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Moral Issue

In our daughter Sarah’s preschool class, the children aren’t allowed to play games involving weapons or violence. When one of them forgets and starts pointing a hunk of plastic or wood and making shooting noises, the others all shriek “Gun!”—like extras in an episode of NYPD Blue—while the offender hotly denies his or her guilt.
        I remembered this when I read our cover story, “The Moral Classroom,” by associate editor Susan Lonkevich. One connection was simple. In the article, law professor Howard Lesnick, coauthor with Dr. Joan Goodman, professor of education, of The Moral Stake in Education: Contested Premises and Practices, tells a story about his son, also forbidden to play with “war toys,” turning an untoasted piece of white bread into a pretend-firearm.
        The other thing that resonated, though, had to do with what I take to be the main thrust of their critique of the growing “character education” movement: the difference between blindly following sets of rules and learning to make informed moral decisions.
        Certainly, the preschoolers’ behavior has nothing do with any repugnance at gun-violence. Sarah and her classmates just know you’re not allowed to play guns, so they set up a cry when someone does.
        Similarly, Goodman and Lesnick argue that increasingly popular standardized programs mandating “virtuous” behaviors—from being respectful of others to not running in the halls—are too shallow to help students develop into thoughtful moral beings and effective citizens in a democracy. They favor a more organic approach, developed by teachers and students to meet a class’s special needs. They also recommend that perennial schoolyard behaviors like fighting, refusing to play with, or picking on others should be tolerated, at least up to a point. To do otherwise is “childish” and counterproductive in a world in which bullying and exclusion are “part of life.”
        Besides laying out Goodman and Lesnick’s views, Susan also interviewed students and teachers to show how their concept of moral education is playing out in two very different settings: Merion Elementary School in Philadelphia’s affluent suburbs and University City High School in West Philadelphia.
        Our other two feature articles also have a moral dimension. Beth Kephart C’82, last seen in these pages recalling her days as a history and sociology of science major [“Coming Home,” November/December], profiles Dr. Andrew Newberg M’93. In research conducted with the late Dr. Eugene d’Aquili M’66 G’81, Newberg used brain-imaging technology to examine what happens neurologically during episodes of meditation or prayer, revealing the mind’s “machinery of transcendence.”
        In a new book, Why God Won’t Go Away, Newberg reports that the sense of “oneness” with the universe characteristic of intense religious feeling coincides with sharply reduced activity in a part of the brain responsible for orienting individuals in space, separating the I from everything else. Does this mean that God is “all in our head?” Not necessarily, Newberg told Beth. A brief excerpt from the book on page 43 further explains his reasoning, using a homely comparison with apple pie.
        Finally, Jane Biberman, who profiled Sam Maitin FA’51 for the Gazette in 1987, catches up with the prolific and socially conscious artist in a piece that looks back and forward at his relationship with the Christian Association.
        Our sincere thanks to all the readers—more than 4,500 so far—who responded to our fall request to support the Gazette. Your generosity is a great help in ensuring the magazine’s continued quality and in keeping pace with rising costs. For other alumni and parents who would like to make a contribution, our spring solicitation letter is on its way, if it hasn’t already reached you. Or visit (www.upenn.edu/gifts) to make a gift online anytime.

—John Prendergast C’80


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