Teach secular morality in public schools

November 30, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

Silence implies acquiescence.

We live in a culture that is rife with moral controversy, but public education is largely silent with regard to many of these controversies.

In a Free Inquiry article titled “Wanted: Moral Education for Secular Children” (December 2006), Paul Kurtz asks why we aren’t doing a better job of stepping into the moral void to give our children a secular moral education:  “Secularists, humanists, and naturalists face a pivotal and deeply practical challenge: how to develop educational curricula and institutions that can provide moral guidelines for our children.”

Kurtz crowns pop culture as a prime contributor to the problem:

“banal and demeaning values often permeate the mass media: popular television, movies, music, radio, the Internet, and literature read by children. These values can herald violence, greed, vindictiveness, and immorality.”

Teaching children to be moral without reference to religion is easier said than done, of course.  Secular versions of morality conflict with many authoritarian versions of morality:

[The authoritarian tradition] holds that “deference to authority” is essential and stresses moral commandments that children simply need to accept and obey. The primary emphasis is on obedience to ancient creeds and codes. Second is the liberal tradition, which encourages young people to be responsible and to think for themselves. This approach stresses personal autonomy and freedom of thought. It is part of a new morality that has become influential since the Enlightenment: an effort to improve the lives of individuals in the current world.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to teach critical thinking and cultivate moral growth in schools. Parents committed to the authoritarian model may feel threatened by any questioning of their revered values and fearful that free inquiry in ethics will undermine the religious outlook they seek to impose on their children. Yet we cannot allow the misgivings of frightened authoritarians to limit what our children can learn about morality. So high are the stakes, in my view, that we should take nothing for granted; and we should be prepared to take matters into our own hands in such areas as moral education.

One prerequisite to teaching secular morality is exploding the myth that there is no such thing as a secular version of morality:

Encouraging children and adults to think for themselves need not necessarily lead to moral permissiveness or anarchy. Liberal humanists need not be subjective relativists, nonjudgmental in the face of all outrages. Indeed . . . liberal humanist schools and curricula need to “warn . . . pupils of the perils of extreme moral skepticism.”

A secular moral education begins by teaching critical thinking:

In particular, we should cultivate the habit of thinking critically about one’s own beliefs and attitudes. By encouraging independent thought, we can help children to grow in intellectual maturity. The morally educated child is not simply responding to external commandments but attempting to internalize empathy and conscience. This is especially important in democratic societies, where students of every cultural background, secular or religious, must master the values of citizenship together.

What are secular moral values?  Here are some examples:

“honesty, courage, “peaceability,” self-reliance, self-discipline, moderation, fidelity, loyalty, dependability, respect, love, unselfishness, sensitivity, kindness, friendliness, justice, equality, mercy, and forgiveness. I think that we can say that many of these values are humanistic; they are cherished by great numbers of our fellow citizens, whether secular or religious . . . the common moral decencies are widely shared, no matter the ethnic, national, or religious origins of the people who practice them.

I would advocate teaching children what it means to be a human animal, including many of the topics addressed by this website.  Understanding the well-known limitations of human cognitive capacities and understanding that human existence is deeply rooted in biology will teach children to respect both the beauty and fragility of our individual and social existences. 

I once was taught by a college professor who was doggedly persistent in his numerous interpretations of moral philosophers.  Eventually, though, in a moment that was as poignant as it was disappointing to me, he admitted that moral philosophy, in his opinion, had nothing to do with real life decision-making.  I have heard this repeated several times since by others who specialize in teaching moral philosophy.   When faced with a serious moral dilemma, they don’t reach for Kant’s categorical imperative or for Bentham’s utilitarianism. Kurtz makes clear that this detached version philosophical analysis of morality is not what he is advocating:

Moral education and cognitive growth should have first place in our agenda for the future. This should apply at the pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, grammar school, high school, and college levels, indeed, throughout life. Morality is part of what it means to make choices, value and cherish important qualities, and make responsible judgments. Secular humanism, if it is anything, espouses a set of normative values and principles. Thus, it is not about simply metaethics, independent of life, but its values and principles are concrete and are related to praxis. I call this eupraxsophy: practical ethical wisdom.

I agree with Kurtz that all schools, including public schools, should teach our children what it means to be moral.   It’s not going to be easy.  There will be many conflicts and accusations.  Doing this won’t be feasible in many districts, given that many parents will refuse to part with the well-entrenched versions of authoritarian “morality” with which they are comfortable. 

Morality, defined broadly (as Kurtz has defined morality), is not something that should only to be taught at home.  One cannot seriously study history, or English or psychology, for example, without encountering compelling moral dilemmas.  We shouldn’t pretend otherwise.   We need our teachers to step confidently into this void without fear that they are overstepping their bounds.  To restrain our teachers from addressing moral issues in a straightforward secular way is to let pop culture run amok in the minds of children.  To be silent in the face of consumerist pop culture is to invite television to be the moral guru of our children.  To be silent is to acquiesce in the lack of morality.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Education, Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. hogiemo says:

    "Silence doth mean consent" Bolt, A Man for All Seasons.

    Same play, Thomas More says: "I would give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"

    Shortly thereafter, More became St. Thomas More, bummer!

    I do see right and wrong coming home with the kids from a public elementary school but, I know it's mostly from our influences. My kids are offended by the "unfairness" of the school environment where they often feel they are not allowed to have their say. I have acknowledged to them that they have contributed to our family, even before they were born.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    Home teaching morality has significant dangers. Southern segregationists prior to 1964 thought they were passing on "morality" by teaching their children that blacks were inferior. The only way to counter that is to broaden the sources of moral discourse and actually having a discourse, instead of a pronouncement. The question that got me in the most trouble and frustrated me the most (because it was never answered) during my school years is: WHY?

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