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Warm & fuzzy just won't do it

If, in the early 1950s, a typical parent had been asked if her child should be given a moral education in school, she would have been puzzled, "Well, I certainly don't want an immoral education. Morality is part of the Education Act and the school program, isn't it?" If the question is asked today, the answer will be more nuanced, more skeptical, "Whose morals? A special course? Will it take time away from the basic skills?"

Canada's educational world view in the early '50s was more like that of 1867 than that of 2005. Since then, as the typical parent becomes more unusual, the proportion of students in independent schools, home schooling, special education, French immersion, francophone schools outside Quebec and New Brunswick, publicly funded Roman Catholic schools and public schools of choice has increased rapidly, and the local schools so distinguishable by parental income, that the idea of a socially representative common school is obsolete. The growing differentiation of Canadian schools is often based on world view as much as income because parents increasingly make discriminating choices.

Before Confederation, schooling was almost entirely in religious hands. Confederation established Catholic and Protestant systems in Quebec, public and Catholic systems in Ontario, and provision was made for Catholic schools in the two founding Maritime provinces. The public schools themselves, by law and practice, were far from secular. Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist and the father of public education in Ontario, established a strongly Christian but non-denominational system.

The idea that formal education in Canada has been secular as a result of the separation of church and state is false, the main difference being that in England there was (and is) an established church, which used to form the basis for religious teaching in public schools. The dominant religious element of public education in the western world began to weaken in the 20th century, increasingly so after each of the world wars. In 1925, the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim laid out the manifesto for a secular moral education. "We must discover those moral forces that men, down to the present time, have conceived of only under the form of religious allegories. We must disengage them from their symbols, present them in their rational nakedness, so to speak and find a way to make the child feel their reality... we want moral education to become rational and at the same time to produce all the results that should be expected from it."

It would be another 50 years before that disengagement would have full force, but in the meantime its central idea was adopted by many of the educated classes — Fabian socialists, atheists like Bertrand Russell, Marxists as well as artists and aesthetes with less clearly defined ideologies. There is a radical difference between the proposition of a secular moral religious substitute (to which some still cling today) and the contemporary, postmodernist idea of religious and moral neutrality, concealing a malleable and incoherent selection from the nostrums of the day.

Meanwhile, as the other six provinces and two territories became part of the Canadian confederation, their school systems paralleled those of the four founders. Only British Columbia and Yukon excluded Roman Catholic schools for which there was little local demand, together with, much more controversially, Manitoba. It is no coincidence that those two provinces both provide generous partial funding to Roman Catholic (and other) independent schools today.

It is interesting that what Durkheim and other advocates of a secular public school unknowingly wanted was Christian morality without Christianity.

The idea that Christian morality could survive without Christianity was, in hindsight, absurd. Humility (the first virtue to fall) gave way to high self-concept, purity and cleanliness to derisive mockery, courage to avoidance of confrontation, justice (with the social good at the centre) to individual human rights, sexual restraint and fidelity to individual autonomy, and frugal idealism to materialist hedonism. By the 1970s, the moral vacuum was clearly apparent and various approaches to moral education were developed, and, to a limited degree, practised. They began with vehement opposition to the deliberate inculcation of virtue, whether by preaching, the use of moral fables or any simple, direct discussion of courses of action in terms of right and wrong, virtue and evil. "Indoctrination" was opposed because it was, allegedly, both oppressive and ineffective.

The best known replacement was value clarification, which substituted values for virtue. Virtue implies an immutable moral attribute, part of the absolute. Values are relative and negotiable.

The starting point for value clarification is the individual's own chosen values in the context of a decision. Decisions and their consequences are emphasized. That approach is, unsurprisingly, antithetical to the major religions, where conduct is dictated by right and wrong, with consequences having a distinctly subordinate role.

Value clarification has virtually disappeared under that name, largely because of its infamous practices. The best known is the lifeboat exercise: Small groups of students decide and rank order who of them, or who from a list of well-known people, should be discarded. Another is personal, classroom discussion about individual choices, where those with ideas different from the peer group are humiliated. Although dead as a formal program, its invidious world view survives in contemporary schools.

Other approaches, which may be included under the rubric of rational moral education, owe much to, or can be categorized with, the work of Lawrence Kohlberg. He developed a six-stage "theory" of moral development along the lines of Jean Piaget's questionable "theory" of intellectual development.

Religious leaders such as Mother Teresa, with a conventional moral framework would fit in category 4, while intelligent, sophisticated political leaders such as Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton would qualify for category 6 — as would Kohlberg himself. The framework is rarely mentioned today and is invisible in schools, but the idea lives on in academia. However, in practical terms, those approaches are more effective in excluding any absolute religion or virtue than they are at developing a comprehensive moral education program for young people. Their central goal, to produce young people able to defend their beliefs in logical terms, is unacceptable to most parents. Rationalized self-interest is an unacceptable substitute for morality.

Most recently, American and Canadian school leaders have planned programs of "character education." Although the intent appears to be an updated version of traditional virtue, the plans lack any coherent philosophical base.

