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Reflections on Moral Education


by Peter F. Carbone, Jr. - 1970

Not only does the author speak here of the need to confront moral issues in the classroom; he talks of the specific problems entailed by the need to socialize young children into the moral institution, and the need to engage older children with critical ethical inquiry.

"For the Record" in December, touched on the question of moral education. We are pleased to have Processor Carbone carry the discussion farther. Not only does he speak here of the need to confront moral issues in the classroom; he talks of the specific problems entailed by the need to socialize young children into the moral institution, and the need to engage older children with critical ethical inquiry. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society in October 1968.

One of the curious things about moral education is that while nearly everyone approves of it, we seem to have great difficulty in working it into our educational system. As Ralph Barton Perry observed some years ago:

Schools and colleges, designed for educational purposes, leave it to the home, the church, the Boy or Girl Scouts, or other private and more or less impromptu organizations. But even these agencies hesitate to assume responsibility. The home passes it on to the school, and the school passes it back to the home.1

The literature on the subject, moreover, clearly tends toward the view that what little time and effort the school does invest in moral education is relatively unavailing. On that account, there is certainly no scarcity of articles pointing out the contemporary "breakdown" of moral standards and urging upon the schools the obligation to revitalize the nation's moral strength, the implication being, of course, that educators are not performing the task satisfactorily at present.

It seems to me that whether or not one subscribes to this view depends in large part on one's conception of moral education. It is doubtless true that we rarely allot a place in the curriculum for a formal course in the subject. Nor, as a rule, do we get very deeply into moral issues, even when we do attempt to provide at least a smattering of moral education on an informal basis. On the other hand, any experienced teacher can testify that the school takes some pains to reinforce those norms and values that are generally accepted in society at large. This is usually accomplished not by direct instruction in moral precepts, but rather by various indirect methods which stress example and illustration in a variety of contexts. The means employed are diverse and somewhat haphazard, perhaps, but the task can hardly be said to be ignored. It can, however, and frequently is said to be ineffective, but here again the assertion is somewhat ambiguous. If our criterion of effectiveness is the child's ability to recite the values and norms he is expected to abide by as the result of moral instruction, then I should say that the school, in conjunction with home and church, is fairly successful. For how many school children would deny that they should be God-fearing and patriotic; that they should tell the truth, be honest, and keep their promises; that they should love and respect their fellow men (communists, anarchists, and miscellaneous "leftists" excepted, of course); that they should value liberty, equality, and, above all, free enterprise?

Appropriation and Indoctrination

The charge of ineffectiveness may refer, however, to actions, to what children do as opposed to what they say, in which case the criticism could be well-taken. For as Scheffler has so ably pointed out, it is one thing to appropriate a norm in the verbal sense and quite another to possess a tendency to act in accordance with it.2 This being the case, it might seem at first glance that the solution lies in forging patterns of behavior consistent with the normative principles we wish to impart, using whatever behavior-influencing devices we may have at our disposal. Now the obvious objection to this strategy is that it smacks of indoctrination, and as Frankena notes after considering techniques along these lines, "We conceive ourselves as having put them behind us."3 And so we have—but not completely, of course. Here again, those most familiar with what takes place in our classrooms would concede, I believe, that this sort of thing is hardly unknown in the American school.

Of course the indoctrination charge may refer to the content as well as to the process of moral education. This issue obviously emerges when we raise questions about which moral principles we should be expected to teach. As I indicated earlier, we do present long-standing norms and values to children as being worthy of adoption. This is part of what is meant by passing on the cultural heritage. But it will not do to construe the transmission of culture as the whole of moral education, since it is always appropriate—in fact it is incumbent when one is engaged in moral inquiry—to question the legitimacy of custom (and, indeed, of law or any other guide to conduct), and it is this feature more than any other, perhaps, that sets ethics or critical morality off from custom or conventional morality. In other words, an individual might understand perfectly well which norms are valued in his culture and yet reject some of them on the grounds that they are unacceptable from the moral point of view. As Benn and Peters have observed in this connection, "Morality arises when custom or law is subjected to critical examination."4

Value Conflicts

Thus, it is inappropriate, at least with older children, to teach morality the way we teach the multiplication tables, or the characteristics of chemical elements, or, for that matter, the behavior of crowds. Morality is not primarily an "information-dispensing" subject, in which content can be distributed in neat factual packages. "What distinguishes morality from the formal and natural sciences," says R. F. Atkinson, "is that in it different and opposed first principles are readily conceivable, and are in fact accepted by morally serious people."5 It is important, I think, for students to grasp this fact. Similarly, it is important for them to realize that in a given situation dispute is entirely possible, even among those who subscribe to the same first principles. As Isaiah Berlin reminds us:

