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.

The Dictionary Project

I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant, where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happily obliged to let him.

After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first, because he showed me a section with short bios of U.S. Presidents and a section of U.S. state maps, I thought it might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.

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There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders this philosophically enlightening statement on the cover was just the type of display in intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.

Books should, at a minimum, be a value added experience, an in some cases, like this little dictionary, a potentially mind stretching (“world” expanding) one also.

This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.

In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:

To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.

For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry (as I’m sure you all do), it was a nice little reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.

Quote: Leo Tolstoy and the Challenge of Learning

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“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Leo Tolstoy

Commencement Speakers & Student Protests

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Typically during this time of year, we hear about some college students protesting a controversial speaker invited to speak at their commencement address. The students typically interrupt the speaker with verbal protests or some other form of protest like holding up signs. The intention is to confront the speaker. Some of the students find the speaker’s views obnoxious or anti-social or fascist or racist or whatever, and they decide the best course of action is to try and shut the speaker down. It has become a regular event throughout the school year. I’ve had more than a few discussions with some good friends, who cry foul incessantly about this very topic.

My conservative leaning friends—and the conservative media—take the position that these liberal student protestors (and liberals in general really) are hypocrites: they bemoan and belittle conservatives for being “intolerant” of other groups of people and then liberal college students demonstrate open intolerance for conservative speakers and their ideas. Well, as it relates to the classroom or lecture hall, I think conservatives have a fair point about a lack of tolerance by students who protest controversial speakers. However, while I agree with them to a point, I do think there is a time when students should protest the invitation of a speaker. Let me explain.

The university classroom should be a place for debate. Universities and their campuses are places of learning. We learn by exercising our minds through analysis, synthesis, and creativity. Real intellectual growth comes from an open minded engagement with ideas, including those we vehemently disagree with. Learning can be painful. Comfortable and long held assumptions can sometimes be destroyed, revised, or totally thrown into doubt when we’re truly getting educated. This is something ideologues on the political right and the left struggle with. They come to a discussion with preset ideas and caked prejudices that aren’t open to revision…regardless of the evidence or good argument to the contrary. A problem with epistemic closure and an outright refusal to be convinced becomes a stone wall to any genuine learning or growth. 

So when a professor or student group invites a guest speaker they should be allowed to speak uninterrupted. There should be no protests. The speaker, controversial or not, is a guest of the university and the students should mind their manners, act like proper scholars, and allow the speaker, regardless of how much the students may disagree with him or her, to make their presentation. Afterward, however, the speaker should be prepared for tough questions by the students in attendance. Students should show respect, but speakers should also be told that as a provision of speaking at the school the speaker must be willing answer questions from the audience. The give and take of learning requires this.

So when a controversial speaker is schedule to speak, students should read up on them and prepare hard questions. If you disagree with someone what better way “to protest” than to politely and respectfully ask a tough question that reveals the deep and obvious problems with a speaker’s beliefs or ideas. What better Youtube material can you ask for?

Now, what I said in the preceding refers to speakers invited to speak or lecture on a topic during the academic school year.

I take a somewhat different position as it relates to guest speakers for commencement day. Commencement day is strictly about the graduates. It’s their day. They have spent years writing papers, taking tests, debating, and arguing and now it’s time to celebrate and be inspired. It’s not a day for controversy or for inviting speakers who knowingly generate it. So I have no problem with graduating students protesting the invitation of a commencement speaker.

I think the names of guest speakers should be made available in advance as soon a possible. If some students feel strongly enough and want to protest then they should do so. It’s up to the faculty to decide what to do. If the school goes ahead and allows the controversial speaker to deliver their address, then I think the graduates should remain respectful for the sake of all present. At that point, protesting would be disrespectful and rude, not so much to the speaker, but to all the other graduates, guests and parents in attendance. 

So in the classroom and lecture hall I encourage students to protest by listening respectfully and then posing good, tough questions to controversial guest speakers. Don’t shut them down with open protests, challenge their views and ideas with intelligent questions!

But as it relates to commencement speakers, I encourage students to make their feelings known to the faculty and commencement organizers as soon as possible. Protesting the speaker’s invitation is certainly something they have a right to do before commencement day. If the protests are strong enough and broad enough then hopefully the school will listen and move on to inviting another speaker instead.

There are people who think that students should just accept the invitation of a controversial speaker, regardless of whether the graduating students want to hear from them or not on commencement day. I disagree entirely. Graduating students have earned and paid for the right to have a say in this celebration of their accomplishment. Controversy can wait for another time. That day is for coming together and celebrating. 

Remembering Shakespeare and the Arts

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. — William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (photo: Wiki)

Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. I was reminded by a New Yorker piece I read over morning coffee. It got me to thinking about my first “encounter” with Shakespeare.

Most of us educated in the Western world, especially in the English speaking nations, probably remember an English class where you had to read and discuss a Shakespearian tragedy, history, or comedy. I suspect the tragic plays, if any at all, are probably more remembered than any of the other plays: works like Julius Caesar, MacBeth, Othello, and King Lear. There’s a greater weight and imprint to the tragic sense of life. It’s always there, just below the surface, working sadly.

I first experienced Shakespeare’s plays in a high school English class. The most cogent memory is of Mr Roper’s class at F.W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The course instruction was memorable only in the sense that I was so bored. It was hard to stay awake. I seem to recall Mr Roper calling on me just to make sure I was awake. I was not as good as many of the other guys in class at hiding it. Shakespeare’s idioms and word play required too much thought and had no relevance to my life or my future. Just like those complicated math classes…it was a waste of my time!

Or so my teenage mind thought at the time.

College was a little better. A little more maturity, mixed with the exposure to other interrelated liberal arts courses and, more importantly, excellent teachers, stirred my interest in the subtleties, meaning, and value of the arts. Reading Shakespeare in college was, well, an eye opening experience for me. I don’t recall the instructors name, though I can still see and hear him in my mind. With him Shakespeare came alive and spoke to me. I began to see, and more importantly in art, to feel and appreciate the artistry and creativeness of Shakespeare’s genius.

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Sure, a psychologists, using different words, would tell you these very basic things: your perceptions construct your world. Most of us understand that. But the scientist couldn’t say it with the poetic depth of a Shakespeare! And believe me when I say delivery absolutely influences receptivity.

Art is the mirror of life as the saying goes. The artist is simply holding up that mirror—words, imagines, and provoked emotions—to stir your soul. Because the active soul engages. And that’s what art, ultimately, is about. Art is about engaging your intellect and emotions so you can see and feel the world differently.