Quora Question: Do U.S. Schools Emphasize Ethics?

A teacher says U.S. schools are not doing enough to teach children ethics and morality, although she concedes that doing so is challenging. Umit Bektas/Reuters

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Answer from Daniel Kaplan, high school English teacher with 15 years experience:

Do we put enough emphasis on teaching moral and ethical behavior? Obviously not. As I write this, I'm reeling from reading a news story about a teenage girl who live-streamed the rape of her "friend" instead of calling the police. Clearly her school's version of teaching morality failed. I would actually argue that schools put almost zero emphasis on morality and ethics. I further argue that I'm not even sure that it is done at all in many cases.

Should schools be teaching morals? What does it mean to be moral or ethical? In Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, the author makes the argument that there are essentially two basic foundations to morality. There's the belief that "that which causes harm is immoral" and the version in which "that which violates various social beliefs, tenets, mores, etc. is immoral." One of the problems we run into as a society is that we cannot agree which of these two approaches toward morality is correct.

How, then, can we expect schools to teach morality? Imagine that I believe that 2+2 can only equal 1+3 but some other teacher thinks that 2+2 can only equal 5-1. How can we expect to teach math? By the same token, I cannot teach morality the same way that everyone else in my school does. Students, then, get a fractured message about morality. Getting multiple versions of morality may be a good thing, though. It exposes a student to a more complex field of opinions and allows a student more free choice to decide what is right or wrong.

That being said, I am mandated in the education code of my state (California) to teach morality to my students. For reference:

233.5. (a) Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism and a true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, and the meaning of equality and human dignity, including the promotion of harmonious relations, kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures, to teach them to avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in manners and morals and the principles of a free government. (b) Each teacher is also encouraged to create and foster an environment that encourages pupils to realize their full potential and that is free from discriminatory attitudes, practices, events, or activities, in order to prevent acts of hate violence, as defined in subdivision (e) of Section 233.

Am I meeting this requirement? I'd like to think so. How do I do that specifically? What does moral teaching look like in my classroom?

I don't know how I would teach morality if I were teaching math, science or other STEM-based class. Social studies and other humanities courses wouldn't be that terrible. In English in particular, I have it made in the shade. I can throw them a copy of The Canterbury Tales and have dozens of moral lessons at my fingertips. Even fabliaux have some kind of moral lesson. "What's wrong with Ahab's choice not to search for the other captain's son?" "When you get down to it, is it really wrong for Zaroff to hunt another human?" "What did Marilyn do which will force Barton to push her out of the spaceship? Is there any other way?" "What does the theft of the chickens' eggs mean in the real world? Are the pigs just the new masters of the farm?" These are all value questions. Reading fiction makes people more empathetic, according to research.

I'm not sure that every English teacher feels the same way. In fact, I know they don't feel the same way. Some teach a packet of worksheets. That doesn't leave much room for thinking. By and large, the bulk of a school's teaching of morality is simply exposure to and expected observance of a collection of norms and rules.

Why don't we do more to teach morality and ethics? You can't measure the learning outcomes. Everything in education these days comes down to metrics. Will teaching morality help me close the achievement gap? Will it bring up my test scores? Will it get my kids into college? If not, it is of no value to administrators in my district. What is of value? Twenty days of testing built into my calendar year. I'll still continue to teach morality, but that's just par for the course in English.

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