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Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and their Schoolwork


reviewed by Jim Garrison & David Hicks - 2002

coverTitle: Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and their Schoolwork
Author(s): Katherine G. Simon
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300090323 , Pages: 256, Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com


Readers read for many different needs, interests, and purposes. Ours is a joint review constructed from different professional orientations. Therefore, we would like to share our motives for taking up this text. Jim Garrison is a professor of philosophy of education. While not an ethicist, he is interested in the moral aspects of teaching and found this text attractive because of its concern with thinking hard about “existential questions” in the classroom. David Hicks is an assistant professor of social studies education.  He approached the text with the hope of finding a resource through which his students could examine the assertion that social studies is not important for the neatly packaged- teacher centered- textbook based stories that have become the typical genre of social studies teaching.

That we both found Simon’s book thought provoking and useful constitutes a sincere recommendation in itself. That we are primarily concerned with preservice teaching, but believe this fine text is even better suited for the K-12 teacher or administrator interested in getting kids to think deeply about real life in the classroom constitutes a hardy recommendation.

Simon’s two core assumptions in writing the book are: (1) That moral and existential questions are at the core of the disciplines; and (2) Most people find moral and existential questions fascinating. Simon builds on the Deweyan intuition that the academic disciplines involve humanity's ongoing investigation into the nature of existence, its meaning, and our place in the cosmos. An important argument of the book is that we cannot separate the intellectual from the moral domains. We would only add that the same holds for artistic creation and aesthetic appreciation as well.  By moral inquiry, Simon means investigating questions regarding how we should act, while existential inquiry involves the meaning of life. Her preferences lean toward the ethics of care more than the ethics of justice, though she is aware of the importance of and limits to both orientations. Wisely, she recognizes that we cannot entirely pull moral questioning apart from existential questioning. More provocatively, she does not think we can entirely separate them from issues of spiritually. We think she is right. Simon is one of the very few that will not shy away from issues of religiosity and public schools even as she fully accepts the separation of church and state. Indeed she suggests, and we agree, that public schools could learn much from religious schools in this regard.

Simon also recognizes the passion with which students will engage in moral and existential inquiry because it touches their needs, desires, interests, and purposes, whether the topic is human sexuality, death, justice, race, the existence of God, or the decision to use weapons of mass destruction.  Simon is refreshing in that she recognizes the connection between spirituality, morality, existential questioning, and the living body of our students.  In the light of current concerns with political apathy, alienation, and cynicism amongst young people, an increase in the reporting of incidents of racism, sectarianism, and growth of anti-humanitarian values, as well as the repercussions of September 11th 2001 at home and abroad, her work is timely and relevant.

While philosophically and theoretically informed, the backbone of Simon’s book is her critical qualitative analysis, supported by richly detailed classroom vignettes, of how moral and existential questions arise and are examined within the literature, history, and biology classrooms of a public high school, a Jewish day school, and a Catholic school. It is important to reiterate that Simon’s book is not at all about advocating the teaching of formal religion in public schools. Her work simply acknowledges what seems obvious to us. Students frequently ask questions of ultimate concern; these existential and moral questions are not religious in the dogmatic sense, but do convey a sense of the numinous that is immensely important to students and teachers.

Within all three schools, she documents how morally and existentially relevant questions are silenced by teachers eager to keep on track by returning to their regularly scheduled transmission of disconnected factoids.  The result is an overwhelming and tragic sense of the many teaching and learning opportunities lost. She acknowledges that the dullness of the routines and the passiveness of the learning in all three school settings were often stupefying for her as a researcher as well as students. The result is a structure cut off from the needs of life, the body, the self, and the community. Small wonder we hear the cry for spiritual renewal in our culture generally, but not, ironically, in our schools.  We wish she had said more about this irony, but, then, perhaps it is so striking in her study it requires no comment.

Another irony, as Simon recognizes, is that it is impossible not to exemplify a moral and existential stance in education simply because it is fundamentally a moral enterprise. The unintended consequence of avoiding moral and existential topics, along with questions of ultimate concern, is that we teach our students that such matters are unimportant, or, worse still, a stupid relativism that says all answers are equally satisfactory. Simon does identify and report successful engagement with moral and existential questioning in ordinary classroom settings. Simon finds the most striking examples of extended existential and moral inquiry in a biology class in the Roman Catholic School, and an elective course on War and Peace in the public school. Interestingly enough, her admittedly limited research turned up no examples of such teaching in the American literature classes she observed.

The inclusion of such “visions of the possible” do little, however, to dilute her arguments calling for systemic reform and the positive possibilities that exist when schools and teachers within all disciplines recognize that their subject areas abound with moral and existential questions. Facilitating explorations of moral and existential questions throughout the curriculum, Simon suggests, begins with communities of teachers examining not only what they are teaching, but also how they are teaching it in the light of what we already know about how children learn. Such assertions are easier said than done.  However, her book provides a valuable vision for public schools absent from the contemporary conversation. One function of high ideals is that they provide us with a moral compass. In that regard, she provides much needed direction. For many, the utility of her work will rest in the Afterward entitled “Strategies and Tools for Incorporating Moral and Existential Questions into the Classroom” (It is a shame that she did not feel this section was worthy of being called a chapter.).  It concludes with a useful compendium of ideas designed not just to instruct but also to invigorate one’s activity in the classroom. We found these suggestions and strategies helpful, and intend to implement at least some of them within our own teaching.

It is impossible to do justice to such an intricate, well-written, thoughtful, nuanced, and valuable book in the brief space allotted to this book review, but we can recommend the book heartily to the reader.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 5, 2002, p. 934-937
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10862, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:24:56 PM

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About the Author
  • Jim Garrison
    Virginia Tech University
    E-mail Author
    Jim Garrison is a professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. His research and teaching interests center on pragmatism and especially the philosophy of John Dewey. Among his books are an edited work, The New Scholarship on Dewey, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995, Dewey and Eros, Teachers College Press, 1997. He wrote the chapter on Education for the companion volume to The Collected Works of John Dewey and was an invited participant at the World Congress of Philosophy in 1998 where he spoke on Dewey’s theory of philosophical criticism. Jim is a past-president of the Philosophy of Education Society.
  • David Hicks
    Virginia Tech University
    E-mail Author
    David Hicks is an assistant professor of social studies education at Virginia Tech. David’s publications have appeared in Social Education, The Mathematics Teacher, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, and the International Journal of Social Education. Currently he is investigating how concepts of citizenship and the integration of technology can influence how teachers approach the teaching and learning of history and social science.
 
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