Values usually include such dubious terms as "respect," a word that is ambiguous and multilayered, and "kindness," a word both vague and impossible to apply consistently. "Honesty" inadequately fills in for the broader and educationally essential "truth."

If we look at the values that are actually endorsed and implemented instead of wish lists, the lowest common denominator is most evident: the triad of tolerance, consideration of the other person (the golden rule) and non-violence. Tolerance is, like respect and kindness, a fuzzy term (too much is as bad as too little). Nevertheless, nearly all schools try to interpret those three qualities, and most are relatively successful. (No moral agenda ever has or will be universally implemented, by definition. There is no right without wrong.) Moreover, the last two qualities and a degree of tolerance are desirable and necessary; it is hard to visualize an effective school, even one with the simplest most material objectives, that lacked them. Even so, they fall far short of what many parents want for their children, particularly those who have chosen independent schools.

It is easier to pontificate than to deliver. There is comparatively little solid evidence of what works in the moral, religious and ethical domain, and much of that is anecdotal or based on case studies.

Psychologist and Cornell University professor Urie Bronfenbrenner observed, in the heyday of Soviet Communism, how much more successful narrowly doctrinal Russian schools (and society) were in teaching their values than American schools were theirs.

Case studies of British "public," mainly boys' boarding, schools have two findings: their success in conveying loyalty and commitment lasting, for good or ill, an entire lifetime; and the strength of the rebel minority equally faithfully following a pattern of rejection and refutation of those same values.

Research on American colleges has shown that most have no effect on the moral and aesthetic values of their students (who unsurprisingly choose on the basis of compatible values). In the best studies, students attending a college were demographically matched with similar students who did not go on to post-secondary education. The research suggests that the morally effective institutions are exceptionally strong in the world view they proclaim and live, whether liberal or religious.

American research on student rebels in the late '60s and early '70s consistently showed that, contrary to general belief at the time, most came from strongly liberal families (the liberalism was just taken a further step); they were not rebelling against oppressive parents. Indeed, the generalization is well-established that children, particularly up to early adulthood, possess values similar to their parents', contrary to popular opinion that notices rebellion more than conformity.

Superficially, the research seems paradoxical, even contradictory — strong moral teaching produces both conformity and rebellion. Although it is perilous to draw firm conclusions from such a complex field of study (individuals are gloriously inconsistent), a few statements are both defensible and consistent:

  • Strong teaching of a moral doctrine is more effective than weak.
  • The stronger the doctrine taught, the greater the probability of a minority rejecting it entirely.
  • Where doctrines (at home or at school) are weak, nonexistent, or ephemeral, other influences fill the vacuum — parents and peers replace the school, peers and school the parents.
  • A strong home moral (or immoral) environment trumps the day school's more limited opportunity.

Overall, the school that is unprepared to take a strong and consistent position may as well abdicate moral authority beyond the triad. A vague list of aspects of character, neither lived nor enforced by teachers and students, is about as influential and useful as the advice from a laissez-faire mother to her daughter going out on her fifth overnight date "to remember to use a condom."

Parents who choose to transfer their children to an independent school typically do so for one or more of the following reasons: a strong academic environment; the teaching of a specific religious or denominational doctrine; and a safe, moral and orderly culture.

The implications of my comments on moral education are less important for those schools that are clearly religious in orientation. The key question for them is how intensely they inculcate their dogma. That level is in part determined by the religious tradition they represent. The strongly traditional Netherlands Reformed or Mennonite school doctrine will have more pervasive instruction than the Anglican, the Orthodox Jewish more than the Reform or Conservative.

In the case of the more liberal religious schools and, even more so, schools without a specific religious affiliation, the problem is more complex. Canadian Christians are as divided on morality as they are on dogma. The independent school that is committed neither to a strongly evangelical faith based on the literal, historical truth of the Bible or the Qur'an, nor to a de facto advocacy of contemporary secular culture and morality, should be interested in finding a constructive and effective middle way.

The default position is to build from the triad (tolerance, golden rule and non-violence) and add values on the basis of need and circumstance. The alleged advantage of that policy is that it avoids confrontation and can be defended on the grounds of tolerance.

Elizabeth Campbell, University of Toronto (OISE/UT) associate professor, researched the ethical behaviour of teachers and principals in public schools. The position they typically adopt on controversial issues is directed toward the avoidance of confrontation. That also serves the interests (pragmatically or ideologically or both) of the teacher or administrator concerned.

For example, if a parent complains about the use of a book in Grade 1, the attempt is to find an outcome without repercussions (a win for the more powerful combatant) without any judgment of the appropriateness of the book in question. Teachers ignore the enforcement of school rules they do not like, with the effect of increasing their personal popularity. Given that the avoidance of conflict (as distinct from moral confrontation) is widely advocated by educational experts, it is unlikely that independent schools are unaffected.

Because large proportions of parents choose independent schools with moral, religious and civic education in mind, and given that most independent schools claim that agenda, a laissez-faire policy of the triad combined with the implicit adoption of current secular values is inappropriate or wrong.

Two questions arise from the rejection of that default option: Whose morals do we teach? How do we teach them?

