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Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong:
Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education

by william kilpatrick
simon & schuster, 336 pages, $23

Reclaiming Our Schools:
A Handbook on Teaching Character, Academics, and Discipline

by edward a. wynne and kevin ryan
foreword by james s. coleman
macmillan, 234 pages, $20

Moralizing” may be the nearest thing to a dirty word in current public discourse, and nowhere is this more true than in discussions of the content of schooling. Undergraduate students at one of the most selective schools of education were recently asked the following questions:

Suppose you are asked to teach a 7th grade course or unit in moral education. Question 1 : If you had to choose between one of the two models below, which would you choose? Question 2 : Would you agree to teach the course if B were the only option given?
A. The first approach encourages students to develop their own values and value systems. This approach relies on presenting the students with provocative ethical dilemmas and encouraging open discussion and exchange of opinion. The ground rule for discussion is that there are no right or wrong answers. Each student must decide for himself/herself what is right or wrong. Students are encouraged to be nonjudgmental about values that differ from their own.
B. The second approach involves a conscious effort to teach specific virtues and character traits such as courage, justice, self-control, honesty, responsibility, practicing charity, obeying lawful authority, etc. These concepts are introduced and explained and then illustrated by memorable examples from history, literature, and current events. The teacher expresses a strong belief in the importance of these virtues and encourages his/her students to practice them in their own lives.

It will not come as a surprise to any reader with recent experience in American schools that 88 percent of these future teachers selected the first approach, and only 9 percent, the second. Nearly half of the ninety-four students participating said that they would refuse to use the method that involved teaching virtues and positive character traits.

How have we come to this pass? Is it simply that our society has become pervasively uncomfortable with any suggestion that one choice might be better than another, with, that is, any hint of moral judgment? Certainly this is part of it. There is something more, however, a dimension of the evolution of American public education itself that favors the promotion of tolerance above all else.

In discussions of the values content of instruction, it is a common experience to be told that our society “simply won’t survive unless we promote tolerance.” And since no one wants to be accused of “intolerance,” such assertions are rarely challenged. But what does “tolerance” mean? It comes from the Latin word meaning “to bear a burden”; the tolerance of a bridge is the amount of weight that bridge can bear before it breaks. When we tolerate someone’s beliefs or actions, we are putting up with something with which we do not agree, or that we even find offensive or repugnant. Riding on the subway, for example, we may, in order to avoid confrontation, try to ignore—to tolerate—offensive behavior by our fellow passengers, but we do not thereby persuade ourselves that such behavior is acceptable.

This is not the meaning of tolerance for many educators today. The mission of the school, they believe, is to encourage students to be nonjudgmental about values that differ from their own, and to insist that there are no right and wrong answers. Tolerance itself becomes the only positive virtue, and intolerance the only vice. In effect, these educators deny the seriousness of real conflicts and trivialize the process of taking a stand for what is right.

The authors of the two books under review have a very different perspective. Both reject instructional strategies like “Values Clarification” and related drug education and sex education programs that invite children to invent their own moral criteria, as well as programs that seek to promote moral reasoning through discussion of hard cases unlikely ever to arise. For Kilpatrick, and for Wynne and Ryan, the primary mission of the school is to initiate youth into the moral heritage of our society and to develop the habits of virtuous action.

A school, if it is any good, is a little society with its own moral order, and that moral order is at least as important in carrying out the school’s educational mission as is its formal instruction. A school whose moral order is that of the subway—pretending not to recognize disagreements—cannot educate properly. Is the only alternative, then, to celebrate the disagreements while insisting that they are of no moral consequence? These two books insist that it is not.

In Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick discusses more clearly and persuasively than anyone has yet done why both the content and strategies of current instruction are not only inadequate but often downright harmful. He writes:

Americans have been led to believe that their children will be able to fight their personal moral struggles with weapons that, upon examination, turn out to be very flimsy; there is not much evidence that values curriculums or the “self-esteem” they claim to foster have much effect on behavior. It is perhaps for this reason that values educators have shifted the focus of moral education away from personal behavior toward public policy issues. What seems to matter for them is not whether one is a good son or daughter, brother or sister, but whether one has formulated a position on nuclear weapons, the environment, or surrogate motherhood.

Kilpatrick shows in detail why most of what is done in the name of drug education and sex education does not serve to develop the habits that sustain virtuous or even sensible living, and urges that we “reestablish schools as places of serious moral purpose,” something not achieved by abstract exhortation. He quotes Bruno Bettelheim: “The question for a child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Whom do I want to be like?’“ The naive notion that moral decisions are made in a void, as though the child could reinvent the rules that countless generations have learned through experience, is the basis for too many educational practices. As Stanley Hauerwas and David Burrell have pointed out, one cannot speak of morality-as-decision-making while ignoring the fact that decisions are always made in the context of one’s “narrative.” Morality removed from narrative, from a sense of the shape and direction of one’s individual life and one’s community, is meaningless.

