students to conform to a rigid list of virtures wont transform
them into thoughtful moral agents, say Dr. Joan Goodman and Dr.
Howard Lesnick, Penn professors who have co-written a new book in
response to the growing character-education movement.
They endorse a messier, but more meaningful approach to moral education.
dozen chairs have been pushed into a circle
in Tricia Bagamasbads fifth-period English class at University City High
School. The weekly class meetinga ritual that stands apart from the rest
of the West Philadelphia ninth-graders rule-laden school dayis about
to begin. Its a time to vent, philosophize, and tease apart complicated
issues confronting them and their peers.
Some girl whos
a friend of my family got pregnant, one girl starts. Shes 15 and she
didnt tell her aunt or grandmother. She delivered her own baby in the
bathroom; then she stuffed it in the closet and smothered it in plastic.
I dont want her to be in prison for the rest of her life, the student
continues, but that was a shame what she did to the baby. I think she
should pay for what she did.
a student teacher completing her masters degree at Penns Graduate School
of Education, prompts discussion with a series of questions: How could
this have been prevented? Should the teenager be punished? Should the
girls guardians be held responsibleeven if they didnt know she was
pregnant? Though none of her students would recognize it by such a name,
Bagamasbad has been experimenting this semester with what two Penn professors,
Dr. Joan Goodman and Dr. Howard Lesnick, call moral education.
More formal programs
of moral educationor character education, as it is popularly knownhave
been proliferating around the country since the much-publicized student
shootings at Columbine and other schools. Ten states now mandate some
form of character education. President George Bush supports increased
federal funding for it. Miss America has adopted it as her cause. Even
folk musician Peter Yarrow has founded a character-education program called
Dont Laugh at Me, complete with its own theme song. But Goodman, a
professor of education, and Lesnick, the Jefferson B. Fordham Professor
of Law, argue in their new book, The Moral Stake in Education: Contested
Premises and Practices, that much of what passes for character education
in todays schools is ineffective at best. They reject rigid curriculums
purchased from outside companies and imposed on classrooms by school authorities
in favor of a more organic approach that gives teachers the freedom to
respond to the special needs of their students. Their goal is to create
morally reflective human beings, able to make complex ethical decisions
in a variety of contexts throughout their lives. In promoting this, the
professors also challenge some traditional notions about school discipline,
arguing, for example, that teachers should butt out of many playground
fights and that exclusion of other children is often a normal and necessary
part of growing up.
calls herself a proselytizer in the moral-education movement, has been
teaching a Values and Education class at the Graduate School of Education
for six years and has been working with teachers and parents at an affluent
suburban school, Merion Elementary, for more than a year to cultivate
a moral-education program there. Shes also helping Bagamasbad add a moral
dimension to her teaching.
A child psychologist
with a specialty in developmental disabilities, Goodman had observed the
disappearance of schools traditional role as nurturer of values and morality
in children, and believed that its absence explained some of the problems
children were having. There is a lack of direction, a sense of malaise,
unhappiness and restlessness that I see in young people that I think causes
some of the social problems the media picks up on, ranging from hyperactivity
to aggression and depression. When she noticed that values education was
making a little resurrection in the 1990s, she began reading about it
and decided to teach a graduate course on the topic. Goodman asked Lesnick
to lead a session about church-and-state
issues. He ended up co-teaching the whole course with her for one semester.
Today they still co-teach a separate course on integrity in the College
of Arts and Sciences.
Working on these
classes and the book with Goodman was appealing to me as a way to get
out of what I had come to feel was a narrow focus on law and legislation,
says Lesnick. Like Goodman he has no formal training in philosophy, but
he has taught ethics and professional responsibility for three decades
and has been dubbed by at least one colleague the conscience of the Law
Despite the swell
of popular interest in moral education, Goodman says, I know for a fact
that this is not being taught to future teachers in most education schools.
As more states start to mandate character education, however, she believes
this will change.