Controversies and Problems in Teaching Ethics in Public Schools
Implementing a Non-Controversial Ethics Program
We want our children to exhibit ethical behavior. Yet, it is all too common to see adults engaging in decidedly unethical activities in front of their children. What about the mother who tells her child repeatedly about the importance of honesty, and then switches price stickers on items in the department store in front of her child? What kind of example about honesty is she setting? What about the father who tells his child to treat others with kindness, then lets his child hear him shouting obscenities at a driver he thinks cut him off in traffic? Is this really showing his child the traits he wants his child to exhibit? Then there are more subtle ways of showing our children that ethics do not really mean that much to us. Parents normally tell their children to treat others as they would want to be treated, but when a story comes on the evening news about someone who cheated an elderly person out of lots of money, parents will often laugh and nod admiringly at the ingenuity of the perpetrator, while at the same time laughing while saying how horrible it is what the person did. Mixed signals, anyone?
So, we want our children to be upright, ethical citizens, but our actions and reactions show them that we do not necessarily practice what we preach. We also, through our actions, show them that we silently condone this unethical behavior, and even admire it. Children will do what they are shown more often than what they are told. When they see their parents acting in unethical ways, they are going to think that this behavior is all right, and that their parents really approve of it, in spite of what their parents say.
Since parents, then, are not teaching their children ethical values, who will? Who is best qualified to impart this knowledge? The first thing that comes to mind is the school system. After all, the schools teach our children other things, so why not ethics? More and more, there is a movement toward this. It is becoming more common for schools, even elementary schools, to include ethics in their curriculums. Many people are looking at the schools as the best hope of producing upright, ethical citizens. Of course, this movement is not without controversy. There are those who think that it is not the place of the schools to teach ethics, since ethics is akin to morality, and morality goes hand in hand with religion; the people who espouse this viewpoint believe that either the churches should teach ethics or the parents should. This paper discusses the various methods of teaching ethics to public school students, particularly elementary school students, and touches on the issue of whether schools should teach this subject, emphasizing whether ethics can be taught in the public schools without stepping into religious territory.
Lagging Ethics in the United States Today
Ethics are important to society. They provide a set of guidelines for behavior that help us all live together more harmoniously. For most of human history, societies have had their own particular sets of ethical standards that have prevailed; often, deviation from these ethical standards would result in horrific punishments toward those who violated them. In the last several decades here in the United States, though, individualism has been superceding ethics as the behavior of choice, especially among young people. There is nothing inherently wrong with individualism; it builds character and independence that is vital to getting things done and advancing as a society. However, parents are lately teaching children that individualism means not only standing up for oneself, but it also means being concerned about no one but oneself. The self has become the number one priority in America, and the current state of our domestic social situation, with all the rampant crime, violence, and rude, selfish behavior, exemplifies the effects that this version of individualism is having on our society.
It is not surprising, then, that most middle and high school students say, when asked, that there is no true right and wrong, that morality is subjective, and that the individual determines what is right and wrong to the individual (Tiatorio). Students today resist the notion that they owe anything to anyone or that they have any sort of obligation to society (Tiatorio). They recognize that wrongs can be done to them, but have a hard time recognizing that they themselves can do wrong (Tiatorio). To a large portion of today's youth, it seems, the prevailing belief about morality is that nothing they do can be wrong because they alone determine what is wrong to them (Tiatorio).
Statistics show some staggering numbers when it comes to the moral bankruptcy of a large portion of today's youth. For example, a 1989 study among American teenagers showed that over 70% of them admitted to lying to their parents about school. Furthermore, 48% had signed a parent's name to an absence excuse, and 19% had taken a book from the library without checking it out (Waldfogel). In the same study, only 60% of teenagers said they thought honesty was the best policy, only 65% said that crime did not pay, and 45% said that to succeed in business required some dishonesty (Waldfogel). Clearly, parents and society as a whole, are failing today's children when it comes to instilling good ethical values in them.
Since it is clear that parents are part of the reason this belief system is being perpetuated, and the churches only reach the percentage of young people who go to church and actually listen to what is being taught there, it then falls to educators to tackle the majority of the dilemma of teaching ethics.
The question is, what it the best way for public school teachers to handle the ethics problem among today's youth?
Techniques for Teaching Ethics
Before ethics can be taught to children, there must be some consensus on the desired ethics, or character traits, to be taught.
Most teachers of ethics agree that the foundations of good character include traits such as: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, integrity, fairness, caring, and legal compliance (Madden). These ethical foundations, when instilled in young children, serve as the basis for all future moral decisions they will make. When taken to heart, these ethical foundations can pave the way for even higher traits, such as wisdom and compassion, to become manifest in the child as an adult. Those children who have been taught ethics and grow up to hold positions of power will be more likely to make right use of that power, and to do no harm to others in exercising it. An ethical foundation taught to children makes for a better society.
One of the most successful ways of teaching ethics to school children is putting ethics into the form of a game. This is very easy to do, and can make for very insightful and revealing classroom discussion. By presenting ethical dilemmas to the students and asking them to come to their own conclusions about how each dilemma should be handled, the instructor is letting students start from where they are in their own beliefs (Tiatorio). This immediately puts the student at ease with the game, and gets them participating; most students want to express an opinion and defend it, while trying to use their own logic to defeat someone else's belief (Tiatorio). Though most students believe they have all the answers, they also usually believe in the right of others to have differing opinions (Tiatorio). This belief can be used to guide them toward a correct ethical conclusion. The Ethical Decision-Making Manual for Helping Professionals provides some excellent ethical dilemmas for classroom discussion.
It is never too soon to start teaching ethics to children. The earlier children start learning basic ethical concepts, the sooner they will start putting these concepts into practice; they will also be better able to understand more advanced ideas relating to these concepts when they reach the higher grades. Young children also often make the best ethics students; they are eager to do good things and to please at this age, and will usually make a concentrated effort to put the concepts they are being taught into practice. They will also be quick to point out to other children when those children aren't following what is being taught, and it is common to hear young students saying things like, "You're not being very respectful," or "You're not being honest."
One of the most effective and easiest ways of teaching ethics to elementary school children is to make flash cards of different ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas should be as simple as possible, and appropriate to the grade level being taught. Dilemmas such as "What would you do if you saw your best friend stealing…