General Education

Moral Education: An Overview for Parents and Teachers

Moral Education: An Overview for Parents and Teachers
Image from
Lisa Hiton profile
Lisa Hiton February 7, 2019

When I hear the word “character”, I first think of the fictional people I’ve studied in books, films, plays, and the like. Why is it that in English we study these people? They are often flawed. They often behave in ways we would consider morally reprehensible, even. Think of Crime and Punishment, Beloved, Angels in America, and all of those other core texts in which the reader is made complicit in understanding, if not forgiving, protagonists who suffer and make others suffer greatly. A character who would score well on their character GPA would not likely be the most compelling protagonist.

Article continues here

The education sector is one full of rhetoric. With the new rollout of the Common Core State Standards, we have a new set of buzzwords. Some that you might be hearing across public and charter schools alike are “character", “excellence", and “grit". From school to school, these ideas are becoming part of the “measurables" students are meant to achieve. While this might seem on its face a wise endeavor, different schools and school systems approach these ideals in different ways. The KIPP schools, for example, approach character as they would academic contents. Students are given a separate character GPA in which they are scored on zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitiude, social intelligence, and curiosity. Can you imagine someone grading your level of curiosity in a given classroom hour? As a daydreamer and writer myself, I imagine I would not have done so well in this environment. When I hear the word “character", I first think of the fictional people I’ve studied in books, films, plays, and the like. Why is it that in English we study these people? They are often flawed. They often behave in ways we would consider morally reprehensible, even. Think of Crime and Punishment, Beloved, Angels in America, and all of those other core texts in which the reader is made complicit in understanding, if not forgiving, protagonists who suffer and make others suffer greatly. A character who would score well on their character GPA would not likely be the most compelling protagonist. And yet, we are in a moment in education where the idea of the measurable, or rather, control, seems the only insurance to have students leave the classroom ready to “lead engaged, happy, and successful lives", as it says on KIPP’s webpage describing their character measurements. Slower to these claims is the idea that is or could be behind character and grit: moral capacity. The moral education of young people can and does fall into many hands: parents, teachers, faith leaders, and other informal mentors or models (overnight camps, sports, the arts, etc.). There are some schools that engage in these practices as a means of integrating moral education (versus making it another mark of “achievement") already. Waldorf Schools would be the most ready counter to KIPP in their approach to character. Waldorf Schools integrate the arts (at a minimum) as a means of suggesting that experience is the most relevant ingredient to becoming fully-realized intellectually and emotionally. This is the primary and secondary version of a liberal arts school, whereby, to be a cultured person, one must experience culture and cultivate lifelong learning through these practices of culture itself. Ideologically in the middle of these two structures would be Expeditionary Learning Schools, which place rigor on achievement as well as integrating those achievements into the experience of student work. EL’s founder, Ron Berger, even has a great book called An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. EL also houses the Center for Student work, in which teachers and parents can study student work of all ages as a means to illuminating the Common Core State Standards. I’ve intentionally selected three networks of independent charters to build this spectrum. These kinds of schools have the benefit of being ideologues whose students’ failure or success proves the theory at the forefront. But where does this leave the likes of public schools in engaging or rejecting moral education as a crucial means of developing the whole child? And further, in all of the cases presented to you thus far, where is the moral rigor behind the ideas? In the cases laid out so far—the ones with the privilege of being somehow systematized differently than the public school—none of the rhetoric entering the consciousness is that of morals to begin with. Perhaps with the exception of Waldorf in which the contents of the arts are ideas that challenge our moral beliefs and capacities (think of the most common themes in the art we study: love, death, faith, spirituality, sexuality, violence, depression, joy all as measured in the individual voices of characters against the times they are placed in), no rhetoric of character or morals has entered. Imagine a school as a crucial participant in raising a generation of ethically minded children. I don’t mean ethically as a means only of practical, political ethics, but rather, that ethics and caring are somehow related. At the forefront of this mission (as far as the Ed sector is concerned) is Making Caring Common, directed by Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones. Through this research instituteion, Weissbourd has been able to encourage schools to join the Caring Schools Initiative, continue researching the psychology and social anthropology behind what environments culture more ethically minded young people, as well as consider the role of parents and teachers in mentoring children on these complex topic areas. Here are some of the main moral themes and capacities that a character GPA does not consider when considering the “grit" of a student: love, sex, sexuality, race, politics, and achievement pressure. Some of the questions raised by MCC and Weissbourd’s life work relate to these. In his book, The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, Weissbourd dedicates much of his thinking to how parents can promote happiness and morality. That perhaps, the complexity of holding both of those endeavors at the forefront would be a more rigorous way to engage everyday life and all of the harder encounters of belief and consciousness young people will experience as they grow older. The efforts are not simply to promote progressive or democratic politics, but rather how to give young people access to the true themes they are encountering with the support of parents and schools as a means to develop their moral capacities (to handle violence, depression, love, sexuality, race, political complexity, etc.) so that they can have moral strength. The perpetuation of “measurables" is a counter to complexity. Take a quick look at achievement pressure anywhere and it’s easy to see (how many more articles are we going to read about Harvard students cheating before we understand that achievement and ethics do not go hand-in-hand, especially when one is neglected almost entirely as a pedagogical practice in homes and schools). It is a harder sell, in public schools and different communities across the country, this idea of moral education. What would it look like, for example, to engage LGBTQ issues in sex education in a public school? This is a horrifying idea to many parents, teachers, and students, while to others it is necessary. The important idea is that capacity. Can your moral capacities grow? Can we be better models of caring and foregiveness for young people? As parents? As teachers? Another pedagogy that engages moral capacity as a rigorous practice is Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, which comes from the life work of Peter Elbow. Teachers and professors across many content areas use generative and reflective writing practices in their classrooms to engage critical thinking (I do not mean critical thinking as a measurable on a timed-writing exam, but rather in that old Jewish rabbinical sense of the word—that nothing is to be taken at face value, but rather to be questioned, interpreted, reinterpreted, argued, forgiven, and then passed on). These teachers then go back to their classrooms and use these practices to help students find their voice and feel confident that they are being heard as equals (with each other and their teacher). School to school, it seems that English teachers, teachers in the arts, and coaches tend to be the people students are closest to. Those teachers have access to the inner struggles and thoughts that students face. It seems that the content areas lend themselves to moral capacities, a correlation which should not be ignored. And it’s not just those content areas, but genuine trust is built in those spaces because of the habits of mind cultivated in them. Moral strengths of young people are important, and it would be impossible to access those strengths and capacities without the safety to do so. While more initiatives pop up around the country, large and small, it is important for parents and schools to keep moral capacity in mind. Teaching was born as a social labor. In my lifetime, unfortunately, capitalism has begun to take over those roots in anthropology. Those of us hoping to preserve the tradition are clinging tightly to that old ground while standardized testing sweeps through with its megaphone, demanding each of us to perform for the machine of its own making. Even if it’s one household or one classroom at a time, these ideas are crucial to cultivating a generation of more caring citizens.


Share