to human needs; rather, they are understandable facts about the requirements of human life. Values—from knowledge to food to shelter to romance to justice to freedom to art—are the things man must pursue in order to live the happiest, most fulfilling life possible to him. And since man does not know these requirements automatically, his most basic value is the one by means of which he gains such knowledge: reason. Moral values are principles that are learned as all other principles are learned—they are reached by a rational, inductive process of integrating the knowledge and experiences gained throughout a lifetime.
On this approach, values should neither be totally unrelated to the curriculum (as they are for the subjectivist) nor artificially imposed on the curriculum (as they are for the intrinsicist). Rather, discussion of values can and should arise naturally out of the curriculum, because moral principles are generalizations about the requirements of man’s life on earth drawn from experience by means of reason. A proper curriculum presents the relevant facts of a given subject in a way that students can grasp those facts in relation to the requirements of life.
Morality and the academic curriculum are, in a sense, one and the same. Moral principles are integrations of the facts learned from studying history, reading literature, and learning science. They cannot be learned apart from the study of these subjects because they are nothing more than a certain perspective on the concretes that make up these subjects.
My answer, therefore, to the question of how you teach values in the classroom is very simple. You teach the core curriculum: extensive knowledge of the world; the history of man and the consequences of his ideas and actions; the great discoveries of science, how they were made, and what they made possible; the classics of literature and the characters and situations they describe. These are the raw material from which rational moral principles—such as honesty, purpose, justice, liberty—are drawn.
To show how moral principles are learned in the course of studying the basic school subjects, let me describe to you some experiences from the past year at my own school.
I teach literature to the junior high students. Several years ago, we read The Count of Monte Cristo. In this novel, the main character, Dantes, is falsely accused of aiding Napoleon and is sent to prison for life. There are three main villains in the story. Danglars and Fernand conspire to send a letter to the king accusing Dantes of being a Bonapartist, Danglars because he wants his position as ship captain, and Fernand because he is in love with Dantes’ fiancÈe, Mercedes. Dantes is brought before the prosecutor for the king, Villefort, who quickly determines that Dantes is innocent, but then discovers that Dantes has information that implicates Villefort’s own father. To save his reputation, Villefort sends Dantes to be imprisoned in the Chateau d’If.
At one point in the course of our discussion of these three villains—Danglars, Fernand, and Villefort—I asked my students which one they thought was the worst. There was an even distribution of opinion in the class, so I suggested that they consider their reasons carefully and prepare an argument to defend their view. The next day we had a debate in class.
Those who chose Fernand gave an insightful argument that I myself had not mentioned. They contended that if Fernand had been truly in love with Mercedes, he would not have sought to destroy the man she loves. His goal would be to preserve her happiness, even if that meant ensuring that she was happily married to his rival.
Those who chose Villefort also had good reason. Villefort, they said, was the prosecutor for the king. He held the sacred responsibility of enforcing justice in the land, and a man’s fate rode on his judgment alone. They believed that the fact that his job was to uphold justice made his actions the worst.
Both were excellent arguments, but I have saved the best for last. The group who chose Danglars made an interesting observation. His nominal goal, they pointed out, was to get the captaincy for himself. But these students discovered that Danglars had a deeper motive. Drawing from dialogue in the novel, they noted that Danglars’ true motive was not desire for a job, but envy of Dantes. He despised Dantes simply because Dantes was successful, happy, and in love; he hated Dantes because Dantes was good. This is why Danglars sought to destroy him. The students concluded that this despicable motive made Danglars by far the most reprehensible of the villains.
Now, these students of mine have never heard of nihilism, and this was not the time or place to introduce the idea. But when they do learn that concept, this knowledge will help to give it clear meaning in their minds.
I chose this example because the moral issues involved in our discussion were prominent: Clearly these students were learning something about pride, integrity, and justice in the analysis of these villains. But you could choose any of the literature discussions at random, and you would discover that all have important moral implications (although not necessarily moral themes). The same is true in the other subjects.
