Why our schools are turning out moral illiterates

William K. Kilpatrick

July 23, 1993|By William K. Kilpatrick

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — IN CAMBRIDGE, Mass., a 15-year-old is accused of murdering a college student during a mugging, then bragging to his two high school-age accomplices that the knife went all the way through the body.

After the boy's arraignment, some of his classmates cried. Not for the loss of a promising life, but for the high bail that had been placed on their friend. When a reporter asked one of them what the appropriate punishment for murder should be, he responded, "counseling." Said another, a girl, "What's the big bleepin' deal? People die all the time. So what?"

Many of today's young people have a difficult time seeing any moral dimension to their actions. There are a number of reasons why that's true, but none more prominent than a failed system of education that eschews teaching children the traditional moral values that bind Americans together as a society and a culture.

That failed approach, called "decision-making," was introduced in schools 25 years ago. It tells children to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. It replaced "character education." Character education didn't ask children to reinvent the moral wheel; instead, it encouraged them to practice habits of courage, justice and self-control.

In the 1940s, when a character education approach prevailed, teachers worried about students chewing gum; today they worry about robbery and rape.

Decision-making curriculums pose thorny ethical dilemmas to students, leaving them with the impression that all morality is problematic and that all questions of right and wrong are in dispute. Youngsters are forced to question values and virtues they've never acquired in the first place or upon which they have only a tenuous hold. The Polyannaish assumption behind this method is that students will arrive at good moral conclusions if only they are given the chance. But the actual result is moral confusion.

For example, a recent, national study of 1,700 sixth- to ninth-graders revealed that a majority of boys considered rape to be acceptable under certain conditions. Astoundingly, many of the girls agreed.

This kind of moral illiteracy is further encouraged by values-education programs that are little more than courses in self-esteem. These programs are based on the questionable assumption that a child who feels good about himself or herself won't want to do anything wrong. But it is just as reasonable to make an opposite assumption: namely, that a child who has uncritical self-regard will conclude that he or she can't do anything bad.

Such naive self-acceptance results in large part from the non-directive, non-judgmental, as-long-as-you-feel-comfortable-with-your-choices mentality that has pervaded public education for the last two and one-half decades. Many of today's drug education, sex education and values-education courses are based on the same 1960s philosophy that helped fuel the explosion in teen drug use and sexual activity in the first place.

Meanwhile, while educators are still fiddling with outdated "feel-good" approaches, New York, Washington and Los Angeles are burning. Youngsters are leaving school believing that matters of right and wrong are always merely subjective. If you pass a stranger on the street and decide to murder him because you need money -- if it feels right -- you go with that feeling. Clearly, murder is not taught in our schools, but such a conclusion -- just about any conclusion -- can be reached and justified using the decision-making method.

It is time to consign the fads of "decision-making" and "non-judgmentalism" to the ash heap of failed policies, and return to a proved method. Character education provides a much more realistic approach to moral formation. It is built on an understanding that we learn morality not by debating it but by practicing it.

What's the lesson for schools? That they need to get back in the habit of encouraging good habits of behavior. Schools also need re-learn the importance of example and imitation in forming character. We become good people not by inventing our own values but by finding the best examples -- from life, from literature, from history -- and trying to follow them.

Teaching right from wrong has as much bearing on a culture's survival as teaching reading, writing or science, and there exists a great wealth of knowledge about how to do it. Teachers do have the right -- and the duty -- to teach basic morality. If they can find the courage to again shoulder that responsibility, teen-age boys would soon come to realize that rape is wrong under any circumstance, and a misguided young woman might begin to understand why the murder of a young man is indeed a big deal.

William K. Kilpatrick, a professor of education at Boston College, is the author of "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong."

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