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How Should Kids Learn Ethics in School?
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Prompted by Paul Barnwell’s essay on students’ broken moral compasses, readers discuss philosophy classes, anti-cheating measures, and more. Contribute your own thoughts via hello@theatlantic.com.

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Leanne Drapeau, an Atlantic reader and high-school teacher in Connecticut, has a story that illustrates just how valuable education can be in shaping good citizens. Her class of seniors in a summer credit recovery program had been reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Malcolm X’s autobiography when she came across a 2015 Atlantic essay about teaching philosophy in prison that references both of these works. Leanne writes:

Naturally I brought the essay into school the next day and it was an incredibly empowering class for the students, who, now equipped with Plato and Malcolm, could fully enter into discussion … both with regard to the essay itself and education behind prison walls.

That essay, “Incarceration, Education, Emancipation,” is by Eric Anthamatten, who teaches college-level philosophy courses to inmates in New York, Texas, and Connecticut. After one lesson, a student who was serving a life sentence told him, “I’ve never felt so free as when I’m in this class.” Anthamatten reflects:

How is it that anyone can experience “freedom” inside a place that is designed to make the person unfree? One answer is that “freedom” is a private, internal experience of power and understanding. In the case of these inmates, that also means being able to dialogue with the past, express themselves to others, and to imagine and articulate a future. It means actively participating in and contributing to a conversation, a problem, and a solution. It is the experience of being recognized as a whole person.

Back to Leanne. Her students were so interested that they asked to go to a prison with a college education program and interview the inmates.

Last week, Paul Barnwell worried that academics are crowding out character education in schools. Some readers pointed out how lessons in ethics and morality could be integrated with academics. But meanwhile, according to Barnwell, the pressure seems to have given students a worrying obsession with getting ahead:

The 2012 Josephson Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth reveals a pressing need to integrate elements of character education into the country’s public-school curriculums. According to the study, 57 percent of teens stated that successful people do what they have to do to win, even if it involves cheating. Twenty-four percent believe it is okay to threaten or hit someone when angry. Thirty-one percent believe physical violence is a big problem in their schools. Fifty-two percent reported cheating at least once on an exam. Forty-nine percent of students reported being bullied or harassed in a manner that seriously upset them.

And it’s not just students who are part of the problem, says Bob, a reader from Dallas: “In our good public high school, when our daughter and her classmates complained of others cheating, the teacher replied, ‘You could cheat too,’ as if that were some kind of solution to the competitive imbalance.”

Marvin, a teacher in California, would never say something like that:

Just talking or teaching about character and ethics won’t accomplish much, if anything. It has to be ingrained and enforced. I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where there is zero tolerance for cheating. Anyone caught was immediately expelled, including half the football team one year. I never saw any cheating.

At first, I warned my MBA students that cheating was unfair to their classmates and would not be tolerated. When I caught a student cheating, I flunked him from my course. It would have delayed his program completion date. The administration forgave him. It gave everyone there that knew about it, including me, a different attitude and expectation about student cheating there.

Back in 1883, Atlantic contributor Oliver Johnson warned that a failure to address problems like student cheating—or more to the point, train them not to do it in the first place—could have dire consequences:

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.