Every Thursday, Andrew Lewis, the history teacher at my school, plays Australian football with the students. Once, during a game, he turned to one of the students, who had been continually switching teams, and said, teasingly, “I have Alcibiades on my team!” Mr. Lewis was delighted when the reaction of these nine- to thirteen-year-olds to this obscure historical reference, was, “Yeah, that’s a good one.”
Mr. Lewis has taught the students history in such a logical, essentialized, story-like form, that a reference to a historical figure or event conjures in their minds the particulars of that story, as well as its causes and consequences. A vast body of such knowledge in all the essential subjects is what ultimately enables students to arrive at abstract moral judgments.
Several years ago, David Harriman was teaching physical science to my junior high students. That year, he covered Newton’s discoveries in optics. He first presented the theories of light offered by Descartes and Hooke. Descartes speculated, without experimental evidence, that light is made up of particles, and that the speed at which the particles spin determines the color of the light. Hooke theorized, again with no experiments to support his theory, that light consists of waves, and that the symmetry or asymmetry of the waves determines the color of the light. Newton, on the other hand, began not with a theory, but with an observation. His famous prism experiments yielded the conclusion that white light is made up of colors, and that each color refracts at a different angle. This discovery made possible subsequent discoveries about the basic nature of light and a long list of inventions from improved telescopes and eyeglasses to radios and CD players.
By studying the approaches of Descartes and Hooke, and learning the method of Newton by contrast, these students were learning the proper use of reason and its value in human life. They were grasping the life-serving nature of scientific methodology—as against the uselessness of positing and pursuing arbitrary hypotheses. (For more on this point, see David Harriman’s article in this issue of TOS.)
A firsthand understanding of morality is grasped, in large part, through lessons such as these—including discussions of villains in literature, traitors in history, great thinkers in science. The accumulation of knowledge acquired in this manner across a lifetime is what makes meaningful abstract thought about morality possible. To the extent that a teacher’s goal is to help develop the student’s character, he should do so by filling his mind with relevant facts.
A clear distinction must be made between teaching values as they arise in the curriculum and smuggling values into the curriculum. When selecting the content of any course, a teacher must identify the overall purpose for the subject and allow the purpose to set the standard for the content. It is a mistake to structure the course with the goal of conveying certain values.
To make the discussion of specific moral values the goal of a course on literature or science is to lose sight of the real, overall purpose of that subject. The cognitive purpose of teaching a particular subject should be clearly defined, and the content should be selected accordingly. Given that purpose, and given the material that is covered in pursuit of that purpose, the teacher should then help students to make any value judgments that are warranted by the material. If the teacher is giving a lesson about an episode in history or a character in literature, and if the students have the context of knowledge to make a value judgment on the basis of what they have learned, it is then incumbent upon the teacher to help them draw out the moral lesson.
Let me concretize what it would mean to make moral education the goal of a particular course. Suppose I were designing a course on science, and I aimed to do so specifically for the purpose of teaching values. Because “teaching values” is a highly abstract idea, it would have to stand in my mind as something more concrete than that; I would have to select what I considered to be some important specific values to communicate through a science course. Let us say that as an advocate of reason over faith, I decide that one of the most important moral lessons of science is the persecution of great scientists by the Church. With the teaching of this value as my goal, I lay out the curriculum. I decide to spend a great deal of time talking about Galileo, who was placed under house arrest after publishing his proof of the heliocentric theory. I cover Giordano Bruno, an Italian scientist who was denounced to the Inquisition and executed for his denial of Catholic doctrines. I discuss Servetus, the Spanish physician who discovered that blood circulates through the lung, because he was executed by John Calvin for his heretical religious views. I do not, however, spend a great deal of time covering Newton, who had only a minor scuffle over religion with Trinity College, and who would therefore not serve well to establish the principle that religion is the enemy of science. Need I say more?
