Teachers: Why Should We Teach Ethics?

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
 
Seeing the World Anew
The last thing I want is to be accused of being idealistic and naive. I understand that teachers are assaulted with state standards, standardized test scores, the Common Core, and a host of other expectations. If social studies isn't on the state tests, how can I expect ethics to be? Well, I don't. If ethics ever appears on a standardized test, it would be one of the great ironic injustices of all time. If that day comes, I'll have to assess where I went wrong and how I allowed it to happen.
 
My claim is that we can teach ethics in school by simply looking at our content a little differently and by meeting the students where they are. We will need to sacrifice some of the usual things we do, but that is what good teachers always do: we let go of lessons, even good ones, because they no longer serve our students. I am not offering a panacea, but I am offering something that I feel is missing in our world--civil dialoge about right and wrong, an honest conversation about what we value, a proper assessment of our role in the world, and the language we need to talk about things.
 
One reason to teach ethics comes from an observation we have all made: adolescents love to question things, they love to judge people, and they can be quite irreverent. If you bring up a moral quandary, they will be quick to offer "what I would do." Explain to them an action that a historical figure took, and they will happily tell you why she was wrong. Explain to them a school district policy and they will lament the injustice. Teenagers, in the physiological default, tend to be somewhat selfish. As class that focuses on ethics pushes students to think beyond themselves. If they are really thinking, they may see that their outrage is simply selfishness. Of course, they also may discover that their outrage is entirely justified--after thinking about it in class, they may now understand why. I don't say this to mock teenagers. I believe this is their way of experimenting with their values and asserting their beliefs. They need more opportunities to do this.
 
While adolescents can be selfish and critical (can't we all?), they also crave moral heroes (don't we all?). While they may quickly condemn the NSA for spying on us or the principal for suspending a student for "nothing" they will also soften when they hear the beautiful words of Mother Theresa. Even the harshest cynic has a hard time staying so when they hear the eloquence of Martin Luther King, or witness the moral courage of the Tank Man. Teaching ethics means we can spend time analyzing why these people are our moral heroes. What is it about their character that we value? And even though we may all share some of these heroes, we also leave room for each person to have his or her own heroes. Mr. Rogers is one of mine, which says a lot about me; he doesn't need to be yours. Teaching ethics means we can understand what we value as a community while also exploring what we value as individuals.
 
Individual development is one of the most important reasons to study ethics. We simply don't allow for this type of growth in high school. We all know that adolescents can be self-centered--and we challenge them not to be. However, with every school day, we reinforce that students must look out for their own welfare in the highly competitive context of school. By ranking students by their GPA, we send the message that people are ranked. We apply a number to their learning and consider it "good" or "bad." Trying out for an athletic team can be an equally selfish pursuit--students are encouraged to tout their skills and assert their individuality. It's a world that expects adolescents to stand out and prove their worth, so they will be accepted somewhere. I am proposing that we agree that all children have inherent worth and they are always accepted in school.
 
Including ethics in our teaching acknowledges the messiness of the world. It shows that we live in a world that requires deep thinking and which often yeilds only uncertainty. Our curricula relies too much on answers. Students ask questions and we answer them. There are correct answers on the test. Objective tests are valued above all. We give kids grades as if to label them. We send all sorts of messages that say there is a right and a wrong. Yet kids are smart; they see a world where there are few TRUTHS. Ethics conversations often end in uncertainty; at least in the field of ethics, we acknowledge that. While we think of ethics as delineating right and wrong, absolutism is only one small (but important) way to think about right and wrong. More important than determining, once and for all, in an absolutist way, what is right and wrong, what we really do when we think about ethics is give value to the world. I like to think of it as the "aesthetics of life." Art, literature, story, poetry, myth--they all turn us away from solving a problem and towards being itself. I would add history (and much of the social studies) to this list as well. We don't just study the facts of what happened. We look at existence, at being, and at who we are as a people.
 
Thinking in this way might begin a healing process...a healing of society and broken people who see no meaning in things. It might lead our students away from "what do you want to be when you grow up" to "who do you want to be." It might move our students away from "this is the society you live in" to "this is the society you can create."
 
Ethics and Traditional Academic Skills
Ethics is a crucial way to teach because it helps students to think. With ethics, it is pure thought--content and facts are secondary. I like to think of ethics as "content neutral." This means one can have a good ethics conversation even if one is under-informed about the content. This makes the conversation more democratic: each participant can think and apply his or her own values to the conversation. Each individual can develop his or her values as they participate. We know that thinking about content is the key to improving student understanding. I would argue that there is no better way to think about content than through ethics conversations. I have found that it invigorates a conversation--students feel alive and want to express their ideas. In the process, students are encouraged to look at issues that they may never have considered before. They can critique lazy arguments and challenge each other to take a more serious ethical outlook. In addition, students will build tolerance for others' values. It can allow students to understand others' (and society's) values and consider their own. It will even help them navigate their own ethical quandaries in the future.
 
There has been a lot of talk that American education is "falling behind" the rest of the world. We are criticized for our test scores. I don't want our students to "win" the education battle--it's not a battle and one doesn't "win" at learning. I think we have forgotten that we don't just want our children to "win" and to become functioning members of our economy. We want them to be good. When push comes to shove, I want my students to learn their content and skills but what I really want is for my students to become good people. I agree with John Phillips, founder of Phillips Academy in Exeter, NH and Andover, MA: "Goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble; knowledge without goodness is dangerous." I don't want my students to become economists, historians, and writers who simply carry on the unjust practices of our society. Our children might consider unjust practices that we adults have overlooked. Our children can combat the simplistic thinking of the "culture wars" or our current political "discourse." The child becomes a participant in a bigger conversation. They will feel respected as human beings--as moral agents. They will realize that we haven't decided right and wrong for them--and they are no longer simply bystanders in an adult world.