After Sputnik it was science; after Japan it was “Back to Basics” but now, above all, we need to teach a moral framework.


America’s public schools, many observers suggest, are in a state of crisis. This concern has spawned a push for reform and higher standards. But some, such as education specialist Ernest Boyer, argue that more than academic excellence is needed. Here, condensed from The Blackboard Fumble (CHRISTIANITY TODAY/Victor Books), are Boyer’s insights on how public education must also find a place for the transmittal of moral values.

The pursuit of excellence in public education has become a top priority for the nation. Since 1983, America has been engaged in the most serious and sustained push for school renewal in its history. In that year, the Department of Education’s report A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm over the “rising tide of mediocrity” in our schools, and education reform became a hot topic from town halls to the halls of Congress.

The sense of urgency is well placed. Thirty years ago, the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik touched off this country’s last big push for school reform. We wanted scientists to compete in the space race, and, given the Cold War climate of the day, children were bundled off into physics and chemistry classes, slide rules in hand, to assure that America would remain militarily secure.

This time, the reform movement has been driven almost exclusively by economic threats and by the growing recognition that without good schools the financial well-being of the nation is imperiled. Corporate leaders want better workers. Governors want industries in their states, and they know quality education is the key. We are trying to fix the schools in order to have a better work force and improve our competitive advantage in world markets.

No one denies that America’s performance must improve. We talk enviously about Japanese schools and preach computer literacy for our students, all to help the nation take a quantum leap in the international high-tech race. If the United States is to regain its competitive advantage, it is argued, better-trained students will be the key.

Beyond Rising Test Scores

But there is another crucial objective for our schools—the moral education of our children. Today, schools are instilling competence in their students—competence in meeting deadlines, gathering information, responding well on tests, and mastering the details of a specialized field. The capacity to deal successfully with discrete problems is highly prized. And when students are asked about why they want an education, almost without exception they say their goal is to get a diploma and get a job.

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But technical skill, of whatever kind, leaves unanswered some essential questions: Education for what purpose? Competence to what end?

To have people who are well informed but not constrained by conscience is, conceivably, the most dangerous outcome of education possible. Indeed, it could be argued that ignorance is better than unguided intelligence, for the most dangerous people are those who have knowledge without a moral framework. It is not the lack of technological information that threatens our society; it is the lack of wisdom, and we run the risk today of having our discoveries outdistance our moral compass.

In medicine, to cite an example, we know how to extend life beyond what might have been its natural limits. The question is, “At what point do the harmful side effects and excessive costs outweigh the benefits?” In business schools we turn out graduates who know how to make money on Wall Street, but we often fail to ask, “What is the right way to make money?”

Thus, the current reform movement should squarely confront the moral obligations of education. This means much more than studying the history of ethical thought. It means helping students formulate a way of behaving that will guide their lives. During their years of formal learning, students must understand that not all choices are equally valid. They must learn that there is a right and a wrong; that one choice will bring good, and another will bring bad.

Possessing moral judgment does not mean that people are infallible, that they do not make mistakes. It does not suggest that there are pat answers for every complicated question. Moral education does mean that students should be concerned not just about what will work, but about what is right. It means teaching them to ask: “Is it good?” Moral education also seeks to help students develop a responsible way of thinking, believing, and acting. It involves application, instead of mere information. It teaches living, not just by concepts, but by conscience.

All of this sounds fine—in principle—but how is it translated in the classroom? Whose morality is the model? Where does education turn to secure the road map for helping students understand the good and the bad?

An Unreachable Consensus?

Answers to these questions were, perhaps, easier to find in earlier days. Through most of the nation’s history, there was wide agreement among citizens on the “values” society should hold. What children learned in school reinforced the code of conduct that was taught at church and in the home. Indeed, the school was an extension of these institutions, and even the discipline of children was consistent. Almost everyone over the age of 50 can recall hearing, “If you get punished at school, you get spanked at home!” School values and home values interlocked.

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Some argue that there was, in fact, too much conformity inthose days, that the “forced consensus” in the culture allowed for little deviation. It was a climate in which Roger Williams had to flee from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and found the colony of Rhode Island to find religious freedom, a time when Quakers were hanged because they deviated from what was religiously acceptable.

But today we have swung dramatically in the opposite direction. Our society is now characterized not by rigidity, but by such open-endedness that consensus seems, at times, almost impossible to reach.

This puts the nation’s schools squarely in the middle. Administrators and teachers encounter problems because the national consensus regarding values has eroded, and tensions about teaching values in the schools reflect tensions in society at large. Schools are often confused—even abused—as they try to deal with competing interests and the great ambiguity about what constitutes the common good.

Amidst the diversity, however, there is still a great consensus in this nation about appropriate behavior. We can agree on the need to be honest, to refrain from physical attacks on one another, to obey the laws, to finish a task once begun—the list goes on and on. One cannot find a school that does not teach students, directly or indirectly, that it is better to be honest than dishonest; that it is better to work hard than not work at all; that it is better to respect someone’s property than to destroy it. Schools teach our children a way of life that is shared by almost all Americans. They reinforce these values every day—often more effectively than society at large.

When Tensions Emerge

Still, in a pluralistic society such as ours, the efforts of schools to respect a wide range of opinion in matters of faith and practice should be celebrated, not condemned. To support diversity, to resist oppression and mass conformity, is exactly what drove many immigrant citizens to this country, and believers of all faiths should understand and appreciate this freedom. We should be very hesitant to impose, through uniform school practice, any behavior that cuts the conscience of another. Tomorrow, it could be our turn.

