Now Johnny can't tell right from wrong?

December 28, 1992|By Boston Globe

It started when William Kilpatrick, a professor of education at Boston College, began noticing what he would come to call signs of "moral illiteracy" among his students.

They were talking about the Ten Commandments and he wanted to list them on the board. "It wasn't that individuals couldn't think of them all," he said during an interview in his office. "The whole class, working together to come up with the complete list, couldn't do it."

The event reminded him of something else that had happened five or six years earlier. During an exam he was giving on sex education, a student asked him what the word "abstinence" meant in one of his questions. Acknowledging that his word may have been a poor choice, Mr. Kilpatrick told the student to substitute the word "chastity." The student asked: "What's chastity?"

Mr. Kilpatrick, 52, teaches courses in human development and moral education at Boston College. He's also a parent and grandparent.

He has a diagnosis, even a term for the symptoms of these young people: "moral illiteracy." He put his thoughts, reflections and observations together in a new book, his fourth, called "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong: Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education."

Mr. Kilpatrick says much of the socially pathological behavior and conduct we see in some young people today is traceable to the lack of a moral component in teaching and education, a vacuum that has developed since the late '60s.

He says morality was taught in different ways prior to the '60s, "partly through exhortation, partly through assumptions about how students should behave, through assumptions about their [social] environment, through discipline, dress codes, school spirit. The emphasis was not on taking a stand on an issue but on building good habits of behavior.

"Morality wasn't just in your mind in an abstract way but it was wired into your very being through practice and habit. It wasn't a curriculum or a course, but a general approach to life.

"Before the '60s," he added, "no one ever dreamed that values could be capsulized and taught in a one-hour classroom session." Mr. Kilpatrick points out that character development was an integral part of the curriculum until the focus changed in the late '60s.

Beginning then and moving into the '70s, he says, most schools changed from character education to an untested and instinctive process known as "decision-making," called by some "value-free" decision-making.

"The idea was that you would be shown how to make decisions that would make you happy," he said.

Mr. Kilpatrick says the events of the '60s and '70s -- assassinations, Vietnam, drug problems, student unrest and Watergate -- combined to subvert the idea that the culture survives and endures through ideas that have withstood the test of time, that "older ideas are what we transmit in the culture.

"In the middle to late '60s," he explained, "many people thought we had squandered our moral inheritance. They thought something was morally wrong with us, that our moral ideas were not worth transmitting. We had to start from scratch and let the young decide what their own values would be."

Mr. Kilpatrick said that modes of "values clarification" and decision-making were introduced in schools from grades one to 12 in the United States and Canada, and that the idea was "to avoid indoctrination at all costs."

Mr. Kilpatrick says the issue isn't whether teachers should supplant parents as teachers of morality but that teachers are already doing it by "indoctrinating" students with "relativism," the idea that "all values are equal and that no one can say what's right or wrong."

That's a notion, he said, that "flies in the face of most of the world's religions and traditions."

"I'm calling for not taking stands on divisive issues," he said. "I'm calling for stands on issues that are not divisive, on virtues like courage, loyalty, justice, responsibility and the like."

He says the best way to develop strength of character is to return to the good models in education, with its focus on good examples and good habits.

By good habits, he means "the habit of obedience to lawful authority, responsibility, self-discipline and perseverance," among others.

Mr. Kilpatrick says a key problem in education is that "too much psychology has been applied wholesale to life" and that psychology, while useful, is, in this case, "inapplicable and inappropriate.

"In the child-centered classroom, the non-judgmental approach argues that the goal is to feel good about yourself," he said. "The emphasis on self-esteem comes at the expense of emphasis on the disciplines of science, math and literature. The dynamic becomes feeling good about yourself.

It leads to uncritical self-regard in the child, a sense of 'I'm OK and everything I do is OK.' "

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