In life as normally lived, the ideals of one society and culture clash with those of another, and at times come into conflict within the same society and, often enough, within the moral experience of a single individual;.. .6

This point seems to have been missed by those writers on moral education who exhort us to present prevailing norms and values to children as though we were teaching the multiplication tables, as though moral principles, like the rules of mathematics, never conflict with one another. Apart from the indoctrination issue, it is worth noting in this connection that even if we decided to heed this advice and ignore the problem of validation, we would still fall short of the mark from a practical standpoint. We would fall short because our students would be unprepared to cope with situations involving conflict between values. That such conflict is not only possible but rather commonplace needs to be clearly understood.

More than that, it is important, I believe, to emphasize that considerable disagreement exists with regard to the very nature of ethical propositions. Consider, for instance, the claim that a given act is right, wrong, or obligatory; or that a certain character trait or motive is morally good or bad; or that an experience or a material object is valuable (in a nonmoral sense). Can such claims be said to be true or false? Are they even meaningful? Are they empirically verifiable or logically demonstrable? Are they self-evident, that is, can their validity be seen intuitively? Or are such judgments merely matters of personal taste or opinion? Can they be described as purely subjective, emotional utterances? Or, finally, do they function neither as descriptive propositions nor as arbitrary assertions of personal preference, but rather as prescriptions which can be defended on rational grounds, though not verified to the degree possible with empirical or logical propositions? Turning to moral philosophers for guidance, we find, alas, that most if not all of these questions have been answered both affirmatively and negatively by competent thinkers.

From Acceptance to Criticism

To grasp this characteristic open-endedness, to understand that there are no absolute, invulnerable guidelines to the "virtuous life," that no moral theory has preempted the field, is to begin to discern something about the structure of morality; and assuming that such discernment is helpful when one engages in moral discourse, I should think that it ought to rank high on our list of priorities. I am not suggesting, however, that we can dispense entirely with the inculcation of norms. The fact of the matter is that we cannot wait until the child has reached the point at which he is capable of abstract reasoning before we begin to introduce him to the norms and values that are part of his cultural legacy. The school could "officially" disclaim all responsibility for providing moral instruction in the lower grades, of course, but teachers would continue to impart norms in one way or another simply by virtue of their roles as authority figures in the lives of younger children. Thus it is unrealistic to argue that we can avoid confronting the inculcation bugbear merely by postponing moral education until the child is old enough to benefit from a more sophisticated treatment of the subject. The real issue is not whether, but how moral instruction should be provided in the elementary grades; and since the research of Piaget and his colleagues7 indicates that youngsters at that age are incapable of grasping the rationale for moral principles, or even perceiving the appropriateness of demands for justifying reasons, it would appear that we are left with little choice at this stage but to present the rules as though they were part of the natural order of things. I am not overlooking, in this context, the heuristic educational value, particularly in the "factual" areas of the curriculum, of Bruner's interesting claim that "any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development."8 Given Piaget's findings, however, it is not at all obvious that this principle can be applied to the moral education of the very young without placing undue strain on the term "intellectually honest." The problem, then, is to avoid destroying the child's capacity for later critical evaluation of the norms he has been led to accept uncritically during his most formative years. Referring to this situation as "the paradox of moral education," Peters has described it as follows:

Given that it is desirable to develop people who conduct themselves rationally, intelligently, and with a fair degree of spontaneity, the brute facts of child development reveal that at the most formative years of a child's development he is incapable of this form of life and impervious of the proper manner of passing it on.9

It is necessary, in short, to instill norms and habits of behavior before children are capable of thoughtful appraisal of what they are absorbing. Now it is very difficult for us to admit this necessity because the admission is so much at variance with our popular ideology. Indeed, a good deal of our educational rhetoric is utilized to deny this very assertion. The danger here, it seems to me, is that we can get so caught up in our own rhetoric that we fail to perceive the extent of, and the reasons for, our involvement in the practice of inculcation. Consequently, we tend to obscure the difficult problem of how norms may be implanted in children and yet not so firmly rooted that they will be permanently immovable under any contingency whatsoever. If, as Piaget and Peters seem to suggest, some inculcation is inevitable in the lower grades, then the question is, how much of it can we tolerate, and how can we avert its potential adverse effects? Hopefully, we may turn to the educational psychologist for assistance here, but such help is not likely to be forthcoming unless we ask the right questions. And in order to do that we must first face up to the problem.

