Preparing children for their moral responsibilities as adults is a crucial part of the education process. Teachers play an important role in fostering moral maturity in students, and, according to Ryan, teacher educators have an obligation to help preservice teachers under stand how to create a “moral curriculum” in the classroom. He argues that the content of teacher education must consist of more than academic content and pedagogical skills. Preservice teachers must also appreciate their role in communicating to students the larger values of a community and of a society.
Teaching morals and values in the public schools has been a frequently discussed topic in the past few years. Interestingly, most of the discussion has come from members of the religious right and individuals associated or sympathetic with their point of view. For example, Secretary of Education William Bennett recently urged conservative activists to join him in a fight to restore a “coherent moral vision” to America’s public schools. Speaking to leaders of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, he declared that “We can get the values Americans share back into our classrooms,” and “Those who claim we are now too diverse a nation, that we consist of too many competing convictions and interests to instill common values, are wrong.” Bennett said that children should be taught such values as patriotism, self-discipline, thrift, honesty, and that there is a moral difference between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gary Bauer, a deputy undersecretary in the Department of Education and an outspoken advocate of right-wing religious ideals, told the American Federation of Teachers that “The teaching of values and ethics in our public schools should be an integral part of the curriculum.” Bauer laments that the values “on which there is wide agreement, for example, honesty, courage, humility, kindness, generosity, and patriotism have been eliminated from many texts.” Perhaps the clearest example is from our President, Ronald Reagan, who had this to say about education’s basic purpose: “We’re beginning to realize, once again, that education at its core is more than just teaching our young the skills that are needed for a job, however important that is. It’s also about passing on to each new generation the values that serve as the foundation and cornerstone of our free democratic society–patriotism, loyalty, faithfulness, courage, the ability to make the crucial moral distinctions between right and wrong, the maturity to understand that all that we have and achieve in this world comes first from a beneficent and loving God.”
Media attention has also recently focused on two court cases that are currently being tried. The first, in Tennessee, concerns the efforts of Vickie Frost to remove materials from the school curriculum that she finds offensive to her fundamentalist Christian values. She objects to stories critical of the free-enterprise system, because “capitalism is ordained by God.” She objects to textbook pictures of women assuming traditional male roles, because “God meant for women to be subservient to men.” Frost objects to a textbook’s inclusion of the influence of the Renaissance, because it says that “a central idea of the Renaissance was a belief in the dignity and worth of human beings.” She objects to the statement that “the painters of this time glorified or elevated the human form in paintings,” because “God is to be glorified, not man.” Vickie Frost and her attorneys from Beverly LeHaye’s Concerned Women for America blame the intrusion of “secular humanism” for the textbook contents. The second case, from Alabama, is even more explicitly against secular humanism. There, more than 600 fundamentalist parents, students, and teachers are seeking to remove all traces of what they claim is “secular humanism” from the state curriculum. The examples they give of this influence include the study of evolution, sex education, and instruction in situational ethics. They contend that secular humanism itself is a religion, and if Christianity cannot be taught in the public school, then neither can humanism. The attorneys for the plaintiffs in Alabama are being provided by Concerned Women for America and Pat Robertson’s National Legal Foundation.
You may ask if there is some connection between these two court cases and the new emphasis from right-wing religionists about teaching morals and values in the public schools. There is. The connection is political, and deals with newly -found political power. The religious right today is on the offensive in all areas of public debate involving moral issues. These individuals believe that they know the absolute truth, and they have learned that they can make their revealed absolute truth the law of the land by political organization, lobbying, and litigation. They realize that they can coerce other people, who do not share their views, into following them nevertheless by using the power of the state. The last instance of the use of this type of political power by conservative religionists was Prohibition, whose main success was the creation of organized crime. Today the goal is preventing women from having abortions, suppressing science education, getting prayer back into public schools, hindering sex and drug education, having public tax money pay for parochial schools, turning back the tide of women’s liberation, and preventing the teaching of effective and reasonable morals and values.
Did I say prevent the teaching of morals and values. Yes, because the stated intentions of Bennett, Bauer, and Reagan are merely a smokescreen for their true goal of sneaking religion back into the public schools under the guise of moral education. These men, and the many religionists who object to secular humanism, believe that morals and values are based in religion–that there can be no morality without religion–and, as religious conservative Terry Eastland put it, “we have yet to cultivate in this country, at least on a broad scale, a means of teaching the Judeo-Christian ethic without also frequently bringing up its religious roots.” Eastland faulted a widespread absence in young people of a “basic morality” as the cause of many of society’s problems, including crime, racial conflict, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity. He says that the basic morality “consists of, among other things, honesty, fairness, respect for law, courage, diligence, and respect for others.” He states that these qualities ” are commonly regarded as part of the Judeo-Christian ethic…” Officials of the Reagan administration and other religious conservatives believe the same: that all good morals and values stem from our Judeo-Christian heritage and that it is impossible to teach these ethical precepts without also mentioning their religious source and divine justification; that is, it is impossible to teach morals and values and be neutral at the same time. Education Secretary Bennett stated the belief quite precisely: “Neutrality to religion turns out to bring with it neutrality to those values that issue from religion. . . . We now face a new source of divisiveness: The assault of secularism on religion.” It is this belief that leads to a conflict that I will explain shortly, and which results in the religious conservatives’ opposition not only to secular humanism, but to teaching values and morals in a neutral and secular context in the public schools. I think, despite their statements, that the religious right is actually opposed to teaching ethical concepts in the public schools unless they get to do it in their own unconstitutional fashion, that is, by insisting that children are taught that good morals and values are derived from the Judeo-Christian ethic and are justified solely by God’s authority.
