The Moral Education Debate

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The Colorado Freedom

The Moral Education Debate

by Ari Armstrong

What form should moral education take in our schools? Should it focus on "discursive" methods, in which children reason out positions on moral issues, or should it be "directive," in which particular character traits are inculcated among the students? I suggest that the debate is entirely misplaced - that both sides make the same (wrong) presumptions which invalidate the whole discussion. When "moral educators" ask us to choose between their methods, perhaps we should be a little hesitant to accept the terms offered us. I shall argue that schools are not the place for either form of moral education.

I. Shooting the bull is fine at cocktail parties, but. . .

William Kilpatrick is right in noting the parallels between Simon and Kohlberg and placing them together in what Kilpatrick calls the "decision-making model"(1) and which I shall refer to as the "discursive method" (following William Bennett's description(2)). This discursive method has, Kilpatrick notes, "turned classroom discussions into 'bull sessions' where opinions go back and forth but conclusions are never reached" (16). It will be helpful if we review the criticisms made against discursive moral education - and I have a few criticisms of my own to add.

Simon with his "values clarification" technique proports to guide children in the development of ethics without pushing any particular set of moral values onto the child. Simon's critics devastate this method with one short argument: it is impossible for "values clarification" to be free from moral bias. First, teachers "are people too" and therefore not free from biases themselves, and as discussion leaders cannot possibly help but to color the issues. Even selecting a topic of discussion adds a bias.

The more important argument is that, in claiming that all views are to be heard and tolerated, "values clarification" is itself presupposing a number of values. I personally do not believe that "toleration" is in all circumstances a positive quality (and I suspect that I would elicit agreement from many quarters); Simon nonetheless proposes to push this value onto the unwary student. And, once we get a taste of the actual content of "values clarification" discussions, there can be no doubt but that the method is fraught with bias. Even bringing up the issues of sex and drug use with children constitutes bias for many parents, not to mention what gets discussed about sex and drugs! Simon's method, "despite its claim of being value-neutral, [ a]ctually conditions children to think of values as relative" (Kilpatrick 81).

Another powerful argument against Simon is that his method does not even constitute moral education. Rather, "values clarification" merely teaches children how to come up with arguments (logical or otherwise) for a particular behavior (moral or not). This is significant in two respects; 1) an ability to rationalize behavior is probably not a desirable trait, and 2) an ability to rationalize behavior (even granting for the moment that the arguments are actually good ones) does not necessarily relate to the child actually putting the behavior into practice. So Simon's method of moral education is hypocritical and in many cases ineffectual.

Kohlberg, unfortunately, is open to many of the same criticisms. I do respect Kohlberg for his honesty (he finally admitted that discourse by itself is insufficient for changing behavior, as Kilpatrick notes on p92), and also for at least attempting to get rid of Simon's relativistic bias (he refers to Simon as a "cop-out to the relativity problem.") But Kohlberg suffers from at least as many problems as Simon.

Like Simon, Kohlberg's "moral education" does not necessarily have any impact on behavior. Kohlberg explicitly states his stages of moral development in terms of "moral thinking" and "judgments" - does this thinking translate into action? I readily grant Kohlberg that our ability to think in more sophisticated ways about morality is likely to have an effect on our behavior, but this surely is not necessarily the case, nor is our behavior necessarily better because our reasoning abilities are (some people are just able to commit more sophisticated crimes). So all we can say about Kohlberg is that he makes some interesting observations about how people's reasoning abilities tend to develop, which may or may not have an effect on moral development.

College-educated people give "higher-level," "more mature" explanations of moral decisions than people who have not attended college, but we can hardly conclude that they actually are more moral. They are verbally more sophisticated, though.(3)

It is here that Kilpatrick falls back on Aristotle, who of course emphasizes the importance of habit. In Aristotle's system, we can know a general ethical principle, and also how the principle should be applied in a particular case, but still this "knowledge of it may be dormant" when it is the case "when passion carries a man away."(4) Of course we need to study ethics, when we are mature adults, "but nothing but a good moral training can qualify a man to study what is noble and just" (70).

How does Kohlberg stand up against the criticism of bringing moral bias into the classroom? Unfortunately, not too well. As Kilpatrick notes, whenever a teacher (or anyone, for that matter), is leading a discussion about morality, it is simply not possible to leave bias behind (89). Kohlberg claims to hold Socrates up as his ideal, when in reality his methods resembles more closely those of the Sophists.