To develop a proper science curriculum, you must first identify the basic purpose of teaching science. The goal of a physical science curriculum should be, simply, to teach students about the basic nature of the physical world. Every element of the curriculum should be carefully chosen to convey the most significant facts and discoveries about the operation of the world around us. In the development of a science curriculum, this must be the starting point, and the teacher must stay zealously committed to the overall purpose in selecting the relevant content.
Insofar as moral principles are to be discussed, they must arise out of the basic curriculum. Morality as such—that is, the science of ethics—should not be broken out and discussed as a separate subject until students reach a level of maturity at which they are able to think about philosophic concepts in a highly abstract manner. At the earliest, this occurs sometime during high school. Throughout a child’s many years of schooling, he is gathering data that will allow him to think meaningfully about such abstract, philosophic ideas.
The teaching of values is parallel to the teaching of logic. You do not properly teach a course on logic to grade-schoolers, because they do not have the range of experiences or the intellectual maturity to grasp the highly abstract principles involved. Nor do you structure a course on grammar or history with the goal of teaching the principles of logic; to do so would cause you to lose sight of the fundamental purpose of the course. Both the principles of logic and the principles of morality are learned inductively through the study of the subjects in the core curriculum. They are learned in stages, as they arise from the material.
Several years ago, in his history of physical science course, David Harriman covered the theories of the geocentrists and the evidence for the heliocentric theory. At one point in the course, he stopped and conducted a review session of the evidence for and against the heliocentric theory. The evidence in favor of the theory included the retrograde motion of the planets, the phases of Venus, and the moons of Jupiter. The main evidence against the theory—that we on Earth do not feel the effects of hurtling through space—had been refuted by Galileo’s physics. At one point in the discussion, Mr. Harriman said, “Now what about this argument by the Church, that the Bible says the Earth is the stationary center of the universe?” One of the students in the class thought for a moment, then raised his hand and said, “That’s a different kind of argument.” For a twelve-year-old, that is the perfect form in which to hold the distinction. And given his knowledge of the history of science, it is a distinction he grasps firsthand and will retain. When he later learns on a more abstract level about the duel between reason and mysticism, such concepts will integrate the vast knowledge he has systematically accumulated throughout his education.
All philosophical abstractions, moral and otherwise, are learned in this fashion, and a teacher’s curriculum and methods should recognize and respect this fact.
Some people, after observing the dogmatism of character education, conclude that schools should be “value-neutral.” But this is a mistake. If morality is seen as a set of abstract conclusions that are reached as all other abstract conclusions are reached—if it is understood to be based on reality and accessible to reason—then it becomes clear that schools should no more be neutral in regard to value judgments than they are in regard to Newton’s laws. If a student has the context of knowledge to make an integration, whether that integration is a value judgment or a principle of science or anything else, it is the teacher’s most sacred responsibility to guide him in forming that conclusion.
If, for example, you are teaching physical science to elementary students, you might cover Aristotle’s evidence that the Earth is a sphere. You would not merely tell the students that a ship sailing out on the ocean sinks into the horizon, and that a curved shadow is visible on the Moon during an eclipse, and then leave them to draw their own conclusion. Rather, you would present the evidence to the students and then explain how and why it leads to the conclusion that the Earth is spherical. The fact that the students possess the raw data necessary to make the integration does not mean they are capable of making it on their own.
Similarly, if a science lesson gives rise to a value judgment, it is equally legitimate to lead the students in the formation of that conclusion. If, in the course of a science curriculum, you cover Galileo’s incontrovertible evidence for the heliocentric theory and contrast his method with that of the geocentrists, or if you describe Newton’s experiments and discovery of properties of light and contrast them with Descartes’ spinning of theories out of thin air, or if you discuss the battle between the atomists and the anti-atomists, it is proper to lead students to the conclusion that Galileo, Newton, and Maxwell were heroes, that their methods were good, and that their discoveries had a lasting and profoundly valuable impact on the world. Because the students have the context to grasp these evaluations—because they can see the evidence for and understand the reasoning behind such value judgments—teaching them to make such judgments is not indoctrination; it is part of a proper education.
