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Teaching Values

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Should morality be taught by the state or left solely to the discretion of the family?  The arguments on both sides are quite strong.  Early in America’s educational system (1849), the Massachusetts state legislature mandated they “would have its teachers inculcate the principles of sound morality in all of these three ways; namely, by general instruction, on occasion of particular offenses, and by example”(MTA, p. 254).  In other words, good moral behavior that is presumably taught at home is reinforced at school. Some in favor of teaching ethics in school believe that children must learn from an early age a “code of honor” for becoming a member of society.  The school sometimes fills a niche where the family falls short.  Children that grow up in abusive homes have no other venue for learning how to treat others since there is no suitable model from which to learn.  These children need counseling more than moralizing, and there are several good reasons why morality should not be taught in school.

First, there can be terrible clashes between parents and teachers on numerous issues.  For example, a parent believes that lying is wrong, no matter what the circumstances are.  A teacher might say that it is okay to lie to protect someone else or avoid torture and execution.  When Little Johnny comes home and tells his parents that his teacher told him that it is okay to lie in certain situations, there will be a great deal of acrimony between parents and teachers leading to domestic disputes about which type of morality is best for the child.  The situation can even have legal ramifications if the teacher is religious and is sharing some of the articles of her faith with the students.   In the Cynical Society, Goldfarb comments on the dilemma of teaching ethics in school, “In the educational sphere in a pluralistic society, morality’s role in education is bound to be controversial.  The assertion that there is a relationship between specific morality and educational performance is just one of the beliefs that make up the controversy”(Goldfarb, p. 125).

Because the United States is a pluralistic society, the dissemination of Judeo-Christian values might clash with the ethics of students whose families follow a different worldview such as Buddhism or New Age philosophy.  Instead, teachers should simply focus on the subject matter that is being taught, with moral considerations secondary.  People tend to rebel when they are told over and over not to do something.  Morality can best be taught within the context of class discussions.  For example, in literature, people can discuss the morality of various and sundry characters and why their actions are justified if they can be.   Also, in an analysis of history, one can show students the dominant philosophy governing different nations.  This study will show that there is no such thing as a universal set of ethics—cultural, social, and political forces shape how people behave in their daily lives, which is why the teaching of ethics must be left to the private sphere.


Goldfarb, J. (1991). The Cynical Society: the culture of politics and the politics of culture in American Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

Massachusetts Teachers Association.  (1849). The Massachusetts Teacher. Massachusetts Teachers Association

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