Education Foundation

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Education Foundation

Education Foundation

Teaching as a Moral Enterprise

The most important function of schooling is moral education. For what could be more important than helping others--and ourselves--to become better people? Even a moment's reflection will reveal that any of the other typically proffered goals of education (transmission of culture, preparation for the workforce, responsible citizenship) are secondary. They tacitly presuppose that what is learned will be put to good use--will be used in the service of what is Good--and that this Good is of higher importance than any of its subsidiary aims. For there is no higher purpose for our existence than to live a Good life.

This is not to say that acquiring a useful and shared body of knowledge and skills is irrelevant. On the contrary, while moral virtue may or may not be predicated upon such learnings, they nonetheless extend the range and depth of our service to a higher good. Moreover, the broader and deeper our understanding of our complex, interdependent world, and the more skilled we are at navigating it, the less likely it is that our actions will bring unintentional harm to others or to the environment. So a major goal of education is definitely the acquisition of knowledge and skills. It is just not the paramount aim.

Moral education is not so much a subject in American education as a vibrant and contentious debate with deep historical roots. Moral education, broadly construed, refers to the effort by educators to inculcate specific values such as honesty and integrity in young students. The idea is that public schools not only should be responsible for teaching core academic content such as reading and arithmetic but also should help children develop into thoughtful and ethically responsible human beings. For many educators, therefore, moral education is a critical component of civic education and a necessary component of training for citizenship. (Hunter, 2001) There are those who say it's not the job of schools, especially public schools, to teach morality. But the fact of the matter is that we do it every day, whether we intend to or not, whether we like it or not. We do it by our example; by what we include, emphasize, and omit; by how we deal with situations, ourselves, and each other. So rather than bemoaning or denying the unavoidable moral responsibility of teaching, we need to confront it head on. To do any less is to leave this most important function of schooling to accident.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point. Not too long ago a colleague and I facilitated a workshop on stereotyping and name-calling at a local high school. In the course of the workshop we asked some 50 students for examples of discrimination and stereotyping from their own school experience. More than half the examples they gave--and this took us somewhat by surprise--were of teachers' prejudicial behaviors.

Most of the examples these students gave of in-school discrimination were of teachers' thoughtless, hurtful, and cruel ...
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