So, for example, it is impossible to understand matters of racial justice and so specific a policy issue as affirmative action without understanding a good deal of history, and the insights gained from imaginative literature art, drama, and film will be immensely valuable in making that history come alive. Indeed, one major criterion for choosing the history and literature we teach should be its relevance to deepening students' understanding of what is central to the suffering and flourishing of humankind.
As we suggested in Chapter 2, a liberal education has both conservative and liberating aspects. A good liberal education will initiate students into cultural traditions, shaping their moral identities in the process. We are not social atoms, but inheritors of languages, cultures, institutions, and moral traditions. From the beginning it has been a purpose of public education to make students into good citizens, good Americans. In teaching history we provide students with a past, a sense of identity, a role in developing stories, a set of obligations.
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But a good liberal education will also teach students that disagreements among us run deep: we often disagree deeply about the meaning and lessons of history—as the debate over identity and multiculturalism makes clear. We often disagree about the justice and goodness of different cultures and subcultures. We disagree about how to make sense of the world, about how to interpret it. Indeed, we often disagree about what the relevant facts are—or, even more basically, what counts as a fact, as evidence, as a good argument.
We have quite different worldviews.
A good liberal education will initiate students into a discussion of the major ways civilization has devised for talking about morality and the human condition. Most proposals for moral education are alike in employing vocabularies sterilized of religious language.
The net effect, yet again, is the marginalization of religion. The implicit message is that religion is irrelevant to the development of virtue, moral judgment, and the search for moral truth. But if students are to be liberally educated and not just trained or socialized, if schools are not to disenfranchise religious subcultures, and if they are to be neutral in matters of religion, then we must include religious voices in the discussion.
The character education movement is grounded in the conviction that there are consensus virtues and values. The consensus must be local, but it may also be broader; indeed, its advocates sometimes claim rightly that virtues such as honesty and integrity are universal and are found in all the world's religions. Nonetheless, because religion can't be practiced in public schools and because it is often controversial, the character education movement avoids it.
Clearly the moral ethos of public schools must be secular rather than religious; character education cannot use religious exercises to nurture the development of character. But character education cannot implicitly convey the idea that religion is irrelevant to morality. We have noted that character education employs literature and history to convey moral messages.
Some of those stories and some of that history should make clear that people's moral convictions are often grounded in religious traditions. When teachers and students in the higher grades discuss controversial moral issues—abortion, sexuality, and social justice, for example—they must include religious perspectives on them in the discussion. For constitutional reasons those religious interpretations cannot be disparaged or advocated.
As we've noted many times, one reason we disagree in our moral judgments is that we are committed to strikingly different worldviews. Some of us ground our moral judgments in Scripture, others in cost-benefit analyses, yet others in conscience and there are many other alternatives. Even when we agree—about honesty, for example—we may disagree about why we should be honest. Long-term self-interest and love of humanity may both prescribe honesty as the best policy—though one's attitude and motivation, the kind of person one is, may be quite different; and, of course, there will be occasions when the requirements of love and even long-term self-interest will diverge.
Just as in math, it is not enough that we agree about the right answer but we must get it in the right way , so in any domain of the curriculum a good education requires more than a shallow agreement about conclusions. To be educated requires an understanding of the deep reasons for belief and values. Historically, religions have provided the categories, the narratives, the worldviews, that provided the deep justifications for morality. From within almost any religious worldview, conservative or liberal, people must set themselves right with God, reconciling themselves to the basic moral structure of reality.
They are to act in love and justice and community, being mindful of those less fortunate than themselves. The conventional wisdom now, however, is that we can teach morality without reference to religion. Indeed, the deep justifications have changed and often become more shallow in the process.
Health and home economics texts often ground their account of values in Abraham Maslow's humanistic psychology, whereas the economics standards and texts appeal to neoclassical economic theory and modern social science. Modern science at least implicitly teaches students there is no moral structure to nature.
Our whole moral vocabulary has changed: like modern culture generally, modern education often emphasizes rights over duties, individualism over community, autonomy over authority, happiness over salvation, self-esteem over self-sacrifice, and cost-benefit analysis over conscience. Indeed, students may learn that there are no right or wrong answers when moral judgments are the issue. The problem is not just that educators ignore religious accounts of morality; it is that the secular worldview that pervades modern education renders religion suspect.
How do we make sense of religious accounts of morality? A yearlong course in religious studies will help more. We also find merit in the idea of a senior capstone course in ethics in which students would study various secular and religious ways of understanding morality and several of the most pressing moral problems of our time.
Conservative religious parents sometimes ask that Bible courses be offered in public schools as a way of addressing the moral development of children. As we have seen, the courts have made it clear that public schools cannot teach students that the Bible is true, or that children should act in accord with Biblical morality. Nonetheless, there is a constitutional way in which study of the Bible is relevant to moral education.
By studying the Bible or any religious text , students will encounter a vocabulary and framework for thinking about morality and the human condition that will quite properly provide them with critical distance on the secular ideas and ideals they acquire from elsewhere in the curriculum—and from popular culture. Morality is at the heart of all religion, and, as we've argued, one important reason for studying religion is to acquire some sense of the answers that have been given to the fundamental existential questions of life.
Teachers and texts can't endorse religious answers to those questions, but they can and should expose students to them fairly as part of a good liberal—and moral—education.
Students may find those answers compelling even if their teachers and texts don't require them to. It may be helpful to sketch the relevance of religion to one particularly troublesome part of the curriculum: sex education. It is important for students at some age to understand the biology of sexuality; but, of course, the purpose of sex education has always been something more than simple science education.
Its primary purpose has been to guide students' behavior, addressing major social problems such as unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases STDs. One way to address these problems is to teach students sexual abstinence. Another is to provide them with a little technological know-how regarding birth control and condoms. Whichever position we take requires that we give students reasons for using condoms or foregoing the pleasures of sexuality.
Three kinds of answers are common.
First, it can be argued that either approach is in one's long-term self-interest, and much sex education focuses on the unhappy consequences of unplanned pregnancies and STDs. Some students will recognize the risks and alter their behavior accordingly—though adolescents are not typically strong on long-term self-interest and deferred gratification.
Perhaps more important, if it is to be truly educational , sex education must make students aware of the fact that sexual behavior is universally held to be subject to moral as well as prudential judgments. To be ignorant of this is to be uneducated. So, how do we introduce morality into sex education? A second approach—that taken in each of the four high school health texts we reviewed—is a variation on values clarification. Students should act responsibly: they should survey their options, consider the consequences on themselves and on others , and then act in a way that maximizes whatever it is that they value most.
Each of the health texts concludes that responsible individuals will practice abstinence.
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The problem, of course, is that this conclusion requires a considerable act of faith, for what students value most is up to them. The books offer no grounds for assessing the values of students as morally right or wrong; values are ultimately personal. Health, home economics, and sex education texts and materials often use the language of values rather than that of morality. But, of course, this is an extraordinarily narrow view of morality.
We suspect that the deeper problem is that much ocial science can't make sense of morality and so must translate it into talk of choices and personal values. Virtually all the health and home economics texts we reviewed start from the position of humanistic psychology.
But if the authors can't cast their conceptual nets wider than this, it is not surprising that they don't catch morality in them. One irony in all of this is that virtually everyone still believes that some actions are morally right and other actions are morally wrong. Pedophilia is morally wrong. Not telling the person with whom one proposes to have sex that he or she has an STD is morally wrong.