So how should we evaluate discursive moral education? The teacher necessarily brings a moral bias into the classroom; is it appropriate to purposely subject the students to that bias in the attempt to induce moral development? I for one think not. Any parent whose moral beliefs are not the same as those of their student's teacher are likely to go along with me. And while the discursive method does not necessarily lead to moral development, it apparently is having some effect on behavior: For example, when drug education programs are patterned on the decision-making model, the result is increased drug use. Sex education programs of this type result in increased sexual activity. (Kilpatrick 21)

Perhaps we can be thankful that discursive moral education tends not to be very effective, because that at least means that the teachers aren't getting through to the students in many cases. (From what I've heard, I don't want the students to get much of anything out of these discussions!) It seems this system of moral education works best (is least harmful) for those students who pay absolutely no attention.

Since the discursive moral education method is in most cases not very effective at morally educating (which translates into wasted time and wasted tax money), and when it is effective introduces objectionable moral bias and encourages students to rationalize an "anything goes" type of behavior, why would we possibly want it in our classrooms?

II. Should Johnny be told right from wrong?

So far, I've mostly been reviewing the by - now standard arguments against the discursive method. I'll admit one of my motives - I wanted to "hook" those of you who (like me) find the discursive method unattractive, so that maybe you'll be a little more sympathetic with me as I derail the other side as well.

Just what is the other side? It is what Kohlberg calls the "bag of virtues" approach, Bennett calls the "directive method," and Kilpatrick calls "character education."

All advocates of the directive method point out rightly that discourse is not enough to get kids to behave in certain ways; they need to be actively told what to do and should be given incentives to do it. Bennett says, "adequate moral education must include both directive and discursive elements" (584). The teacher is to "express his disapproval" of undesirable character traits, both "verbally and through punishment" (586).

In short, those who advocate the directive method claim that it works.

Quite obviously, any rationale for adopting directive methods must be an instrumental one. The claim that, at elementary levels of development, such methods are effective ways of getting children to internalize desirable habits and behave in desirable ways and that, at more advanced levels, the previous application of these methods is necessary for the success of more discursive methods. (586)

Kilpatrick makes the same point.

Why is it that the directive method works so well? Bennett again establishes the standard answer:

Far from being alternatives to self-conscious morality, the habits are best understood as indispensable auxiliaries to it. They increase the impact of moral reasons by reducing one's tendency to be diverted. (591)

I need hardly point out that it is also "quite obviously" the case that the directive method explicitly claims moral bias. Bennett does recognize this problem; his solution to undue bias lies in "insisting that society inculcate only values that satisfy high standards of justifiability"; a "moral principle must first be clearly and firmly grounded" before it is taught (594-5).

However, this is vague talk. Whose "standard of justifiability" are we supposed to be using here? What is a moral supposed to be "firmly grounded" in? "This will of course require some exercise of judgment," Bennett responds (594). No kidding. Let me make Bill's point a little clearer for him. What he means is that we should only indoctrinate children with widely accepted values(5) - with traditional values - with Bill Bennett's conservative platform.

Mr. Bennett gives a representative list of those values which he finds acceptable to spend class time cajoling children to follow. Most of these traits are indeed quite desirable, I'll readily grant him; things like "self-discipline" and "trustworthiness." However, there are a few items in the list that might be exploited to push values that I myself and I'm sure many parents might find objectionable. Children are supposed to "respect the rights of others, in seeking our individual and collective ends." Now, I can think of a few "collective ends" that aren't so desirable (perhaps the reader can think of a few as well). Just who is it that is going to decide which "collective end" our children are supposed to "recognize the rights of others" in while pursuing? I'll answer for him: it is either a state bureaucrat, a local bureaucrat, or a teacher. Maybe our "collective end" of saving the environment from the ravages of capitalism passes (but who knows?). We are supposed to respect "democratic values," which are of course are not in the least in dispute. Like the "democratic value" of flowing federal and state tax money into the public school system and indirectly into the pockets of the NEA.

When someone - anyone - is allowed to pursue moral education in a directive manner, someone is going to get to pick the bias. I have a feeling that that "someone" is usually not going to be a parent.

I will even venture a speculation at this point. This is mere speculation, of course, but I would even go so far as to guess that Bill Bennett has been suckered and sucked into the very movement he is trying to counter. I bet that Mr. Simon is taking his "loss" with a chuckle.

But maybe I'm just paranoid. Perhaps the bureaucrats won't pervert the directive method, as I'm suggesting they might. After all, teachers have gone through "teacher education" classes; surely they know what is best.