The teaching of any true, rational principles can become indoctrination if the teacher does not respect the hierarchy of knowledge and always consider carefully the context of knowledge of his students. But this fact is not unique to the realm of values; indoctrination and dogmatism are possible in the teaching of all abstractions. The point is that in regard to abstractions, the teacher must not be neutral—he must be hierarchical.
There is nothing dogmatic about guiding students in the formation of a conclusion, as long as they have the context of knowledge to properly grasp the conclusion. The responsibility of a school is to identify in advance what is the most important knowledge for children to obtain, to present it to them in terms of essentials, and to guide them in the process of making connections and forming principles. In doing so, it prepares students to make rational, informed judgments by arming them with the knowledge accumulated throughout history.
Another mistake is to think that the schools should be neutral in regard to values because morality is the province of the home. There can be no such separation, because it is neither possible nor appropriate for schools to be value-neutral. Much of education consists of making evaluations. Education is not education if it does not convey the genius of Newton and the remarkable progress that his discoveries made possible—if it does not extol the virtues of the American revolution and its freeing of man from tyranny—if it does not discuss the heroism of Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People and the evil of Iago in Othello. The child does not truly understand these people, events, and characters unless he understands them in evaluative terms.
What leads many to conclude that the schools should remain neutral on values is that they know they will disagree with the values that the schools are likely to convey. Unfortunately, this is a problem that cannot be escaped by pushing the schools to remain neutral. Such neutrality is factually impossible, because evaluations are conveyed in the very selection of data to be presented—whether the schools name the abstractions explicitly or not. Take the history of the Industrial Revolution. The class that emphasizes the relative poverty of factory workers as compared to industrialists during the Industrial Revolution has definite value implications—as does the class that emphasizes the unparalleled increase in the general standard of living during the Industrial Revolution.
Given the inescapability of values in the classroom, and the fact that most schools teach many destructive values, a parent’s best option is usually to find for his child a school that has a basically reasonable, commonsense set of implicit values (or to move to southern California and send him to VanDamme Academy).
I do sympathize with parents who want the schools to abandon the issue of values and leave moral issues for the home—especially given the amount of time devoted to moral discussions of sex, drugs, and violence. We send our children to school so that they will receive a good, solid education in the core subjects, not so that they will be subjected to lectures about illicit moral behavior. The attempt by schools to remedy all the ills of society reflects the Hillary Clinton “it takes a village to raise a child” mentality, and inappropriately seizes authority from parents. It also reflects the bureaucratic, “big government” technique of trying to fix all problems caused by the government with solutions implemented by the government. There is no question that the rampant immorality and irrationality among teenagers is a direct result of the schools’ failure to provide them with an education. Rather than attacking the problem at its root, by giving children an education that makes them mature, knowledgeable, and rational, the schools attempt to put a Band-Aid on the problem by sitting children down and telling them to “just say no.”
All moral issues unrelated to the content of the courses or the dynamics of the classroom are properly the province of the home. Schools should address values only to the extent that they relate to the core curriculum, and by a method that derives them from the content of the core curriculum.
The basic question we have been concerned with is: How do you properly teach values in the classroom? In one sense, the answer is: You don’t. You don’t offer explicit lessons in an abstract topic, severing the abstractions from their roots in reality; and you don’t organize the content of a course with the purpose of conveying values, losing sight of the true purpose of the subject.
In another sense, the answer is: You teach values every minute of every day in every subject—by asking students to apply their minds in math and grammar, by teaching them the causes and consequences of the major events in history, by guiding them through the brilliant inductive conclusions of the great scientists, by helping them to analyze heroes and villains in the great works of literature, and by leading them to the formation of any evaluative conclusions that they are contextually prepared to make. When students taught in this manner become adults, ready to consider the full scope of moral questions, they will be able to understand morality in a deep, real, and thoroughly grounded way.