ON LEARNING TO BE GOOD
You and I would probably agree that something students should learn while they are in school is how to be good. We acknowledge, of course, that the primary responsibility for nurturing good children lies with their parents and with religious institutions. After all, we say, beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, are private matters and have no place in schools that are publicly funded. We recognize, however, that morality also has a public dimension which is every bit as important as the private—and here school teachers are thought to be especially crucial mentors.
For primary and secondary education, we argue, the goal of moral education should be to prepare students to be “good citizens.” A democracy, more than any other form of government, depends on people who respect the rule of law, deal honestly with one another, and are loyal to the nation and its ideals. For higher education, we think students should learn to be “ethically responsible” doctors, lawyers, managers, teachers, and government workers. When scandals explode into the headlines—the Watergate cover-up, Enron’s accounting practices—we wonder why the law schools or MBA programs failed so miserably to teach their graduates the moral constraints entailed by their responsibilities as elected political officials or corporation executives.
Courses in “ethics” or “values clarification” are the usual way in which this moral education is provided, although the tendency is for the courses to shrink into course units and for what was once required to become elective. This marginalizing of what is said to be crucial results from our inconsistent but nonetheless insistently negative view of ethics as a subject for study. We quite often dismiss moral education as frivolous, a waste of time, a detour on the road to acquiring the skills needed in order to become a productive member of the work force and a functional citizen. We recognize the importance of arithmetic and general science, spelling and grammar, keyboard arts and auto mechanics—but who needs to sit around sharing their feelings about smoking pot or just saying no? We should learn algebra and organic chemistry, American history and managerial economics, dental hygiene and mechanical engineering—but who needs to attend the special lecture on the morality of human cloning or the small group discussions on ethics in the workplace?
I will explore in what follows the reasons for this love-hate attitude toward moral education. And I will suggest how I think a “process approach” to ethics would improve our appreciation for why it needs to be an integral aspect of education from kindergartens to elder hostels.