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Published: August 5, 2011

Morality education

The teaching of civility and the rules of proper (and improper) conduct in society. Often called values education, morality education is a highly controversial area in modern American public education, depending on one’s view of the many different and often contradictory rules represented. Morality education was an integral part of all elementary and secondary education during the first two centuries of education in the New World, when Protestant ministers and lay instructors controlled private and common, or public, schools. The development of state-controlled public school systems during the last half of the 19th century secularized the administration of public schools but did little to change the Protestant orientation of morality education because of the dominance of Protestants in the teaching profession and the absence of challenges to such teaching. Indeed, Protestant influence in public education was so pervasive that the Roman Catholic Church decided to establish its own school system in the 1870s to prevent “Protestantization” of the growing number of Catholic children in the United States.
Morality education derived from various Protestant Christian doctrines persisted as an element of American public education until after World War II—especially in religiously homogeneous communities, where it persists to this day. In more heterogeneously populated urban and suburban areas, however, such education came under attack during the early 1960s, and the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a succession of rulings reaffirming First Amendment separation of church and state. The rulings struck down a variety of religious and quasi-religious practices and even elements of morality education when such instruction touched on even the most nondenominational, nonsectarian theistic doctrines. Fearful of running afoul of the First Amendment, schools turned to so-called value-neutral education, in which teachers explained to students that values were relative and personal. Even textbooks were value-neutered, with the Pilgrims converted from seekers of religious freedom to “people who take long trips.” Children were taught to figure out and embrace their own values, no matter what they are.
By 1989, however, it became clear that American elementary and secondary school students were admittedly unsure of the differences between right and wrong and unable to make complex personal moral decisions. More than half the school-aged children in the United States were growing up in one-parent families, leaving many unable to cope with such complex social problems as drugs, alcohol, suicide, teen pregnancy and the like, which had never before breached the school grounds. A 1989 survey by Louis Harris & Associates of 5,000 students found 47% willing to cheat on an important examination and 36% ready to lie to protect a friend who vandalized school property. Only 24% would tell the truth. In 1993, nearly 60% of high school seniors surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education admitted cheating on tests and assignments, and 31% claimed that teachers ignored such cheating, even when they witnessed it. Another poll found 67% of high school students ready to lie to achieve a business objective. And a 1988 survey of 1,700 sixth to ninth graders of both sexes by the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center found nearly 60% who believed the male had the right to sexual intercourse against the female’s consent if “she gets him sexually excited.” Twenty percent believed the male had the right to nonconsensual intercourse if he had “spent a lot of money on her,” while 59% gave him that right if they had been dating a long time.
Many parents and politicians blamed the schools and their teachers for failing to guide children safely past these problems. At the same time, educators and parents alike disagreed on what ought to be taught. “Teachers are told in one breath to socialize the rising generation and in the next to check personal values at the door,” complained the Education Letter of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Although many religious groups opposed the reintroduction of morality education in public schools, some communities found themselves so overwhelmed by juvenile crime and social problems in the late 1980s that they demanded a return to morality education in the schools. Religiously oriented morality education remains a part of the public school curriculum in isolated rural communities, where the entire population is of one mind and where there is little federal scrutiny. Where religious belief is fairly strong and uniform statewide—especially in the Deep South—state legislatures continue regularly to pass laws mandating prayer and prayer substitutes in the classroom, under the guise of morality education—and the Supreme Court continues just as regularly to declare such laws unconstitutional. The new secular values education introduced in the early 1990s has yet to face a crucial constitutional test. The question of morality education, however, remains a major problem in American schools. Some schools are solving the problem by reintroducing CIVICS courses, which were required for high school graduation prior to World War II. At the elementary school level such courses teach the broad shape of American governmental structure, emphasizing responsible citizenship and civic behavior by the individual—that is, how individuals can make life better for each other in a democracy where individuals have wide latitude to do as they please. Some teachers teach citizenship by organizing their classrooms as democratic minisocieties in which careless, unthinking and harmful actions by individuals are exposed, discussed and penalized by peers. Children are thus taught about the far-reaching consequences of littering and graffiti and the communal benefits of waiting in line, obeying laws, accepting majority rule and respecting dissenting opinions. Students are taught to take responsibility for their actions and their behavior. In 1987, the AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS urged development of a formal curriculum and widespread introduction of such citizenship education.
Some schools have gone much further, however, and are reintroducing straightforward, albeit secularized, morality education. Teachers in one California school, for example, begin classes with the announcement, “This class will stand for the right things,” and students are asked to discuss each of the “right things,” namely abstinence from drugs, caring for people, honesty, perseverance, respect and responsibility.