Can Morality Be Taught?

The key to molding well-adjusted students: experiential learning

The hand of a stone statue holds a black scale of justice.
Stephane Mahe / Reuters

After watching with my 3-year-old the scene in Peter Pan when Wendy, her brothers, and the Lost Boys encounter the Native American tribe in Neverland, my daughter asked, “Are they bad guys?” She told us she thought they had “mean faces” and “just looked like bad guys.” My husband tried to explain that they weren’t bad, just misunderstood, but something about this moment flipped my gut. Under no circumstances would my child judge the quality of a person based solely upon external features. And deeper still, I worried, “Am I unintentionally raising a racist?”

I worried that even at her young age, she has been programmed to believe in the false image of the mean man with dark skin. She is constantly asking me, “Who is the bad guy here?” as if she has some instinctive need to pinpoint his location exactly so she can keep a watchful eye.

It’s not an uncommon desire, really. I see it in my students during debate or in their argumentative essays. It seems that, for a typical 16-year-old, a person is either pro-choice or pro-life, pro-death penalty or anti, Team Kimye or Team Taylor. There is only black and white. In 11 years of teaching, I’ve seen near riots and actual riots break out based on which side of town students live, who said what on Twitter the night before, or which students have the right to use which bathroom. Teenagers, and toddlers apparently, are constantly in search of the other.

I am especially disheartened, as are many Americans, when I consider the events of this past summer alone—bombings, riots, shootings—every bit of which derive from a need to identify and destroy the other, or, at the very least, a refusal to understand each other’s perspective. Then there is the presidential campaign with Donald Trump proclaiming “the other” as the source of many societal ills.

Arguments abound regarding laws to pass and policies to implement as solutions to these issues. And while passing bills might feel like a solution—and in some ways it would be—policy can only go so far in changing habits and perception. The only surefire solution to developing tolerance and openness to the perspectives of others is through educating young people.

I believe that the problem is not what is taught in schools, but how it is taught. It is not enough to simply offer curriculum about the ills of racism, homophobia, or bullying, and then expect lasting results from students who are entrenched in cultural beliefs that are reinforced by society. How can it be a surprise that a number of Americans lean toward authoritarian ideals when, according to Marzano Learning Sciences Center, an educational consulting and research group located in West Palm Beach, Florida, 58 percent of class time in K-12 schools is used for lecture with the teacher delivering content? Or that a number of Americans choose to ignore facts and reason when only 6 percent of class time is used for cognitively complex tasks? In a 2012 Center for American Progress student survey, one third of American 12th-graders said they engaged in class discussions only two times a month or less, suggesting that the majority of 17- and 18-year-old American public-school students (young adults coming upon voting age) rarely spend time engaging in dialogue during the school day. The current state of American politics is not surprising when the country’s youngest citizens are given few opportunities to engage in critical thinking and discussion. In order to counteract these trends, it is essential for educators to provide exploratory opportunities for students to not only think about the experiences of other people, but to also challenge their own inherent belief systems through experiential learning.

A couple of years ago, I taught a freshman English course in a suburban-rural school district with 32 students, 30 of whom were 15-year-old boys. I tried passionately to teach the need to “walk a mile in another man’s shoes,” as extolled by Atticus Finch, yet I continued to overhear racist and homophobic comments. One student even said, “That’s what guns are for” when I asked the class how they dealt with people who held different beliefs than they did.

As brilliant as Atticus Finch may have been (pre-Go Set a Watchman), my students could not relate to a lawyer in 1930s Alabama. These young men loved to hunt and fish. They loved guns and a survivalist mentality. I realized that if I wanted to get them to think about another person’s perspective, I first had to relate to theirs. So I began by teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” from the voice of a speaker who catches an old beat-up fish, respects the fish’s fight for its life, and lets it go. Next, I called the local Cabela’s, a hunting and fishing store, and asked for a fisherman to come discuss the poem with my students and to fillet a fish he had caught so my students could have a memorable experience to connect to the process of analyzing a poem. The fisherman took his role seriously; we spoke several times over the phone about the poem and his own process for analyzing it before he arrived. After his visit, my class read the poem again.

On the surface, it might seem ridiculous that an English teacher could possibly attack prejudice by teaching about fishing, but hear me out. The fisherman happened to be a poet. Not an actual poet, but he approached his work as a poet would. He explained an undying respect for nature and an appreciation for the right to life for all beings. He told stories about letting fish and deer go because of a look in their eye. He talked about the need for everyone, especially everyone with a gun, to respect the life and needs of other creatures. And the same student who insinuated that guns were meant to rid the earth of “the other” said this about the poem during the second reading: “Just because the fish didn’t look like he deserved to live, he still did.”

I’ve also seen how experiential learning can change the way students view the perspectives of others. For the past three years, I have taken my mostly white, upper-middle-class sophomore English students from a suburban-rural school district to the local ESL Newcomer Academy in the neighboring urban district. I am required by my curriculum to teach these students how to argue about global issues, and it seemed nearly impossible for them to do so without having a conversation with a human being who had firsthand experience with some of those issues. Each year we spend a day at a school with refugees and immigrants from around the world. Inevitably the students bond with one another, and my students often tell me that it is the best educational experience they have ever had.

This past year, it was my students, not me, who invited the Newcomer kids to share their stories at my school. So what began as a field trip has turned into an ongoing exchange of students who would not otherwise ever encounter each other in a real-life setting. But getting to this point has been rocky at times. I have had parents and students express concern for their safety because they could encounter “Muslims” and “Africans” during the trip. Occasionally, a student will refuse to go. But more often than not, the experience is overwhelmingly positive for all the students involved. Even if the students do not create lasting friendships, they still create lasting memories of positive interactions with other human beings and learn that they often have more in common with the “other” than they might have believed.

For years I have taught texts by non-Western authors, and I sometimes have students hang around after class to tell me that these books spoke to them, but the positive response I receive each year from the students who engage in this exchange—a real life experience—is overwhelming. Reading a book about the experiences of someone from another culture can be powerful, but interacting with a human being from another culture is even more so. And yet, many schools make less and less time for field trips and other authentic learning experiences such as these.

I’ve had similar success in the past when asking guests to come speak to students. During my first year of teaching in the midst of a Holocaust unit, I hosted a local Holocaust survivor who came to share her story. Prior to our guest’s arrival, one student with Nazi-sympathizing leanings made a veiled threat of hurting or attacking the survivor when she came to speak. After much deliberation, the student was allowed by the school administration to attend the presentation. The survivor told her story in such excruciating detail that all the students in the room were on the edge of their seats by the time she finished. I was surprised and deeply moved when the student who made the threat walked up to her after she told her story, shook her hand, and thanked her for coming. He changed his behavior, proving that the power of a real experience can change a person’s mindset, no matter how entrenched his beliefs may be.

So how can educators and parents retaliate against black and white thinking and the need to create enemies in the other? For my classroom and me, I will focus on cultivating a culture of learning and respect that is focused on human beings and not just content. I will provide authentic opportunities for my students to grow as people, and I will challenge them to do so, even when they are reluctant. And as for my 3-year-old daughter, I will demand the same for her at home and from her school. The future may be quite grim otherwise.