I answer: not only is the directive method being grossly perverted at this time in actual school districts across the country, but the directive method by its very nature tends to lead to abuse. Whenever we make room in the curriculum for a positive indoctrination of values - call it whatever you like, Bennett and Simon - someone is going to have to call the shots as to what constitutes proper morality. I argue that, while this may be acceptable in some settings (such as the home), this is never acceptable in a school setting.

There is no doubt but that the directive method is being abused. If I were on the "left" in my political views, I would probably be angry over Louisiana's current attempt to replace the "anything goes" brand of sex education with a strict conservative brand of sex education, which in a word is "abstinence." I saw an actual Louisiana classroom on the news. A teacher was in strong and emotional terms telling a student that premarital sex is in all cases undesirable. I am not part of the "left," and I think abstinence is just dandy for high school students, but I was literally sick when I saw this teacher so flagrantlyy engaged in her brand of moral indoctrination. This type of indoctrination Kilpatrick recognizes and supports (23). So now we know what the "standard of justifiability" constitutes in practice: it is either the standard of leftist dogma or the standard of rightist dogma.

But sex education is just a minor issue. The type of indoctrination to which "directive moral education" is leading makes sex education seem unimportant. In a case which affects me personally, Mr. William G. Spady is influencing my conservative home-town of Palisade, Colorado, with a little (read: huge and growing) movement known as "Outcome Based Education" (OBE).

Great - someone is finally calling for some measurable outcomes in the education process, we might think at first. "Outcome Based Education" sounds innocent enough. OBE is "exactly what the community wants," reports Superintendent Paul Rosier in the May 24, 1992 issue of the Daily Sentinel, the "Grand Valley"'s newspaper (the Grand Valley includes Grand Junction, Palisade, and a couple other towns).

I thought Outcome Based Education sounded great, too, for about two minutes, until I started reading what kinds of outcomes Spady has in mind. This example is reported in the same Sentinel article:

By the end of eighth grade [every] student will be able to trace the need for and evolution of our government. . . Students will demonstrate a working knowledge of the United States government (its ideology, structure and function) and a commitment to civic participation.

Bennett claims that directive moral education does not necessarily promote the status quo - I argue that it should not even promote the non-status quo - but here we can clearly see that the directive method does in fact support the status quo. Not only is the student to "demonstrate" an understanding of the NEED for government in its modern, evolved form (read the quote again, if you missed this the first time), but the student is, as a graduation requirement, mind you, required to "demonstrate" a "commitment to civic participation." Now, a few of us in the classical liberal tradition point out that our founding fathers' conception of government was far different from the modern notion. Further, everyone seems to have different ideas as to what is proper "civic participation" and what is improper. There is only one brand of political orientation which would treat political indoctrination as if it passed some "high standard of justifiability" thereby making it appropriate to feed to innocent children, and this brand of political orientation has no business manifesting itself in the education of our young.

If I were a cynic, I might even claim that directive education is really just another way for the NEA to push its political mandates. By the way, such morally neutral issues as environmental ethics and multiculturalism are included among OBE outcomes in my home district.

It is true that OBE outcomes include many tenants from the traditional curriculum; things like reading, writing and mathematics. But the moral side of OBE will show through clearly to anyone who actually reads the material. Again, if I were a cynic, I might suggest that the talk of "outcomes" is just a distraction; a thin blanket of (what appears to be) "traditional values" covering a corpse of political indoctrination. After all, we don't need OBE to have outcomes in education; if we were serious about outcomes in the legitimate educational sense we would simply drop all these educational fads and return to a standard, "traditional" curriculum of reading and writing, math, science, history, and literature.

Again, someone might think that I'm being a little paranoid, in suggesting that OBE is replacing education with moral indoctrination. I don't think so; it comes straight from the "OBE Guru" himself.

In OBE, exit outcomes are a critical factor in designing the curriculum: you develop the curriculum from the outcomes you want students to demonstrate, rather than writing objectives for the curriculum you already have.

In other words, we needn't worry about fitting the scholastic topics into schools; if such topics happens to rise up "from the outcomes we want students to demonstrate" then I suppose that's ok. But I see little room for scholastic learning in the outcome of "adapting to and creating personal and social change."(6) In fact, adapting to social change often doesn't require much thinking at all. With such vague talk, one wonders just what kind of "social change" Mr. Spady has in mind.