The Socialization Phase

What I am suggesting, then, is that it might prove fruitful to conceive of moral education as including two fairly well-defined levels or phases. At the first level our chief concern should be to contribute to the socialization of the child by inducing him to accept (in the active sense) the values, attitudes, and standards of behavior that prevail in his social environment. (There will be some conflict here, of course, but even in a society as pluralistic as ours, there are basic values that transcend group differences.) As I have already indicated, a certain amount of imposition is unavoidable at this level, there being no other way to initiate the young into their culture at the time such initiation must begin. By "imposition" or "inculcation" I do not mean what Sidney Hook calls "irrational" means of persuasion such as the systematic use of spurious arguments, for example, or the suppression of pertinent facts in order to support a debatable point of view.10 This sort of approach is to be avoided at all levels. On the other hand, what Hook refers to as "conditioning" or "nonrational methods of inducing belief," presenting norms straight-out, that is, without benefit of elaborate supporting statements or possible counter arguments, seems to me to be an acceptable method of instructing younger children who are not yet proficient in dealing with abstractions. Even at this early stage, however, we need, as Hook cautions, to be alert to opportunities for cultivating the child's critical abilities, and we should present to him on a nonrational basis only those norms that we are convinced will stand the test of reflective evaluation later on.

Towards Reflectiveness

In the second phase of moral education, our objective is, of course, to advance the child beyond the level of relatively passive acceptance of norms, merely because they are prevalent in his surroundings, to a point at which he is capable of critical, independent judgment in these matters. In a word, we are interested at this level in developing reflective moral agents, people capable of furnishing a reasoned justification for the principles that guide their behavior. For as Frankena comments:

Morality fosters or even calls for the use of reason and for a kind of autonomy on the part of the individual, asking him, when mature and normal, to make his own decisions, though possibly with someone's advice, and even stimulating him to think out the principles or goals in the light of which he is to make his decisions.11

A good deal of the literature on moral education centers on the problem of how best to carry out what I prefer to think of as the preliminary part of the task. There is much debate about what means are most effective, whether, for instance, time should be set aside for direct instruction in moral precepts, or whether the so-called indirect methods—teacher example, illustrations drawn from the study of literature and the social sciences, inspirational school assemblies, object lessons arising out of classroom or extracurricular activities, etc.—will yield better results.

These are questions worthy of serious consideration, certainly, but a more important issue in my view, as I have already intimated, and one that does not usually receive the attention it deserves, is the problem of how to facilitate the child's transition from the first to the second phase of moral education. For surely we cannot rest content with simply furnishing instruction in whatever moral principles happen to prevail at present. Surely a second phase is needed if we take seriously the goal of producing autonomous moral agents. To continue on indefinitely with the techniques appropriate at the first level, I should say, is to fail to advance from moral "training" to "teaching," both of which have their place in an overall program of moral education. An adequate analysis of this distinction would take us far afield, but roughly, "teaching" is more restrictive than "training" in terms of acceptable methodology, and it demands more of a cognitive emphasis on the part of both teacher and learner. "To teach, in the standard sense," Scheffler remarks, is at some points at least to submit oneself to the understanding and independent judgment of the pupil, to his demand for reasons, to his sense of what constitutes an adequate explanation... Teaching, in this way, requires us to reveal our reasons to the student and, by so doing, to submit them to his evaluation and criticism.12

"Training" on the other hand, connotes processes of drill, rote-learning, habit-formation, and the like. It is more permissive, less scrupulous about the means used to bring about a change in behavior or in attitude. It fails, in sum, to engage the child's rational capacities to the extent that "teaching" does, and is therefore unequal to the assignment once moral education has advanced beyond the introductory stage.

Teaching Principles

Much more could, and no doubt should, be said by way of clarification here, but perhaps the point regarding the difference in emphasis between the first and second levels is evident at least in outline form. I have already commented on the need for further research to inform our efforts with respect to the preliminary phase. Assuming that this additional information will be provided, and that we can guide the child through his early moral training without placing too great a strain on his incipient critical capacities, we can sketch in some of the characteristics of moral education at the second level. Most of these characteristics, e.g., the emphasis on reasons and justification, the awareness that moral principles frequently conflict with one another, the realization that there is considerable disagreement even among moral philosophers concerning the meaning and cognitive status of moral propositions, have already been mentioned. In addition, we need to convey something about the nature of moral discourse, I should think, and perhaps some understanding of how it differs from the "language" of other disciplines. This, I suggest, is partly what we are groping for when we talk about providing children with the intellectual tools that are a prerequisite for clear thinking. Further, we need to confront our students with moral issues that force them to re-examine and re-evaluate their own moral principles. "What we do, if we are sensible," Hare writes, "is to give him [the learner] a solid base of principles, but at the same time ample opportunity of making the decisions upon which these principles are based, and by which they are modified, improved, adapted to changed circumstances, or even abandoned if they become entirely unsuited to a new environment."13

