I hope you’re not one of the many people whose eyes start to glaze over when we begin to talk about the place of moral education in our schools. “Shouldn’t that be left to religion?” is a frequently heard comment. But the most common is, “Aren’t they a bit young to start thinking about stuff like that?”
Well, to answer both questions, no.
First of all, morality in its most basic sense is a universal human truth and not a religious belief. Every culture known to man has always agreed upon fundamental moral principles. For example, there is no known culture which has condoned harming others without good reasons. While we do argue about what constitutes good reasons, the basic rule still applies.
To illustrate this point, consider the difference between how you would react to someone who says one plus one is three or to someone who would say that it’s perfectly appropriate to harm another person for fun. To the first you would say, “You’re wrong; one plus one is two.” However, the second you would not call wrong, rather you would say, “You’re sick”. The first we would call ignorant, the second a psychopath.
Why the difference? Why would we not simply assume that the second person simply was home sick with the flu the day they taught the Golden Rule? The answer lies in the fact that we consider fundamental moral behavior to be so basic to human nature that it would be simply impossible for anyone of sound mind to be ignorant of the rule.
There are, therefore, those who would argue that these principles do not even have to be taught! Whether they have been divinely instilled or are part of a psychological/moral evolutionary process is an argument I will leave to others. What does seem to be clear is that they are written into our DNA. Children (and many adults, for that matter) may have to be reminded to adhere to expected behaviors, but you will never find a child who will counter by saying, “Could you explain that Golden Rule stuff again, I don’t understand it.”
The greater question, which we will deal with in a future posting, is what then is the role of the school? Should schools ignore teaching what seems to be so obvious and dedicate their efforts to strictly academic pursuits, or is there a place in public education for moral guidance? I would argue that as those dedicated to shaping the lives of our future citizens, teachers cannot ignore this crucially important aspect of their students’ development. How they should address this issue is a subject for further discussion.