Confronting the Moral Questions Within Academic Disciplines

Across the disciplines, teachers tend to quickly dismiss politically and morally charged topics when they arise. But how can we promote critical thinking if we are shy about tackling our critical issues?

How can teachers help high school students explore moral and ethical questions with the thoughtfulness necessary for a democratic society to function fully? How can they build academic courses and a school-wide culture around questions that really matter, that push students to consider what it means to live a good, meaningful life, to promote justice, or to contribute to the well-being of society?

In this climate of “covering the content,” it isn’t easy, says CES Director of Research and Professional Development Kathy Simon, so, with funding from the Shinnyo En Founda-tion, the Coalition has launched a new national project to foster that process. The “Essential Moral Questions” project will work with Essential school teachers to devise academic curricula that pay close attention to both the intellectual and the moral elements of these subject areas. It will help them develop discussion-leading skills to address such questions, and to foster a school culture that promotes in-depth discussion of important moral issues.

“As a nation, the culture of our classrooms is particularly adverse to serious exploration of moral issues??indeed, of anything potentially controversial or not easily tested,” says Simon, whose research at Stanford University explored this subject. Almost all classroom conversation between teachers and students, research shows, involves the transmission and recitation of names, dates, and formulae; across the disciplines, teachers tend to quickly dismiss politically or morally charged topics when they arise. Even important moral and ethical concepts like “equity,” “freedom,” and “civic responsibility,” Simon observes, are likely to be taught by delivering definitions, memorizing specific texts, drilling in the structures and formulae, and the like. And such topics as slavery, the “American dream,” civil rights, immigration, crime and punishment, and organized labor are most often approached as chunks of information to be ingested, not living, complex questions to be explored.

When controversial topics do occasionally arise, Simon says, they are typically debated in ways that drive students into polarized positions, with little opportunity to come to understand or respect the opinions of their classmates. “Most students graduate from high school,” she says, “with little or no practice in thinking carefully, compassionately, or creatively about the key moral issues with which our society continues to grapple.”

For example, teachers can open up academic discourse on moral questions like these, which require students to use substantive evidence to form and discuss their opinions:

  • How should a society distribute its wealth?
  • What, if anything, constitutes a just war?
  • Who, if anyone, is an “outsider” in American society? How do the experiences of an outsider differ from those of an insider?
  • What forces give rise to cruelty among human beings?
  • How has race mattered, and how does it matter, in America?
  • What does it mean to be a “criminal”? Has this definition varied from society to society? What is society’s role in dealing with criminals?
  • What scientific or technological discoveries have had important impact on the social world? Why and how?
  • Are there scientific discoveries that we simply should not pursue?
  • Is the natural world, by definition, good? Or is it morally neutral? Which sorts of changes in the natural world, if any, are appropriate for human beings to make?

Even when teachers do design curriculum around questions with moral content, the pedagogy remains very difficult. How does one conduct responsible, probing discussions around controversial issues in the public school context? How does one discuss topics about which there may be strong disagreement, yet honor the diverse perspectives held by students, their families, and the wider community? Most teachers find it easier, research shows, simply to refrain from talking in depth about controversial topics??a practice that may hamper students’ moral and intellectual development. As Columbia University education professor Nel Noddings observes, schools cannot hope to promote critical thinking if they are shy about tackling critical??and often controversial??issues.

As CES commits itself to democracy and equity in its new Tenth Common Principle, new moral questions present themselves. What does it mean to “model democratic practices”? Is democracy a particular form of government, a style of discussion, a way of behaving day to day? What does it mean to “challenge all forms of inequity”? Does this require people in the school to take certain kinds of political actions? Is it ever possible that the demands of democracy and the demands of equity could be in conflict? Not just classrooms but whole school communities, Simon urges, must learn to discuss such morally charged issues.