Are Academics Crowding Out Ethics?

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.