Teaching Art, Moral Conduct, & John Dewey for Today

By Leshnoff, Susan K. | Art Education, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching Art, Moral Conduct, & John Dewey for Today


Leshnoff, Susan K., Art Education


In Moral Principles in Education (1959), John Dewey states that there is "nothing in the nature of ideas about [author's emphasis] morality...which automatically transmutes such ideas into good character or good conduct" (p. 1). Distinguishing between ideas about moral action that are inert from ideas that motivate the student toward moral conduct, Dewey describes the latter as the "business of the educator" (p. 2). For Dewey, the school offers educators the opportunity to help students recognize their present and future roles in society and to develop their active interest in community welfare. According to Dewey, "Apart from participation in social life, the school has no moral end nor aim" (p. 11). A moral school atmosphere, then, is one where every individual's interest in community welfare has become a moral habit.

Art teachers, along with educators in other disciplines are now unavoidably addressing moral dilemmas and issues of character development in their classrooms through mandates by their school districts. The September 11th terrorist attacks and the rash of gun violence in our nation's schools have brought an ardent message to the public that ways to prevent, mediate, and control undesirable student behavior are immediately needed. Viewing character development within a social context rather than as isolated personal growth has become a necessity, for it is generally agreed that good character must be practiced by the individual through interactions within the community.

Like other educators, the art teacher is being asked to instill in students a sense of moral integrity and social responsibility. Historically, character development has been taught in this country through school discipline, teacher modeling, and school curriculums (Lickona, 1993). These categories offer the art educator a skeletal structure for formulating a character development format in the classroom.

Following is such an analysis.

Classroom Discipline

The art educator can activate character education directly through the rules of classroom management. On the elementary school level, favored "rules" by art educators surveyed centered on respect for others and their artwork and the orderliness of the room. In this survey, (Leshnoff, 1999) teachers were asked to write down the five essential rules that they expected students to follow. The relevant rules most commonly cited by the respondents in priority were: 1) Respect others; 2) Clean up properly; 3) Listen to directions; 4) Respect art materials and use them properly; and 5) Respect artwork-no negative criticism. These rules apply to how the individual can contribute to the general welfare of the student community in the art room.

On the secondary school level, in a survey specifically directed toward character education conducted among high school art teachers in New Jersey (Leshnoff, 2003), respondents stated that they incorporated the following character development traits (in order of priority) within their classroom discipline: respect for self and others, respect for student work, responsibility, development of interpersonal relationships, tolerance for diversity, and cleanliness. In contrast to the popular rules on the elementary art level, these rules also target respect for differences among one another through communication within the classroom community.

Teacher Modeling

Susi (1996) states that "The personality and experience of the teacher and his or her personal beliefs, values, and preferences are the foundation upon which an educationally sound strategy for dealing with student behavior is built" (p. 63). Certainly the art educator plays a substantial role in modeling desired character traits enforced as discipline in the classroom. The respect, caring, compassion, honesty, and fair treatment of others that the art teacher demonstrates send nonverbal messages to students about ways to act in social circumstances. …

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