Are Academics Crowding Out Ethics?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Paul Barnwell, who teaches high school English in Kentucky, wrote a story for us last week about students’ broken moral compasses. As he argues, pressure to ensure their students meet high academic standards has led schools to skip over important discussions about ethics and character, narrowly tailoring their curricula to standardized tests. Here’s Barnwell:

As my students seemed to crave more meaningful discussions and instruction relating to character, morality, and ethics, it struck me how invisible these issues have become in many schools. By omission, are U.S. schools teaching their students that character, morality, and ethics aren’t important in becoming productive, successful citizens?

But as readers point out, meeting academic goals doesn’t have to conflict with moral education. One reader thinks a high-school economics requirement might be the solution:

I know some schools have it, but my sense is that most don’t (and that it’s an elective even where it does exist). Even if one objects to neoclassical economics, I think that a class (or three) could do a strong job of teaching students the normative (value-based) side of economics as well as the positive (fact-based) side:

  • Here's how GDP is calculated. (What important moral considerations does GDP leave out?)
  • Here are the problems one finds polluting industries. (What is the best method for pollution abatement? And how does one avoid regulatory capture?)
  • Here's trade theory. (What are the potential benefits of free trade? What are the potential losses.)

Of course, this only addresses the discussion side of things. But it could be extended to actions. My old junior high school, for example, had a program where a fund was set aside for movies shown at lunch time. But for every act of vandalism, the cost of fixing it was deducted from the fun. And such acts and their costs were announced in home room the day after it happened. That incentive structure made vandalism much more an attack on the student body, rather than merely the creation of a mess that “somebody else” would have to clean up.

Another reader suggests approaching ethics through the humanities:

I can’t imagine teaching literature without engaging in discussions about choices, right and wrong, and differing values across cultures.

For me, one of the main reasons we read literature is to explore moral issues and to consider how characters respond to a variety of situations. My classes have always read works from many different cultures and time periods, so that we can discuss what ideas vary by culture and which seem to be fairly universal. Reading is the one place where we can truly inhabit another person's mind and viewpoint, which means it is a powerful way of developing empathy and expanding one's point of view.

Students are able to passionately argue their ideas about these issues when given the opportunity. And any good story or poem will have a moral dilemma or question lurking in its conflict or subject matter, from Shakespeare to Winnie the Pooh to the latest Young Adult series. The teacher needs to ask open-ended questions, hear out the students’ reasoning, and ask follow-ups that dig deeper and help kids see the implications of what they suggest. A writing assignment growing out of such a discussion is also a fruitful way to teach the use of evidence, support, and clear argumentation.

The Atlantic has tackled this topic before. In 1883, in an essay titled “Morality in the Public Schools,” Oliver Johnson suggested a more organic approach to cultivating kids’ consciences:

Philosophical disquisitions upon the foundations of morality have no legitimate place in the school-room, as every well-instructed teacher will admit. … Moral instruction, to be effective, must be spontaneous and free, and skillfully adapted to cases as they arise. The best teachers, as a general rule, will have the shortest code of laws, if indeed they have any code at all.

For the most part, I’d agree with him there. The K-8 school where I attended 6th-8th grades required a less-than-spontaneous morning pledge “to practice active listening, to use no put-downs, and to do my personal best” that unfortunately got mocked much more often than taken to heart. But for older students, I’d say philosophical disquisitions aren’t so bad either. My university’s core curriculum included a mandatory philosophy class, first established in 1917 to teach students the “skills of peace.” The questions my professors and classmates raised in that course have stuck with me, and I’ll be thinking about them for a long time yet.

Are you an educator with experience bringing ethics into the classroom? Do you remember lessons from school that shaped your ideas of right and wrong? Tell us about it at hello@theatlantic.com.