A deliberate moral educational program (with direct teaching, discussion and modelling) must have a coherent and comprehensible base if it is to have any chance of success. A grab bag of nice-sounding platitudes will not do. Young people are most astute at sniffing out phony and opportunistic behaviour and hypocritically sanctimonious judgment.

The Christian Gospels and the Pauline letters are an obvious source for moral education, but they have two shortcomings in an age of skepticism and disbelief. They are sometimes inconsistent and they lack a firm philosophical foundation beyond a faith that cannot be assumed. They cannot stand alone in a school lacking a formal, strong, religious affiliation.

Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has developed an account of virtue that reflects a blend of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. Although his statement, After Virtue, is complex, his list of virtues is clear and rational. He does not express himself in religious terms, but his list will not be unfamiliar to the traditional Christian. He uses Jane Austen to demonstrate virtuous (and Christian) life.

A coherent base means that there can be no contradiction between virtues; there can be only one absolute. It is impossible for anyone to understand and interpret the whole and the parts clearly and infallibly, but there must be no inherent inconsistency.

Further, an absolute demands that, by definition, one cannot have too much virtue. One cannot be too close to the good (God).

The prime virtue is truth, which includes honesty and true relationships, together with various forms of scientific, emotional, spiritual and aesthetic extrapolations of good and truth; for example, versions of love. It has two necessary companions: courage and justice. It is insufficient to know and love truth; one must have the courage to live and pronounce it. Being true means being just in one's dealings with others (in Christian terms, one must be right with God and one's fellow human beings).

Other subsidiary virtues serve to flesh out the central core.

True friendship, forgiveness, humility, the golden rule and diligence are examples, together with, of particular importance to adolescents, an openness to life (not to be confused with a self-centred appetite).

To say that the moral program must be lived and modelled before being taught does not mean that a school requires a cast of angels. (If we were all perfect, we would be God.) But it does mean staff should be open about their mistakes and failings, from simple things like acknowledging that one smokes to the serious matter of treating students with prejudice and unfairness, which all educators have done.

It also means that educators themselves require instruction in virtue, in right rather than rights. For example, teachers and principals routinely lie to students and parents, mostly for what seems a good reason. The school is morally bankrupt if it does not demand truth — from all its members.

Teachers tell students, and principals teachers, that they have done a good job — when they have not — to build up self-esteem. Any value in self-esteem is lost if it is based on a lie.

The examples are endless. Educators tell parents that their boy is progressing quite well in the "circumstances," when he is falling behind and their knowledge of his circumstances is far from complete. Teachers talk to adolescents about having "safe" sex, as though any sexual relationship between adolescents, with or without condoms, can be definitively described as safe, in the context of unwanted pregnancy, disease and emotional stability.

One of the greatest errors in contemporary education is to dismiss with horror "indoctrination," the teaching of any objective (as distinct from relative) values. Indoctrination means either teaching a clear set of ideas or teaching them uncritically. Even if we restrict ourselves to the second, often negative definition, all parents and teachers indoctrinate — as they should.

Young children are given safety rules. Some parents may include long explanations and indulge lengthy arguments but the outcome is the same: There is only one right answer. The same is the case at school where some rules are enforced, often without discussion — for example, homework must be completed.

Clearly, the teaching of some things without critical examination is ethically wrong, particularly when children's intellects become well-developed around the age of 10. Critical discussion of the virtues provided here should be encouraged, indeed required, as young people enter and pass through adolescence. Even with younger children, questions should be answered civilly and completely, but long arguments are generally unhelpful.

It is important not to rely heavily on consequential reasoning. Virtuous behaviour and thinking are goods in themselves and should not be thought of as being useful mechanisms for personal benefit. Doing the right thing may well produce unpleasant consequences.

Children need examples, in fiction and real life, of people who do the right thing without thoughts of personal advantage. William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues contains a wealth of materials useful for young people.

However, even with lengthy discussion, the core virtues remain unchanged. Some will call that indoctrination, but the core truths in mathematics, science and languages remain intact, like the school rules. Stated or not, they are unaffected by critical discussion. And no one should imagine that extreme environmental, political and economic opinions are never taught uncritically in independent as well as public schools.

A formal, scheduled program of moral education may or may not be desirable, but morality should be infused into the entire program. This does not exclude direct teaching in an appropriate context — in discussion of history (Stalin's and Hitler's regimes), a discipline problem (theft and cheating) and problems in family life (jealousy and envy).

The central issue for the independent school is whether or not it should make a concerted effort to influence the moral growth of its students. Some parents prefer that the school stay out of the moral field to the extent possible, that it stick to academics and, perhaps, physical and aesthetic development.

That is defensible to the extent that all concerned recognize that an official value vacuum is soon filled by other influences, notably those of individual teachers and those of peers. Even some of those parents might not object if they were assured that their children were being taught a clear and coherent moral program. Their understandable fear is that the moral education teacher is doing his or her own thing, undermining traditional morality — like the chaplain in one prominent independent school who had been teaching new age religion for some time before parents intervened.

If the decision is reached to teach a moral education, religious or not, it must be accepted that a deliberate, direct, focused idea of how one should live one's life must be developed and delivered, explicitly and implicitly. Anything less is deceptive.

—Mark Holmes
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