I want to discuss why we should teach morals and values in the public schools and how this is possible without breaking the law by promoting either Christianity or secular humanism. First, let’s briefly establish why moral education is important for both individuals and society. (I will refer to deliberate instruction in morals and values in the public schools as “character education,” its most popular name.) Many of you are probably aware of statements made by the Founding Fathers that democracy cannot survive unless the citizens are educated and informed. They also believed that the republic they wished to build depended on a virtuous and ethical population. Madison said, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” Franklin believed the same: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. . . . Nothing is of more importance for the public weal than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.” Washington and Jefferson made similar statements. The schools of that time practiced this philosophy. Moral instruction, grounded in Bible readings and study of moral lessons derived from Biblical sources, was as much a part of the curriculum as reading, writing, and arithmetic. In fact, this type of study was common in our country’s schools until the 1940’s, when religious moral instruction began to disappear because the Supreme Court finally began to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, passed immediately after the Civil War, which made the states and their institutions, including schools, subordinate to the First Amendment, which prohibits government from establishing religion. But more on this in a moment.
I will assume, without belaboring the point, that everyone agrees that children must be taught proper moral behavior. Every great philosopher of education has said that virtue must be joined to learning, and have even put ethical instruction before practical instruction. This includes not only the ability to tell right from wrong, but also instruction in those values necessary to a happy and successful life, such as self-discipline, the ability to work hard, thrift, respect for the law, self-esteem, citizenship, responsibility, respect for the rights of others, courage of one’s convictions, obedience to proper authority, anticipating the consequences of one’s actions, honesty, tolerance, diligence, fairness, love of democracy and freedom, and many others. That citizens possess these values is obviously important for the success and happiness of society, as well as individuals. I think no one will disagree with me that both parents and society want such morals and values taught to children. I will also assume that everyone agrees that good morals and values are formally taught to children, not learned instinctively or informally (like bad habits), and that they will in all likelihood live un-virtuous and unhappy lives if they are not taught such things in some way. In this sense, then, character education exactly parallels practical education in those subjects, such as reading and writing, needed to live a full, productive, and satisfying life. Both types of education must be taught to children; they don’t learn these valuable attributes by instinct or by haphazard association with others.
If this is the case, why then has formal character education been almost eliminated from the public schools and relegated solely to the home, church, and parochial schools? There are two reasons, both based on mistaken assumptions by parents, teachers, and school officials. The first is the outrageous presumption that morals are intrinsically tied to religion, and that to teach morals you have to teach religion. The second is the mistaken notion that the Supreme Court, by outlawing the promotion of religion in public schools by organized prayer and Bible readings, has thereby also outlawed moral instruction in the public schools. Both of these beliefs are false.
You may recall President Reagan’s statement that “religion and politics are inseparably linked, because morality is the basis for politics and religion is the basis for morality.” With all due respect to the President, his argument for mixing religion and politics is grievously flawed. Morality can exist independently of religion and has done so for centuries. (I won’t discuss whether morality is the basis for politics!) The first great moral philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, based their ethical systems on the same things humanist philosophers do today: a happy conscience, a productive and successful life, and the harmonious working of society. No other rewards need be promised, and certainly no punishments need be threatened, if a person truly understands the value to oneself and society of living a virtuous life. Of course, there are a lot of psychological and emotional considerations in this process of internalizing a moral and value code, but I’m not going to discuss these here. Let me just state that a child can be taught to internalize a proper and worthwhile ethical code without reliance on religious authority , religious promises or threats, or instruction in religious justifications or history. I presume that everyone here is aware that all the values and morals we treasure today were known long before the time of Jesus, and that such ethical ideals developed independently in numerous cultures throughout history. Besides the numerous Greek and Roman moral philosophers, many of whom were humanists, there were the moral philosophers Confucius and Buddha. (These two were also humanists, but their philosophies were made into religions by their followers.)
Morality, therefore, is not connected to religion, and I might add that history has shown that religion is frequently opposed to morality, but we need not dwell on that topic. Since this is the case, the Supreme Court did not forbid formal moral instruction in the public schools when they stopped organized prayer and Bible reading. Nor, for that matter, did they remove religion from the schools. In the famous prayer case of 1963, the Supreme Court said that “one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion . . . when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education. . . .” What the Supreme Court removed was overt religious indoctrination. Let me briefly relate the history of this. As I said earlier, public schools in nineteenth and early twentieth century America were pervasively religious. Not only did they teach religious morals and values, they taught Protestant morals and values. Beginning in 1854 and continuing until 1929, there were dozens of cases concerning the indoctrination of religion in the public schools, all involving Catholics protesting the prevailing Protestant indoctrination. This situation forced the Catholics to build their own parochial school system.

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