As Mr. Spady puts it in the July 25, 1993 Sentinel, we needn't worry about "cognitive stuff" in schools; we just have to "learn" about the "real world" (perhaps watching the Real World on MTV would suffice). As I responded to Spady in the August 20 Sentinel, "How can anyone deal with the real world without cognition? The only (inadequate) answer: with whatever dogma has been pounded into one's head during 13 years of 'education.'" If we need to throw in a few academic subjects to appease the parents, I don't guess that really hurts the wider objectives of OBE.

I bring up OBE because it is a popular form of directive moral education which nicely illustrates the problems with such an approach. Now I'm going to generalize my arguments and defeat directive moral education (which, as Bennett points out, must incorporate discursive moral education) per se.

A major problem with any type of moral education is that it is necessarily controversial and children will inevitably be taught (and made to "demonstrate," as a graduation requirement, if Spady gets his way) values with which parents disagree. I'm not a moral subjectivist, but it is not prudent to treat moral issues like politics or environmentalism as if they can magically pass some "justifiability" criterion and be made suitable for "teaching" to young children. I have my own moral and political views, which I believe to be correct and which I will defend, but I do not presume to teach these beliefs to other people's children. I would like the favor returned, as would, I think, most parents (and older siblings; so far I am just the later).

But the more important argument against both the directive and the discursive methods of moral indoctrination is that children are simply not ready to deal with complex moral issues, at least in an academic setting. There is simply no room in the K through 12 curricula for positive moral development. Read me carefully; I say no room in the curricula, as Spady, Bennett, Kilpatrick, Simon, and Kohlberg all argue their should be. I'm not saying that honesty should not be enforced, I am just saying that we should not have a class on "honesty" or "sexual ethics" or "environmental ethics" or "political ethics" in which the student is encouraged to "develop" such ethics.

As I pointed out in the Sentinel letter, "A great well of knowledge - of history, literature and science - is a necessary prerequisite for any thoughtful consideration of ethics and politics." This is why I advocate a return to the "traditional" curricula of (I'll state again): 1) reading and writing, 2) mathematics, 3) science, 4) literature (and the arts), and 5) history. That is it. If schools did their jobs, they wouldn't have time to try to cajole Johnny into having sex or not having sex or "demonstrating" an environmental ethic or conforming to social norms. Even when the older children begin to think critically for themselves about ethical issues, I suggest that they are better served by an education than by shoot-the-bull sessions with (necessarily) biased teachers. Kilpatrick does have a point in calling for a greater appreciation of history and literature; teach the children to read and think critically and they will be able to draw out lessons from history themselves.

III. Solutions

The dichotomy between "discursive" and "directive" moral education is something of a red herring. I've indicated that in many ways the two movements are alike. The "discoursers" clearly intend their students to make practical application of the discussions, and the "directors" explicitly incorporate discourse. So now we can just say that "moral education" per se is bad.

At least moral education as it is debated in "the literature" is bad. But does that mean we have to allow cheating and gun - toting and drug use in schools? Of course not. I may now appear to backslide into the directive method. But don't worry - I shan't end up with Bennett and Kilpatrick - my position on "moral education" (if it can be called such) constitutes a third alternative to the moral education debate.

Before, when I argued against the "directive method," it was in the context of what Kilpatrick's and Bennett's views of "directive moral education" are. Now I propose to switch to a different meaning of the term altogether. We simply cannot avoid directing in ways that have moral implications, if we want to get anywhere, but the situations I'm talking about are NOT the situations of the "moral directors." For example, if a robber pulls a gun on you and you say, "please don't shoot," you are in effect giving him a direction which cannot be said to be free from moral concerns. When a kid brings a gun to school and we say "hand it over" or "you're suspended" we are giving directions, but this is not the type of "directive moral education" Bennett and Kilpatrick are talking about.

What we should NOT do is to start a class in which the merits or demerits of carrying a gun to school are discussed. We might take a few minutes of class time to inform the students that guns are not allowed on school grounds, but then we should move on to World War II or Shakespeare or Algebra. It is true that this type of direction has a moral import; we are in effect saying that bringing guns to school is a bad thing, but this is far different from what Bennett and Kilpatrick have in mind when they advocate "directive moral education." Yes, we are getting the child to "conform" to some sort of social norm (or maybe even to a social un-norm, in some parts of the country), but the reason is to protect the educational environment, not to inculcate other values within the child.

Now that you have some idea of the direction in which I'm moving, let's back up so we can see the "big picture." I mentioned that we all have our moral biases, which is a good thing if left outside the classroom. But at one level, it is impossible to leave biases out of the classroom. The reason I say this is because the very fact that we take it upon ourselves to educate children carries with it an implicit moral assumption: it is good to learn. So, education per se necessarily brings with it a set of values; values which we can sum up as "rationality."

