Essential Ethical Considerations in Education

By Smith, Robert M. | Education, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Essential Ethical Considerations in Education


Smith, Robert M., Education


Having served as a faculty member and academic administrator in higher education for 35 years, the opportunity has been available to observe the ebb and flow of changes and modifications that have taken place in such areas as curricula, management, assessment, faculty responsibilities and authority, and student expectations. One of the areas of pronounced emphasis during the past decade, which had not been as predominantly emphasized in prior periods, has been the subject of ethics.

Many colleges and universities have courses on their books in professional ethics. It is increasingly common to find courses in ethics in the curricula of law, business, and medicine. Harvard, for example, publishes a catalog of case studies in these professions that is several hundred pages long, and the subject of ethics is a major topic of focus. Johns Hopkins University Hospital has included intentional instruction in medical ethics in their various curricula. Most professional organizations have ethics committees which review instances among the membership of possible inappropriate behaviors, and these committees are also often responsible for developing specifications of proper behavior by members. Books of acceptable ethical standards for professionals have been published. The American medical Association, for example, has a detailed code of appropriate conduct to alert members of areas of possible conflict of interest and conflict of commitment. There are few organizations who do not at least annually have conferences, seminars, workshops, and short courses on issues pertaining to ethical issues in their respective professions.

These activities and foci raise several questions. First, don't we most of the time know when we are engaging in appropriate behavior? If we do wrong? And, second, if we don' t know when we are engaging in inappropriate behavior, is it possible to teach for, or at the very least sensitize ourselves to, the nature of virtuous behavior and how best to consistently manifest such behavior in all of our environments? My suspicion is that these questions are fundamentally theological with emphasis on the nature and character of mankind.

What virtues should those of us in the "caring" professions be particularly sensitive to in our day-to-day activities? Remarkably little has been written on the obligations of educators, K-12 as well as those in higher education. Relatively more of the literature has examined the rights of educators than has focused on their responsibilities. We read about careless doctors, dishonest lawyers, and corrupt businessmen, and how these individuals have violated codes of conduct. William May has suggested that members of the academic community are not immune from conflicts of interest and commitment which have and continue to cause significant ethical problems that affect colleagues, students, and one's responsibilities to the profession. May (1990) recommends the following principles of personal responsibility for those of us in the profession of education. Accordingly, we are responsible to:

A. Demonstrate a respect for each person as an individual,

B. Communicate honestly and truthfully,

C. Enhance the self esteem of other persons, and

D. Help build fair and compassionate social and cultural systems that promote the common good of all persons.

May also recommends five principles of professional interaction about which educators ought to be aware:

A. Assist their institutions to fulfill its educational mission,

B. Strive to enhance the personal and intellectual development of other persons,

C. Be compassionate, thorough, and fair in assessing the performance of students and professional associates,

D. Exercise the authority of their office in ways that respect persons and avoid the abuse of power, and

E. Conduct their professional activities in ways that uphold or surpass the ideals of virtue and competence.

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