Kilpatrick urges that moral education be promoted through the use of stories that provide a sense of what used to be called “the attractiveness of goodness.” He compares the use of a “lifeboat exercise” used in Values Clarification classes, in which the pupils are to decide which of the passengers in an overloaded lifeboat should be thrown overboard—“a young couple and their child, an elderly brother and sister, a doctor, a bookkeeper, an athlete, an entertainer, and so on”—with the film A Night to Remember, based upon the Titanic disaster. The film

marshals its audience swiftly and powerfully to the side of certain values. We feel admiration for the radio operators who stay at their post. We feel pity and contempt for the handful of male passengers who sneak into lifeboats. There are not an infinite number of ways to respond to these scenes . . . . Drama is not the right medium for creating a value-neutral climate. It exerts too much moral force.

Thus he proposes that parents read stories to their children from books that promote moral heroism—an extensive annotated list of which Kilpatrick includes as an appendix.

The emphasis of Wynne and Ryan’s book, Reclaiming Our Schools, is on what schools can do to become communities within which the habits of virtue are learned. On their first page they reject the idea that what is needed is simply an improved curriculum: “We believe moral schools will comfortably devise ways of handling immediate, topical moral issues. Conversely, schools without sound moral norms may well misapply the most wholesome problem-oriented instruction.”

They stress the importance of everything that happens in a school, since a “school or classroom devoid of virtuous acts is not transmitting traditional values, regardless of the refined thoughts that may be passing through pupils’ minds,” and they call for school assemblies, ceremonies, and prizes of various types, as well as ample opportunities for pupils to take responsibility in the life of the school.

Wynne and Ryan agree with Kilpatrick’s disparagement of attempts to teach moral reasoning before children have internalized the principles from which reasoning should proceed, arguing that “the first moral need of the young is to learn to avoid ratiocination. Instead, they must accept the centrality of doing the hard thing without thinking about it.” Similarly, the teacher must see moral challenge in the daily details of schoolwork. “Being a moral model is not waiting for the Great Dilemma to come along . . . . It is giving one’s diligent attention to teaching and to the small demands of our professional life . . . .”

Why should schools seek to develop virtue? After all, many seem to do a poor enough job simply teaching basic skills and a little history and geography. Wynne and Ryan argue that moral education is central to the socializing mission of schools. “All societies want people to be formally competent, to possess appropriate skills. But the greatest opprobrium is directed at morally incompetent people. It is bad to be stupid, but worse to be evil.”

It also seems likely that schools will not do a very good job of making young people smart unless they also devote careful attention to making them good. “The undisciplined student and the undisciplined classroom,” Wynne and Ryan write, “are resistant to acquiring knowledge and intellectual skills.” The school that is academically successful is likely to be marked by purposeful attention to the crafts of teaching and learning, of reading, writing, and disciplined inquiry. These qualities, as Aristotle pointed out, are themselves virtues.

But it is not enough to know what should be at the heart of the curriculum, or even how schools should be organized to develop the habits of civic and personal virtue, if those schools must function in an environment that constantly works against their efforts. There is reason to believe that our educational system makes it very difficult for schools to have the qualities that would make them effective.

A small example: Kilpatrick notes that when the federal Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981 provided federal funds for the development of sex education curricula based upon the encouragement of abstinence, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on the grounds that this constituted an establishment of religion. This argument was rejected by the Supreme Court, which found that teaching teenagers the value of chastity was a “reasonable secular goal.” According to a recent (March 24, 1993) article in Education Week , however, it appears likely that funding for abstinence-oriented sex education, currently $7.5 million contrasted with $173 million for contraception-oriented programs, will be eliminated by Congress. The responsible official in the new Administration was quoted as saying that “just because one particular group supports abstinence doesn’t mean that should be our only focus.”

It might seem to follow that different schools should be encouraged and supported in using different approaches, reflecting the agreement of the parents and teachers directly concerned, and that parents should be allowed to select publicly funded schools corresponding to their own views about what is in the best interests of their children. This is unfortunately not the prevailing view among those who make policy for education about what is desirable and consistent with the demands of a democratic system for a pluralistic society. Instead they stubbornly insist that schools should regard the concerns of parents as attempts at “censorship,” while providing little support for the development of sharply profiled schools where teachers can teach and give leadership with confidence that parents in fact will support them.

Wynne and Ryan take us step by step, with admirable clarity, through what is necessary to create good schools, but it will require a fundamental change in the policy climate dominating American public education before such schools become the norm rather than the rare exception.

Charles L. Glenn is Professor of Educational Policy at Boston University.

Joshua Glenn teaches in an inner-city middle school in Boston.