Rationality - by which I mean simply the development of one's logical faculties and the acquiring of knowledge - is as a value inescapable as long as we presume to educate. To give up this value, we have to give up education all together. When we say, "Johnny, go to school," we are giving a direction with moral import.

Education entails the value of rationality; it does not entail the value of sex, or abstinence, or environmentalism, or capitalism, or democracy, or the whole host of other values which the "moral educators" try to push into the schools.

I contend that the single value we as educators (not "we as parents" or "we as theologians") should advocate is the value of rationality. In this sense, education carries with it a moral bias. But that is the ONLY moral bias it should carry. Leave the rest for home, church, and philosophical discussion. If we ever decide that rationality is not a proper moral value, the only answer is to close down the schools or take education out of the schools altogether.

Of course upholding the value of rationality carries with it the implication that we must use moral discourse and moral direction. We tell the students, "do not bring guns to school. Do not use drugs at school. Do not cheat. Etc." We enforce these policies. Why? Because such measures are necessary for the maintenance of an environment in which rationality can flourish. We can rightly tell children not to have sex in school; beyond that sex should not come up except in anatomy class. (Drugs also may properly be discussed in school, in scientific contexts. I might even go along with an ethics class for advanced older students, so long as it was treated as a class on the history of ethical thought.) Again, educators should spend their time teaching children the five basic subjects, and nothing else.

One benefit of my approach to moral education (or, rather, lack of moral education) is that students will spend more time learning those things which help them become critical thinkers. This, in turn, is the biggest favor we can do for students if we want them to be "autonomous" moral agents.(10) Requiring children to work hard to learn the sciences and history is teaching them values in a far superior way than allowing them to sit through bull sessions. Children, when being "morally educated," learn merely to posture in front of the teacher and the other students in order to gain recognition. Either that, or children learn to be disinterested in school (and rationality) altogether.

It is true that, in upholding the value of rationality, we are "pushing" this value onto the children. But if the child refuses to accept this value, he or she will simply drop out of school.

With a proper view of moral education, we also solve the problem of school board wars and embittered parents. Since parents choose to send their children to school, they are implicitly accepting the value of rationality, and so will not object when the teachers push this value. (In those unfortunate cases in which parents neither choose to send their kids to school nor choose to take them out of school, the parents aren't likely to care about what values are being pushed anyway.)

Of course, being a firm supporter of the full privatization of all education, I recognize the rights of private schools to use whatever form of "moral education" they deem appropriate (so long as it does not involve physical injury). Surely within a private system of education, some schools would continue "moral education," just as most religious schools do today. However, I believe that, in a fully private system, most schools would stop wasting time on "moral education" and focus on *teaching* students about the world. Such schools would help students prepare for successful living and develop the intellectual capacities necessary for making wise ethical decisions. Such schools would come to dominate the market, in my view.

It seems rather simple to me. Schools are here to teach. If "moral educators" would just start teaching, they wouldn't cause so many problems. Here's what education comes down to: reading and writing, math, science, history, and literature. If it comes down to anything else, we know we're off track.


(1)William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong, Touchstone, 1993, p80.

(2)George Sher and William J. Bennett, "Moral Education and Indoctrination," Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, Ed. Christina and Fred Sommers, Harcourt 1993, p584.

I connect this piece to Bennett in my essay, but I don't mean to exclude Sher from the credit. I do this simply because I know more about Bennett and so do most people.

(3)Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, Psychology, 2nd edition, Harper and Row 1990.

(4)Aristotle, "The Nichomachean Ethics," Morality and the Good Life, Ed. Robert C. Solomon, McGraw-Hill 1992, p115, 116.

Thus it is that Aristotle can grant Socrates' notion that "to know the good is to do the good;" Aristotle just adds that our moral knowledge is not always present to the mind when it counts (so we don't technically 'know the good' when we are doing bad) and for this reason we can be incontinent.

(5)Bennett says, "we do not mean that [directive education] should be used to teach every widely accepted moral belief" (595), but he allows for no other workable criterion by which we are to distinguish legitimate "widely accepted moral beliefs" from illegitimate ones. (Unless you consider "educator's fiat" to be a "workable criterion" for such decisions.)

(6)William G. Spady, Organizing for Results: The Basis of Authentic Restructuring and Reform, Educational Leadership, October 1988, p6.

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