Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Moral Education

I know Martin Luther King Day is in the rearview mirror, but we've been out of school all week due to snow, so I've not had the chance to shift my thinking over to our Chinese New Year celebrations, and besides, is there ever a bad time to be dwelling on MLK?

I've been reflecting particularly on a short piece of his on education that I'd never read before this week, one from which I quoted in Tuesday's post. Entitled "The Purpose of Education," it was an editorial King wrote in 1947 for the Morehouse College campus paper (and I urge you to click through and read it). In this piece he points out that education serves two primary functions: utilitarian and moral.

The function of education . . . is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.  

Ah, but morals, talk about touching the third rail. Of course, King is right. Reason without morality is how we create doomsday machines and sociopaths, but how can we ever begin to address morality outside the walls of religious schools, especially in our current political and social climate, one in which we call doctors "baby killers" and compare our ideological opponents to "Nazis?" Can you imagine the outcry if anyone suggested that our public schools turn even a small portion of their days over to any kind of moral instruction? I can already hear the howling and yowling from all corners of the ideological and political spectrum.

But that doesn't change the fact that King is right. That's what I keep coming back to as I've walked the dogs in the snow this week, asking myself if there are any moral values that we all share, or at least can agree that we all should share.

Looked at one way, I come to the answer of an absolute "no." One of the founding principles of our nation, the first to be founded upon an idea rather than an ethnicity or religion, are the co-joined twins of freedom of speech and freedom of religion: you can believe whatever you believe and say whatever you want to say. Inherent is the idea that given a population sufficiently well educated "for quick, resolute and effective thinking," it is from this democratic market-place of ideas that the bad ones fall while the good ones rise.

Of course, our system of laws is a kind of moral code, one in which are included such fundamental values as not murdering, stealing, or otherwise doing injury, physical and otherwise, to our fellow humans. We could make this the foundation of a curriculum of secular moral values we teach in schools. While I know that there are some who believe that others deserve to die, that private property itself is a crime, and that there are all kinds of loopholes in the doctrine of not hurting other people, I think we could safely assume that most of the people in our democracy would be okay with teaching these values, especially since they are also "the law." But simply obeying the law really isn't what King is talking about. In fact, he largely made a name for himself by disobeying laws that the felt were immoral.

In fact, the entirety of US history is the story of disobedience, from the American Revolution, through the abolition movement and The Civil War, to women's suffrage, the labor movement, and civil rights. We have always been a people who rise up against injustice. Perhaps that is the core of our moral curriculum: disobedience. Ha! Try to sell that one!

But then as the snow collects like dander in my dogs' fur, I can't help but feel that this gets closer to the truth of what a democratically moral education ought to be. The thing that our Founding Fathers had in common, the element of humanity that is most actively embraced by our founding idea, our Constitution, the force that has best defined the truly positive aspects of our history has been citizens who were able to "think incisively and to think for oneself." And more importantly to not "let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda."

The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

King is right, but what are those morals? Ought we to simply leave it up to the church, to leave to religion the task of a moral education? Is it okay that in a democracy, a system of government that requires a well-educated population, we leave so much of it up to holy men and charlatans alike?

We do teach morals in our preschool, although that isn't necessarily what we call them. We are not a religious school, we follow no set doctrine or dogma other than what emerges year-after-year from the children. We always come to a collective agreement about non-violence, for instance, and equal opportunity and fairness, not as laws or principles that come from a higher power, but as morals that come directly from the necessities of living together. We discuss these morals every day, an ongoing conversation about "worthy objectives upon which to concentrate."

I suggest that non-violence, equal opportunity, and fairness are the moral values that we must teach in our public schools if our democracy is to thrive. Not taught as a lecture by a teacher in the front of the room, but as a conversation, an ongoing dialog that stems from these shared democratic values. This, coupled with an education that "enable(s) one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction" should form the core curriculum of a democratic education. 

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K.J.F. said...

I believe zealously in the power of attachment (as in attachment theory, infant-parent attachment), and I would say that it should be unnecessary for schools to concern themselves with teaching morals if children are securely attached to parents who are passing down morals and values effortlessly through the power of attachment. I think it is only because our children have become increasingly peer-oriented and detached from their parents in the past several decades that it seems necessary to discuss how schools could teach a universal morality. I also think it would become dangerous if that were the case, because children will more likely orient to peers in a contemporary school environment than teachers, and they will be learning morality from those others who aren't yet prepared to teach it. So I have to conclude that I don't agree with MLK's definition of the purpose of education, although admittedly I have not yet decided what I think that purpose should be for our current society.

Teacher Tom said...

@KJF . . . I don't doubt you're right. Good parenting can correct a lot of societal ills, but communal morality has always been a concern. It was, for instance, much discussed among the ancient Greeks and hasn't stopped right up to today. I think there is a difference between personal morals (like the ones learned in a family) and a societal morality (the ones we all agree to).

I do know the purpose of PUBLIC education in a democracy and it must be to educate children in the habits, traits, and expectations of self-governance. Everything else is secondary. If it isn't for that, then we should give up on public schools, let corporations train their own workers, let parents teach everything else they want their kids to know, and let our democracy perish. But I believe our democracy is worth saving and there are a set of moral values, skills, and knowledge that we need all citizens to possess if we are going to do that.

Eliza P. said...

"there are all kinds of loopholes in the doctrine of not hurting other people"

I don't know of any!?

Sometimes we must choose the course of action that hurts fewer people. Is that a loophole? If so, that is only one kind of loophole.

What are the others?

(Hoping you make it back to old posts now and then... Thanks, TT)

Teacher Tom said...

@ Eliza P. . . . Our society allows us to hurt others in self defense, many states have the death penalty, and then there are things like spanking, which is sanctioned by many Americans. There are dozens of exceptions to the doctrine of not hurting other people.