LEADING CHILDREN BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL
by James Davison Hunter
Perhaps the enduring subtext in the evolution of moral education in America, and its continuing story to the present, has been a quest for inclusiveness. While the need to provide moral instruction to young people has never been questioned, neither has the impulse to accommodate the ever-growing diversity of moral cultures. In the face of potentially contentious and disrupting cultural differences, theorists and practitioners adopted inclusive accommodation as a strategy to neutralize the likelihood of conflict, since when put into practice, cultural inclusion means that no one’s interests are neglected, no one is left out, and, therefore, no one is slighted, snubbed, or offended. William Glasser captured the sum and substance of the quest for our own day as early as 1969 when he stated that “certain moral values can be taught in school if the teaching is restricted to principles about which there is essentially no disagreement in our society” (emphasis added).
This has become the unspoken imperative of every school of moral education—psychological neoclassical, and communitarian. Psychologists interested in the question believe that there is a set of universal dispositions toward justice and other virtues that is innate in every person, at all times and in all cultures, and which proper education can bring out during the formative stages of childhood development. Communitarian and neoclassical moral educators would also point to a universal set of moral virtues and values shared throughout this society and even the world, though they might have slightly different lists (communitarians favor the civic virtues of democratic liberalism, while neoclassical thinkers such as C. S. Lewis and William Bennett favor personal virtues), and they are likely to explain the universal morality in terms of culture rather than innate traits. But every major school of educational theory when reflecting on public moral education agrees that there is a universal and all-inclusive morality.
This consensus in theory is repeated by the large host of educators charged with translating the theories into practice. For instance, William Honig, the former state superintendent of schools in California, insisted that teachers instruct children in the common ethical convictions of the American people, “the ideals and standards we as a society hold to be worthy of praise and emulation.” The Character Counts! Coalition also insists that “there are some universal core values that can be taught—values that are not identified with any single political or religious tradition.”
How are these values to be identified? In a survey of such efforts, the Wall Street Journal reported that “to decide what to teach, state education boards generally round up diverse professionals—who arrive at an acceptable list of values to be taught. Respect, responsibility, compassion, honesty, and civic participation usually head the list.” Educators insist, according to E. Dale David, that “a list of civic values consciously chosen by a school system to realize the goal of developing effective citizens is the necessary first step in the teaching of civic values.”
In actual communities around the country, the pursuit of “consensus values” has become an undertaking of some urgency. In 1984, the 148 public schools in Baltimore County, Maryland, agreed to teach a common core of twenty-four values including compassion, courtesy, critical inquiry, due process, equality of opportunity, freedom of thought and action, honesty, human worth and dignity, integrity, justice, knowledge, loyalty, objectivity, order, patriotism, rational consent, reasoned argument, respect for others’ rights, responsible citizenship, rule of law, self-respect, tolerance, and truth. Nashville, Tennessee, generated a curriculum covering eighteen “universal virtues” including respect for self, doing what is right, service, respecting others, accepting responsibility, building community, caring, nurturing family and friends, loving learning, taking initiative, modeling democracy, forgiveness, practicing honesty, perseverance, gratitude, courage, solving problems, and respecting work. The Department of Education in New Jersey likewise endorsed a set of core values to be taught in schools, including civic responsibility and respect for oneself and others. A thirty-two member task force in Raleigh, North Carolina, produced a list of eight consensus values. In Howard County, Maryland, a school board approved eighteen values for promotion in schools. It was this sense of need for consensus values that motivated the Character Counts! Coalition to seek broad endorsement of its “Six Core Elements of Character.”
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