Teaching Morality in Public Schools

This is a very messy topic with an abundance of complicated issues so I might have to split it into multiple posts, but I’ll try not to ramble.

The first thing I should establish right off the bat is this: Morality as taught in schools would be taught from an entirely secular point of view. While it might have many parts that agree with the spiritual teachings of one religion or another, it would be completely independent of any and all religions, proposing and advocating only the broadest and most widely held morale principles, and validating those principles with logical, objective, and secular arguments that everybody can, at least in theory, understand and agree with.

This begs an interesting question: are there any moral principles that pretty much everybody can agree on? I think the answer is yes, at least I hope the answer is yes, so let’s see if we can come up with something. First off, what do we really mean we talk about teaching children to be moral? Well basically we mean we want to teach them to be good people. I think that’s a pretty modest claim we can all agree on, can’t we? Everybody wants their children grow up to be good people. So how do we define a ‘good person’ in a very general and widely agreeable way? Basically, a good person is someone who is an asset to those around him or her, who behaves honestly and honorably, and who expresses a concern for the wellbeing of others. I continue to list traits a good person should have, there’s actually a surprising amount of them given the controversial nature of morality in general. I think that’s because while most people have similar general ideas of what a good person should be, it’s the specifics of behavior and especially the reasons for why morality is important. We’re going to have to come to terms with these issues, but so far I think we can agree that if defined broadly enough, teaching students to be ‘good people’ is something on which we can achieve a consensus.

Unfortunately, we haven’t really said much yet. Hoping our children will grow up to be ‘good people’ is basically a no-brainer, but there’s nothing to ‘teach’ about it, or at least not enough to justify it as a school subject. What we need to make it a full fledged academic subject are the details; exactly how can we determine the moral value of a specific course of action? What part, if any, is society obliged to take in enforcing moral behavior? How do ethics and morality relate to each other? And perhaps most importantly, why should I trouble myself with upholding morale principles at all? Remember, the traditional answer to that last question, “It’s god’s will”, just won’t cut it here, and let’s face it; there are certain situations (some would say a great many) where taking the moral high ground provides the least tangible and personal benefit to the individual in question. There are circumstances where crime really does pay, or so it would appear. And if it’s true that morality doesn’t always give the best advantage to a person as an individual, is there any argument at all for why we should embrace self-sacrifice besides invoking religion or spirituality? If it can be proven that immoral actions can sometimes be the most beneficial to the individual performing the action, then is there any objective obligation at all to maintain our moral standards? In my next post I’ll define the underlying philosophy of secular morality, and how it obliges us to behave in ways that aren’t always in the best interest of ourselves as individuals.


~ by jneuhaus on June 13, 2008.

One Response to “Teaching Morality in Public Schools”

  1. Interesting ideas that you have posted. I often wonder the same thing. I’m trying to sort out how to make sure my first graders don’t end up in jail! It’s not that they are overtly bad – just generally disrespectful.

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