Lawyer, educator untangle moral thicket


Goodman, Lesnick and their book

Photo by Daniel R. Burke


When three boys were suspended for wearing extra-long Afro and cornrow hairdos at a Philadelphia Catholic school last fall, the issue polarized the community.

The principal and teachers at St. Rose of Lima Catholic School lined up with school policy prohibiting braids for boys and other “outlandish” or “faddish” styles.

The boys’ families lined up with the transgressing hairdos as expressions of the boys’ African-American heritage.

In a new book, “The Moral Stake in Education: Contested Premises and Practices” (Allyn and Bacon), Professor of Education Joan Goodman and Professor of Law Howard Lesnick examine the often polarizing moral issues that underlie the daily decisions of teachers and schools — decisions like the one involving the hairdos, whether to force a student to remove his hat, what to do about cut-throat baseball-card trading on school grounds, even what to teach.

With character education on the lips of nearly every politician in the land, the book comes as a timely exploration of how to teach character and how to nurture in children a concern about morality. “We want to create kids who think of themselves as moral people,” Goodman said.

What’s required, however, is an approach to moral issues that gets beyond the simplifications that can polarize a school and a community.

“The book is an effort to look at moral issues as they occur in every classroom setting and unravel them to find the theory behind the different positions and look at options, look at teaching methods for addressing this,” Goodman said.

Goodman and Lesnick present the moral issues in vignettes that make for compelling reading. A young, idealistic teacher, just out of college, finds herself confronted by unruly students and other challenges to school authority. Unsure how to proceed, she searches for help among her colleagues and superiors at the school. Their conversations, inspired in part by Plato’s “Meno” but full of the tensions of disagreement and differing world views, never settle for simple answers, but identify the moral threads that weave through each situation.

Each situation is followed by pertinent readings from educational philosophers and thinkers, ranging from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to to Isaiah Berlin to Immanuel Kant. Goodman credits Lesnick and Lesnick credits Goodman for the broad selection.

And the book concludes with a framework for how to proceed in the moral thicket of daily classroom management.

Goodman, an educator with a background in child psychology, and Lesnick, a lawyer with 40 years of teaching experience and an interest in decision-making in the professions, discovered their mutual interest in morality when Goodman, who teaches a course called Values and the School, invited Lesnick to speak to the class about related legal questions. “I ended up somewhere between coteaching and auditing the course,” Lesnick said.

Goodman corrected him. “It was coteaching.”

The book was inspired by and written for the course. “It’s aimed at college and university students and teachers, but we think it is of interest to the general public,” said Lesnick.

Goodman agreed. “Everyone in the country is concerned about morality,” she said.

The two will talk about the book at a book signing at the Penn Bookstore Thursday, Feb. 8. See “What’s On.”

Originally published on February 1, 2001