FRIDAY, JULY 11, 1980

Moral questions Belong in Public Schools

 

By Myrlam Miedzian

 

A 1975 Gallup poll reported that more than 70 per cent of parents surveyed favored the establishment of mandatory classes in ethics in our schools, Today, five years later, no such programs exist.

Opposition to them stems almost exclusively from the belief that the humanism, which would form the basis of the teaching of ethics in the public schools, represents a form of religion. The teaching of humanism would then be in violation of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. The same absurd argument, if taken a step further, would also have us rescind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and reject the Declaration of Independence, since these documents are based on the humanistic values of life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness.

The founding fathers were deeply aware that a constitutional democracy such as ours requires an educated citizenry, and education to them included morality. Now that the problems we face are infinitely more complex, we have defaulted almost completely on the moral education of our citizens.

Our educational system does not develop understanding and appreciation of the basic values upon which our country was founded (surveys indicate that the Bill of Rights is not immediately recognizable to most people), nor does it foster an understanding of the responsibilities that go hand in hand with these values, Increases in school vandalism, littering, dishonesty and theft, as well as absenteeism at the polls, suggest that young people from all walks of life are failing to learn the connection between the maintenance of a free and civilized society and responsible behavior on the part of its citizens.

Teaching ethics would enable young people to develop the critical intelligence needed to apply humanistic principles to increasingly complex and novel problems, While there are no clear-cut, simple answers to ethical issues, such as euthanasia, abortion, genetic engineering, and environmental pollution, decisions must be made, It is important that they be made in the public interest and not be unduly influenced by strong lobbying groups representing special interests, An educated citizenry protects against this danger.

While this may sound abstract and beyond the reach of most of our young people, it need not be, "I often bring popular magazines, pop records, and newspaper clippings to class to start off discussions on various topics in ethics," a teacher of ethics in a Belgian high school told me recently.

"Sometimes I start out with the students' experiences or behavior. For example when we discussed the problem of pollution, we started out discussing littering in the school yard. . . The students had never thought of their own throwing of candy bar wrappers on the sidewalk or the school yard as being a manifestation on a smaller scale of the same kind of egocentrism and irresponsibility that corporations manifest when they dump chemicals into rivers. They were shook up."

At a time when economic considerations loom large in public-policy decisions, the cost of training teachers to teach ethics must be weighed against the current cost of young people's anti-social behavior. The teaching of ethics, while it is no panacea, would at least be a step in the right direction.

 

Myriam Miedzian, formerly a philosophy professor at the University of California at San Diego and Barnard College in New York City, is a free-lance writer living in Manhattan.