The Time Is Now: Reflections on Moral Education

By Traiger, Jerome | Education, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Time Is Now: Reflections on Moral Education


Traiger, Jerome, Education


A recent newspaper article reported the arrest of a group of teenagers charged with a series of shootings and robberies. Those charged included a 13-year old, a 14-year old, a 15-year old, and a 19-year old who used a shotgun to terrorize his victims. This group of teens was charged with the murder of a store manager, the wounding of two of its employees and with grand larceny. The crime was characterized by police as a display of callous indifference to the lives of their victims. "These people had no reason to shoot. There was no resistance offered in any one of these robberies." This article doesn't represent a single, isolated incident. It is indicative of the news on any given day. We are becoming the world's most violent nation. Among industrial nations, the United States has the highest murder rate for 15 to 24 year olds-seven times higher than Canada, and 40 times higher than Japan. The murder rate for youths under 18 has doubled since 1985.(1)

Elijah Anderson has defined two very different "operating assumptions" of teenage life. He writes "so-called decent families tend to accept mainstream values more fully and attempt to instill them in their children". On the other hand, "the lives of the street-oriented are often marked by disorganization," leading children to "come up hard." Anderson says, "Its basic requirement is the display of a certain predisposition to violence."(2) Similar conclusions were reached by W. Finnegan in a New Yorker article describing the lifestyle of gangs of boys involved in violence, shootings, selling drugs and committing random acts of wanton destruction of property.(3)

More students are finding school less pertinent to their lives. They often find school meaningless, boring and unrelated to the frustrations, problems and issues affecting their day-to-day existence. More students live below the poverty line. More are from ethnic minorities. More come to school unprepared - below a reading readiness level, below a vocabulary development level, below any readiness level that would predict success. Elementary school teachers spend more of their time teaching children not to hit, not to lie, and not to cheat. High school teachers fight for student's attention with MTV, gangs on the streets and in the schools. American teachers are verbally abused, sometimes threatened with injury, and occasionally physically attacked.

It's easy to blame such egregious problems on dysfunctional families. Shall we place blame on authoritarian parents, laissez-faire parents, neglectful parents, permissive parents, indifferent parents, smothering parents, uncaring parents, controlling parents, mistrustful parents? Parents, once the most loyal of allies, are to a greater degree working harder with less time for Open School Nights and PTA meetings. Fewer parents are actively involved in their children's education. Concerned parents often find their community more concerned with taxes than test scores.

It is equally simple to blame social and economic causes. To be sure, broken families, drugs, unemployment, racism, and poverty are taking their toll. But the pivotal issue, it seems to me, is that of parental and societal responsibility for educating people to take personal responsibility for their actions by developing within our young people the capacity for moral decision making.

Today, rapidly escalating problems in society such as crimes of violence make it imperative that schools address the subject of values and ethics in the classroom. Schools cannot be ethical bystanders. They must try to do what many families cannot; attempt to shape the character of their students. There is common ground on what values to teach; honesty, justice, civility, democracy, tolerance and a respect for the truth are just a few that transcend cultural and religious differences.

Transmitting these values has always been the work of the schools. From the McGuffey Readers of the 1800's, to Kohlberg's moral dilemma discussions in the 1970's, American schools have taken a role in teaching values. …

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