Admittedly, it is somewhat unsettling to subject one's basic moral beliefs to the kind of challenge implied here; but, as Peirce and Dewey taught, the irritation of doubt frequently serves as a prod to genuine inquiry. It may be argued, however, that youngsters of high school age are not sufficiently experienced or psychologically stable enough to engage in this sort of thing, that such considerations should be taken up only on the college level.14 Personally, I feel that this view grossly underestimates the maturity of contemporary 16-, 17-, and 18-year olds, who have practically been weaned on moral controversy as a result of their constant exposure to the mass media. And though it may be true that adolescence is not the most psychologically tranquil period in one's life, it is also true that it is the time when one is most likely to seriously question and demand justification for the moral rules and standards one is expected to honor. Under these circumstances, we do the adolescent no favor in attempting to shield him from difficult moral issues at a time when he is searching for a personal philosophy of life. What he needs at this point is guidance on a journey that he is very likely determined to undertake, whether we approve or not.

Most of the procedures suggested above are rather familiar, to be sure, yet with possible rare exceptions, one does not find them being implemented in our schools. Their absence is partly attributable, in my opinion, to the misconception that once the notion of moral absolutes is discarded, any attempt to provide moral education becomes an exercise in indoctrination. And while we might be willing to concede that a limited amount of indoctrination in Hook's "nonrational" sense may be unavoidable in the lower grades, most of us rightfully have serious misgivings about extending its application to older students. Thus we simply neglect to provide a coherent program for this age group. In my view this is a classic example of throwing out the baby with the bath water. The perceived danger can easily be averted by recognizing that at the second level our primary emphasis must shift from the transmittal of moral propositions to their application, justification, meaning, and genre. I am inclined to believe that such a shift in emphasis is mandatory if moral education is to reflect the essential character of moral philosophy, and that some such reflection is necessary to ensure the integrity of moral education.

In concluding, I should acknowledge the many practical problems that I have neglected to consider in this brief essay, problems relating, for example, to implications for teacher education, to the possible introduction of new courses, and to the relationship of moral education to the "factual areas" of the curriculum (for obviously factual information is a necessary condition for the intelligent application of moral principles). I realize, too, that some of the concepts and terms employed in this discussion would benefit from further explication and analysis. But each of these tasks would require extended treatment, and my purpose here was merely to suggest a concept of moral education which might contain enough initial plausibility to be taken up for further discussion. In attempting to do so, I have drawn freely from the writings of a number of philosophers who have made significant contributions to our understanding of the ways in which moral philosophy is relevant to the problems of moral education. If drawing together some of the more promising and provocative features of their work contributes anything worthwhile toward the development of an adequate conception of moral education, I am confident that the practical problems can be worked out by specialists in the areas of learning theory and curriculum development.

  1. Ralph Barton Perry. Realms of Value. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.
  2. Israel Scheffler. The Language of Education. Springfield, 111.: Charles C. Thomas, 1960.
  3. William K. Frankena, "Toward a Philosophy of Moral Education," Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Fall 1958, p. 302. _
  4. S. I. Benn and R. S. Peters. Social Principles and the Democratic State. London: George Alien Unwin Ltd., 1959.
  5. R. F. Atkinson, "Instruction and Indoctrination," in Reginald D. Archambault, Ed. Philosophical Analysis and Education. New York: The Humanities Press, 1965.
  6. Isaiah Berlin, "Equality," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 61, 1955-56, p. 319.
  7. Jean Piaget, et. al. The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: The Free Press, 1965.
  8. Jerome S. Bruner. The Process of Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
  9. R. S. Peters, "Reason and Habit: The Paradox of Moral Education," in W. R. Niblett, Ed. Moral Education in a Changing Society. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1963.
  10. Sidney Hook. Education for Modern Man: A New Perspective. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.
  11. William K. Frankena. Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
  12. Scheffler, op. cit.
  13. R. M. Hare. The Language of Morals. London: Clarendon Press, 1952.
  14. 14 View expressed in George Herbert Palmer and Alice Freeman Palmer. The Teacher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1908.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 71 Number 4, 1970, p. 598-607
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1740, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 5:25:43 PM

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