Bill Cramer

The Moral Classroom  

Getting students to conform to a rigid list of virtures won’t 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.
By Susan Lonkevich


A dozen chairs have been pushed into a circle
in Tricia Bagamasbad’s fifth-period English class at University City High School. The weekly class meeting—a ritual that stands apart from the rest of the West Philadelphia ninth-graders’ rule-laden school day—is about to begin. It’s a time to vent, philosophize, and tease apart complicated issues confronting them and their peers.

    “Some girl who’s a friend of my family got pregnant,” one girl starts. “She’s 15 and she didn’t 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 don’t 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.”
    Bagamasbad GEd’01, a student teacher completing her master’s degree at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, prompts discussion with a series of questions: How could this have been prevented? Should the teenager be punished? Should the girl’s guardians be held responsible—even if they didn’t 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 education—or “character education,” as it is popularly known—have 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 “Don’t 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 today’s 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.
    Goodman, who 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. She’s 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 School.”
    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.


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