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All of us can remember times when a conviction we hold dear conflicted with the majority view. When I was a boy, my parents, as a matter of conscience, did not approve of vaccinations. They believed that faith in God was all the power needed to keep me healthy. Because the school required proof that I had been vaccinated against contagious disease, I had to get a doctor’s certificate granting me an exception. I was the only boy in school—a very definite minority—who needed such accommodation. But it was granted. (I have since, by the way, been vaccinated.)

Though my conflict was a minor one, it nevertheless represented a collision between my parents’ conscience and established policy. In my own small way I saw, firsthand, the conflict faced by those who hold views at odds with the established action.

Schools do have an obligation to explore with students the points in which we agree and disagree, and surely tensions will emerge as teachers probe society’s controversial questions in which there is no neutral ground to be found. How are schools to handle moral questions when there is no agreement in the community and among parents on what the response should be? Once a conviction is widely shared and generally resolved in society, the schools will teach it. But until such time, schools inevitably will fail to satisfy the expectations of some part of the public they serve. They will continue to face a dilemma when they confront issues about which convictions run the deepest, yet vary the widest.

Consider an issue as seemingly innocent as the American family. Classroom discussion on this topic could well include a discussion of mothers working outside the home. By talking about working mothers, is the teacher encouraging young women to work instead of care for their children at home? On the other hand, if homemaking is proposed, the teacher may be criticized for advocating second-class status for women by pushing them into stereotypical roles. Society is far from consensus on the subject.

Filling The Moral Vacuum

Yet to ignore this issue—or any issue of similar controversy—is to offer students an incomplete education, an incapacity to think carefully about life’s most important concerns.

I am convinced, therefore, that schools do have a role to play in moral education, one that goes beyond silence or the extension of the status quo. Schools are, by their very nature, creative and renewing institutions. There is undeniably a moral vacuum in society today, and educators have an urgent obligation to help fill it.

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I am encouraged to see a small but growing awareness of the need for moral education, and a willingness to explore issues, even in the areas that are most contested. From classroom teachers across the country to the president of Harvard University, people are asking, “What can schools do to help students achieve higher ethical standards?”

While I have no master plan to renew the moral climate in public education, I would suggest three considerations to guide the recovery of moral education in our schools.

First, moral education should acknowledge and respect the diversity present in our society. Finding a way to deal with our differences, while still speaking of values that serve the common good, is the greatest challenge we confront. How can we find creative ways to instill moral sensibilities in our young people while still respecting differing points of view?

An amoral silence that ignores the common good for the sake of diversity has failed. So, too, have the shrill voices that presume to speak for all, but speak selfishly without thoughtfulness and kindness. Let us cherish our diversity, but let us seek with no less vigor a way of life that uplifts us all.

Second, we must nurture a rebirth of confidence in public schools. If we are tomake any progress toward open and sensitive classroom discussion about moralchoices—in such controversial areas as sex, drugs, and religious beliefs—teachers must be trusted. A school is not a building or an institution; it is people. I urge those who care deeply about education to do one thing; Meet with those who run the schools and talk with them directly.

Through the years, I have met with thousands of teachers in hundreds of schools and have found, overwhelmingly, that educators care deeply about the values of our children. Teachers are, in fact, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles—people who have a deep concern about children and the nation. I know of no teacher who thinks values are unimportant. There is no conspiracy at work in public schools to deny our children an ethical and moral foundation.

Teachers want children to do what is right, and they are most concerned about the moral ambiguity of the culture that washes over into the climate of the schools. In a recent Carnegie Foundation survey of teachers, we found them deeply frustrated by the lack of involvement of parents in schools. Parental concerns will always be welcomed when they come from those who approach schools with an appreciation for the limits of public education, in a spirit of cooperation, and with affirmation and encouragement when deserved.

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Finally, we must view moral education as a partnership, not an obligation for the schools to carry alone. I hear complaints that schools are undermining values. But what I find surprising is the way these same critics seem to express little faith in what families can accomplish.

All the evidence suggests that, in the end, parents matter most, and it is unfair to families—as well as to schools—to expect classrooms to do the whole job. I am not trying to take schools off the hook. They have an important role to play in the moral development of children. But we cannot expect schools to do what families have not been able to accomplish.

The church also can play a valuable, redemptive role merely by taking the initiative to listen rather than denounce. Churches can work side by side with schools to educate their young people through released-time and after-school programs. There is a long history of such cooperation in this country, which unfortunately seems lost in much of the current discussion about how to strengthen moral education.

Congregations and small groups should invite teachers to speak at churches about their feelings and experiences. Such simple measures will go a long way in restoring confidence and a sense of partnership with schools.

A Temporary Window

Today we stand at a strategic time in the history of public education. Interest in schools has run high during the past several years. But public attention cannot be indefinitely sustained. And if we do not demonstrate clearly within the next ten years our ability to make public education work, there will be, I fear, a tremendous backlash of disillusionment. Our schools will be neglected, parents will turn away in discouragement, and the very future of the nation will be threatened.

This window of opportunity hinges to a great extent on the ability of the schools to pursue not just the economic ends of education, but to affirm moral education, too. I sense agrowing conviction that this country confronts increasing confusion over goals, and if schools are not part of the solution, they will be part of the problem. People are not willing to support education that does not inspire students to confront ethical and moral judgments and relate what they learn in school to how they live.

The goal is not to indoctrinate students, but to provide a climate in which ethical and moral choices can be thoughtfully examined and convictions formed. These are the characteristics by which, ultimately, the quality of public education must be measured.

Ernest L. Boyer is president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, New Jersey. He is also senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, and education columnist for the London Times.

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