Moral Education and the Academics of Being Human Together

By Jacobson, Ronald B. | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Moral Education and the Academics of Being Human Together


Jacobson, Ronald B., Journal of Thought


mor*al. Pronunciation: 'mor-&l. Function: adjective. Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin moralis, from mor-, mos custom. 1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical b : expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior c : conforming to a standard of right behavior d : sanctioned by or operative on one's conscience or ethical judgment . (1)

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a "working session" of a teacher education program in a small mid-west university. The meeting was focused upon the ongoing renewal of the university's teacher education program. Many items were discussed, but one jumped out at me and has continued to occupy my thoughts over the past few months. This particular item pertained to a discussion of possible design principles that might guide the revamped teacher education strategy within this university's College of Education. One proposed guiding principle (one of a dozen aims being considered) involved the notion of preparing future teachers to be moral and ethical agents of social change in their schools and communities. A strenuous discussion ensued among the participants as to the merits and practicalities of such a principle. The gist of the discussion involved a perceived fear that using the words "moral" or "ethical" might connote a narrow, moralistic agenda within the program. Certainly, fueled by the conservative right, the term moral has come to be used in public debate almost entirely for issues such as gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. Questions were raised: What exactly do we mean by "moral"? Does moral education simply mean espousing, or indoctrinating, toward a universal list of right and wrong answers, thus creating a list of moral absolutes? Could we ever agree on such a list? Might not future applicants to the program choose other programs which could be perceived as more broadly focused upon the practics of teaching and curriculum development? Hence, other, less inflammatory, words were suggested; e.g., agents of diversity, democratic agents, etc. But, as we debated, moving further and further from the possibility of including "moral" language in the statement of aims, I began to wonder what was at stake in such a move. What were we losing by discarding the notion of "moral education"? Further, I began to consider what it might mean to train someone to become an agent of "moral and ethical change."

Not long after this conversation, I became aware of a lawsuit filed by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). In a press release by FIRE the following statement was made:

   A new trend in campus censorship is emerging: this summer,
   Washington State University used "dispositions" theory to punish an
   education student for his political and religious expression....
   "Dispositions" theory, increasingly in vogue in education programs,
   requires professors to evaluate their students' commitment to
   concepts such as "social justice" and "diversity" in conjunction
   with their actual scholastic achievement.... Washington State's
   College of Education threatened 42-year-old student Ed Swan with
   dismissal for allegedly violating two vague "disposition"
   standards. Swan was also subjected to mandatory diversity
   training--all because of clearly protected speech. '"Diversity' and
   'social justice' do not mean the same thing to everyone," remarked
   David French, president of FIRE. "By using such vague and
   politically charged criteria for evaluating future teachers,
   colleges all but guarantee that students will be punished for their
   opinions rather than evaluated on the basis of their abilities." (2)

Here we see the fears of those teacher educators at that mid-west university realized. If we are to train our future teachers to be moral agents of change, we must ask which, or perhaps more precisely, whose morals? …

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