In the course of their volunteerism, Midnight In Chicago volunteers often encounter educators and school administrators who express frustration about three controversial areas in education: behavioral problems, morals, and values. They have expressed particular frustration about how parents of special needs students perceive their attempts to eliminate unwanted behaviors, and impart morals and values to students.
It would be an ambitious undertaking to address these issues in thorough detail, so this series attempts to touch upon those issues in a general fashion.
Do morals have any place in school?
Whether we like it or not, schooling is a moral enterprise. Values issues abound in the content and process of teaching. The interaction of adults and students within a social organization called a school results in human conflict no less than does such interaction in social organizations labeled “families.” (Kohlberg & Hersh)
Be that as it may, it is only an opinion. Yet it is one worth considering.
In keeping family, church, and school separate … educators have assumed naively that schools have been harbors of value neutrality. (Kohlberg & Hersh)
Nothing could be further from the truth. If you have ever had a “favorite” teacher or a teacher you “hated,” either teacher or both must have made an impression upon you because you have assigned feelings to them that you have not assigned to other teachers.
If you have attended school, chances are you have picked up some of the morals that your teachers held and have adopted them as your own. Every time this happens, it means you have either acquired a new moral or modified one you already held. Doesn’t it make sense then, that a baseline of morals be either taught or mentored so that students understand at least what morals are and what the norm looks like?
Even if the answer is “No” students will inevitably pick up on the morals of their teachers. Because teachers are generally drawn from the community in which they serve, teachers will unconsciously be demonstrating the community’s morals through their behavior. This can work both for and against your child.
If the community in which you live is one with qualities you would like your child to possess, then your child will see these qualities demonstrated in the behaviors of the teachers who come from the community. If the community you live in is one with qualities you would not like your child to possess, then your child will see these qualities demonstrated in the behaviors of the teachers who came from the community.
It goes deeper than this, however, because we must admit that even if teachers exemplify community standards in their behaviors, they are charged with upholding school rules even as they have personal morals which they must keep suppressed.
This ‘hidden curriculum” with its emphasis on obedience to authority (“stay in your seat, make no noise, get a hallway pass”; and the feeling of “prison” espoused by so many students), implies many underlying moral assumptions and values, which may be quite different from what educators would admit as their conscious system of morality. (Kohlberg & Hersh)
Imagine an educator in a public school in the United States who leads the class in saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, but who believes duty to God comes before duty to country. This educator must remain quiet and may demonstrate ONLY what the community agrees upon as being acceptable: The Pledge.
Similarly, imagine an American citizen with permanent residence in Canada teaching a class of Canadian students. This educator must lead his students in singing “Oh Canada!” each morning as per Ministry standards for that province.
Educators sometimes uphold morals with which they may not agree. They do this for the sake of the community, and because this is what the community does for the sake of those who live within it.
It seems logical that we simply dispel the illusion that morals do not exist in schools and teach some general moral curriculum.
Kohlberg and Hersh list six stages of moral development spaces across three levels:
I. Preconventional Level. At this level, the child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but interprets these labels either in terms of the physical or the hedonistic consequences of the action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or in terms of the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels.
Stage 1: The punishment-and-obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness, regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are valued in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority (the latter being Stage 4).
Stage 2: The instrumental-relativist orientation. Right action consists of that which instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms like those of the marketplace. Elements of fairness, of reciprocity, and of equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” not of loyalty, gratitude, or justice.
II. Conventional Level. At this level, maintaining the expectations of the individual’s family, group, or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order, and of identifying with the persons or group involved in it.
Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation. Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or “natural” behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention – “he means well” becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being “nice.”
Stage 4: The “law and order” orientation. There is orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists of doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.
III. Postconventional, Autonomous, or Principle Level. At this level, there is a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding these principles and apart from the individual’s own identification with these groups.
Stage 5: The social-contract, legalistic orientation, generally with utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis on procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, the right is a matter of personal “values” and “opinion.” The result is an emphasis on the “legal point of view,” but with an emphasis upon the possibility of changing law in terms of rational considerations of social utility (rather than freezing it in terms of Stage 4 “law and order”). Outside the legal realm, free agreement and contract is the binding element of obligation. This is the “official” morality of the American government and constitution.
Stage 6: The universal-ethical principal orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical. (The Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principals of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.
Here is what we must remember. According to Kohlberg and Hersh:
1) Stages are “structured wholes,” or organized systems of thought. This means individuals are consistent in their level of moral judgment.
Stages form an invariant sequence. Under all conditions except extreme trauma, movement is always forward, never backward. Individuals never skip changes, and movement is always to the next stage up. This is true of all cultures.
2) Stages are “hierarchical integrations.” Thinking at a higher stage includes or comprehends within it lower stage thinking. There is a tendency to function at or prefer the highest stage available.
If a child is not operating at the highest moral stage, shouldn’t that stage be modeled for that child so that they have a moral goal to aspire to reach? If it is true that these stages exist across cultures and that it is common for all cultures to aspire to the highest moral stage, should we not facilitate this rise in children operating on the lower stages as quickly as possible so that these children are no longer considered inferior by their peers?
The larger implications are societal. If a school churns out students who are operating on lower stages of moral development, they may not be able to operate or thrive in a society where moral values are operating at higher stages.
Kohlberg and Hersh say: “[T]he aim of moral education should be to stimulate people’s thinking ability over time in ways which will enable them to use more adequate and complex reasoning patterns to solve moral problems.”
It should be noted that this does not mean it is the teacher’s responsibility to dictate to students what is right and what is wrong, but rather to motivate students to operate at the highest possible stage so that they will be better able to determine for themselves what right or wrong actually is.
“The teacher must help the student to consider genuine moral conflicts, think about the reasoning he uses in solving such conflicts, see inconsistencies and inadequacies in his way of thinking and find ways of resolving them” say Kohlberg and Hersh.
If we believe that Kohlberg and Hersh’s stages best represent the actual stages of moral development, any parent who withdraws their child from moral education is complicit in stunting the development of their child’s moral reasoning skills, and any school which of its own volition does not teach morality is complicit in doing the same.
The arguments presented in this article are valid for all students, but hold particular weight when we consider that disabled students bear the brunt of prejudicial and discriminatory judgments which could be contravened by good moral reasoning. In other words, there is the possibility that if people could reason morally at the highest stages of moral reasoning, they would be far less likely to engage in any kind of behavior which would negatively affect people with disabilities (e.g. bullying, teasing, etc.). Further, those with disabilities would be better able to withstand bullying because they would readily identify the bullies as operating at a lower moral stage and pity them rather than hate them.
I hope I have been able to demonstrate why moral instruction in school is important and necessary. Feel free to share your views on this subject.
Thomas D. Taylor
MIDNIGHT IN CHICAGO
Kohlberg, L. & Hersch, R. H. “Moral Development: A Review of the Theory,” Theory Into Practice 16 (April 1977): 53-59, College of Education, The Ohio State University.