Friday, December 30, 2005
Revive the Morality Lesson in School
The proposals to revive school prayer, or a moment of silence, are not just attempts to coerce religious observance. They are largely meant to reestablish public morality. In the Engel decision of 1962 the Supreme Court of the United States declared that we will not be coerced to worship in school. Implicit in that decision was that we will not publicly declare a moral position. President Kennedy also declared that teaching morality is the function of the home. Consequently, character education, which stemmed back to the beginning of the XX Cent., John Dewy and the concept of a teacher who knewmore than the students was superseded by the new "cultural relativism" theory and "values clarification" method (Sidney Simon, Leland W. Howe and Howard Kirschenbaum, 1972), which declared that the teacher was to be presented as just another person with values, often confused ones. A lot of the teaching community bought into this. Now, 32 years after Kennedy, it is evident that leaving morality to the hom e and to the individual youngster is a total failure. Even the best homes have been starined, since Mom left, to get a job. Mrs Madelyn Murray O'Hare, the great atheist, and the other people who sued schools for continuing prayers passed the wrong message, the message that morality is wrong. That was and is deadly. And the people who valiantly continued to pray, in Jesus' name, did no better by passing a sectarian message, to confirm Mrs. Murray's thesis. Bringing the issue of morality back to the schools has become nearly impossible. The prayer advocates assume that a Psalm and the Ten Commandments will get through to kids who are zonked out by rock video, media violence and maybe even savage streets. It won't sell.
The family structure is no longer the force Kennedy wistfully blabbed about. Mom is busy outside, bringing in the needed 2nd income, instead of keeping the hearth going. Adolescents object to family-imposed morality, which is often tinted by money considerations. A father's or mother's orders will often be disobeyed in principle, and there is no point in pushing them, if you want rapport with your teenager. Prayers will not touch kids who view themselves as outsiders.
Peer group action is what determines an adolescent's acceptance of rules. This is such a simple thing that it is shocking not to have it recognized. Adolescents do not rebel against peer group; they rebel against parents. It is so stupid and so simple. And in many areas the teachers, the church, the community morality and the general tone of the community do play a role in determining the kids' ways, because they are other than the oppressive family, and can influence the peer group. Not always, but a small percent gained is better than nothing.
As to the means of building morality: a period of silence in school will build something, but it is not a positive statement. A prayer period will build more, but but it cannot be voted in. Besides, prayer works with the convinced, for many others it may be a big yawn, or an example of ritualized coercion.
To continue with the history, "values clarification" eventually faded, but much damage was done. Meanwhile,certain forward-thinking educators in the 1990s across the country initiated classes in character education, where young kids tell tales and discuss events of bravery and principled behavior and obtain positive reinforcement for taking moral positions. Prompted by concerns about increasing violence, promiscuity and drug abuse, character education is supported by people of all political persuasions.About one in five school districts offer formal programs, of varying types. This works on a local level, when no attempts to codify the positions is made. In codifying, the only principles that can be agreed upon are the motherhood ones: respect for human dignity, demonstration of active responsibility for the welfare of others, integration of individual interests and social responsibilities, demonstration of integrity, application of moral principles when making choices and judgments, and seeking of peaceful resolution of conflicts. This is what the values committee of Mt. Lebanon, PA school board boiled their proposed 40 principles down to.They had to drop respect for life, environment and religion-related issues. This is borne out in opinion polls, when 95 percent of respondents endorse teaching of honesty and telling truth, and respect for others, but only 49 support the broad concept of character education.And then there is a fearful 39 percent of parents who still view morality as a subject for home only, presumably largely out of fear of explicit sex ed and such.
But we should not give up. While staying in a hotel with cable TV, I recently had a surprise. On NIckelodeon, Nick at Night presented old Dragnet shows, where Sgt. Friday combatted and won against a wife beater and a child molester. Pure tales of morality, from the 1950s and '60s. I had forgotten about them, and they were actually interesting to watch. And there were more moral-lesson shows. One could do a lot worse than play them for children and make a class discussion of the principles involved. There are huge libraries of shows with a powerful moral to the story, from the days when comic dysfunctional family lives and the actions of crude teenage jerks were not the subject of prime time TV giggles. The Republican majority would do well to consider using public broadcasting facilities to transmit tales of morality for classroom use.
Dysfunction and its results should be addressed in such shows directly, showing the consequences. Teenage mothers, people whose teeth rot and who die at age 32, victims of drug trade and use, children neglected by alcoholic parents, junkies and convicts, they all hav e to be shown as examples of thee wages of today's sins.And good role models.
Why doesn't the education establishment cut the Gordisn knot by requesting that Congress apportion a time slice on public TV for morning shows combatting such common enemies as drugs, child abuse, juvenile crime and bullies, and a teachers' guide pamphlet of the issues involved, and start with that? There willbe plenty of time to argue appropriateness of additional issues later. First let's make a beginning.
Also, let's consider a lesson of morality. IF this moment is devoted to a reading and explanation of the Gettysburg Address, the Golden Rule, the words of Martin Luther King, Martin Buber, the Rolling Stones, Mohammed the Prophet or Mohammed X, or Snoop Doggy Dog, we are all ahead. We really need this.The adolescent from a functional family will not be hurt; the one from a disfunctional family will be helped.
In terms of effectiveness, prayer in school will not work with the unconvinced. It is also judged unconstitutional. Morality lessons, stories of valor and history, will work, and bring us together, to fight for a noble and holy cause, our children.
Wally Dobelis thanks the NYTimes for much of the character education material, and anonymous contributor RT for the thought.