School and the Development of Moral Identities

I ran across an interesting piece in the Atlantic. Paul Barnwell, an English teacher in Kentucky, argues that too much time in school (primary and secondary) is spent on pure academics and not much is given to allowing students to develop a moral identity.

Barnwell’s concern was peaked after he initiated a discussion involving a moral dilemma:

A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

Hmmm. If we assume that “other people were badly harmed” means others were physically harmed, I’m shocked Barnwell’s entire class was “unequivocally unconcerned” and wouldn’t say anything to the police. Yeah, that might have been hypothetical but sheesh. I mean where is Barnwell teaching? Tough crowd! That’s definitely a moment of clarity for a teacher.

Anyway, the bigger point that Barnwell took from this was how the students seemed more drawn to these moral discussions:

We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters…

(Italics added)

Well first I’d say I don’t think it’s just high school kids who’re “more engaged” by moral questions, just watch a group of adults at election time! Let’s just say you don’t know people as well as you think you do.

Anyway, our moral identities are a large part of who we are. And of course ethics is politics writ large. So a challenge to our moral world view (or our politics) is a challenge to our personal identity, and that can be very personal to some people. And that’s largely why schools tend to avoid ethical discussions, because it can offend some students which can lead to parents showing up at the school complaining “My kid doesn’t go to school for that!”

However, while these moral discussions may offend some parents, they’re usually very interesting to the students. Whether you’re a student or an adult you get passionate about what we believe, and being passionate is good. It reminds us we’re alive. It stirs our sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. I think most people crave that. Educators should capitalize on that and guide their students to explore their value systems and the connections they have with others. It’s not about imposing a view, it’s about exposing the student to the views of others. Empathy is how we expand our moral imagination.

One of the central reasons for an education is to free the mind. By doing so we free the individual from the tyranny of manipulation. The motto for the Enlightenment, coined by Immanuel Kant, was Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” That, at least, is how I see the goal of education. Provide students with the tools and then let them decide how to use that knowledge in their own life.

There is nothing wrong with teaching moral courage, honesty, and the acceptance of others. The vast majority of parents agree with this. The trick is how you go about it. Barnewell’s thoughts are you “expose students to tough (moral) issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.”

The idea is to draw students into various perspectives and let them explore them. This can be done with various disciplines. For example, Barnwell uses his HS biology teacher who challenged his class to think about their consumer choices and how these affect the ecosystem and the environment. The question doesn’t impose a value or ask students to adopt one, but challenges students to think through the various connections and consequences of their individual decisions. The student can decide what this means to them. As they think, as they see, so they feel.

Of course HS English and History teachers have the advantage in this task. There’s nothing like literature and the stories of human beings to frame moral questions and stir our moral imagination. Those of us who love the humanities have always known this was why a liberal arts education is so important for the maintenance of a just and free society.

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