Yesterday in class we discussed the idea of teaching ethics to students in schools. During our discussion, a series of questions, proposals and problems arose regarding the topic. Apparently it is near impossible to determine how to properly teach ethics effectively to students. You would think that a group of well-educated adults – especially students who are nearing the end of their academic careers – would be able to efficiently promote, or establish at least one concrete method of ethics instructions for younger students, but this task is much more arduous than it would seem.
For starters, we all know that ethics cannot be taught to a person overnight. You simply cannot sit a group of students down in a classroom and say “Alright kids, today we are going to teach you how to be good. These are the things you need to do, and how you must act if you want to become a decent and productive member of society!” – send them home, and the next day they wake up model citizens. It purely does not work like that. If teaching ethics effectively, every educational institution would utilize the same program, and society’s problematic issues, such as crime, would most likely be greatly reduced. There are many reasons ethics cannot be taught in this manner, but for argument’s sake, we will only focus on a few.
The issue of free will is one of the biggest determining factors as to why ethics cannot simply be instructed. Every human being on the planet, no matter their size, race, religion, sex, origin, or social, economic or psychological status is born with the gift of free will; to act, do and say what we want, when we want, and where we want no matter what. As a community, we establish laws; certain boundaries we say people are not allowed to cross in attempt to keep order and fairness. Despite these helpful laws and guidelines, free will makes it so a person is still able to unlawfully break those boundaries if he or she chooses to do so. This is true with anything in our world regardless of the stated consequences. For example, you can tell a person that good personal hygiene is important to maintaining their health – that if the person does not brush their teeth every day, their teeth will rot out of their skull. With the person knowing this, they may still decide they do not want to brush their teeth, and will most likely eventually experience dental problems. The same theory applies to theft. You can warn a person that theft is wrong and a punishable offense, however they still may choose to steal and go to jail. All decisions are products of free will. This makes the effective educating of ethics difficult, because no matter how many times you tell a person what to do, or how to act in order to be an ethical person, they may still choose to ignore that advice; to break those laws. That does not mean we should not enforce the law, or that we should not try to teach morals or ethics, it just means that it is a factor which increases the overall difficulty of the pursuit – that we must look for a variety of courses of action.
Another major issue with successfully teaching ethics is the environment in which children and students are raised. Many subjects and important life values are taught or can be obtained at school, but a disruptive home life can ruin everything. A child could have a perfect school year, having the best teacher in the faculty and the most caring classmates, and learn about ethics every single day, but a negative home environment also teaches the child about life. If the student is raised in a home environment in which elements like domestic violence, drugs, dishonesty, racism, or theft are present or acceptable, the child hold a higher risk of also viewing these acts as acceptable – maybe even perceiving them as normal household functions, despite what he/she is taught in the classroom. Sure, some people grow up with these things and choose to be the opposite of their parents, but reversal does not occur in every case, or even the majority of cases, and it certainly does not mean those events did not leave a lasting impression on them. Without a healthy environment for children to grow up in, their perspectives will be forever skewed, because they know that people are capable of doing rotten things, and somewhere within them they too are capable. So, even when sterling ethics are taught in the classroom, a home environment can destroy it all. I will still comment, that this is not a reason we should still not try to teach ethics, it just makes the effective teaching of the subject harder.
Another, and possibly one of the greatest of obstacles for the effective teaching of ethics in the education system is the question of perspective of ethics is the correct option to teach. We live on a planet of millions of people, all holding varying perspectives and ideas of what being an ethical person truly is. These perspectives of ethics are formulated by factors such as origin, history, culture, religion, economic or social status, and the list goes on. No two people are going to have the exact perspectives on ethics, no matter how similar they may be. Religion is a huge factor, as well. Religion, if immensely important to a person, has the power to sway person’s mind in a vote any day of the week. It as if what a person’s religion dictates them to do or believe trumps logic in even the ugliest of civil rights battles. For example, a peer in class brought up the issue of homosexuality and how it should be viewed or taught as an ethical subject. He furthered that inquiry with which perspective do you teach: a secular vision or a religious vision, because the two tend to vary greatly. When it comes to homosexuality, there are religious groups out there who promote caring and love to all every day, and then turn on that logic in a heartbeat when it comes to homosexuals. So when you throw factors that people feel so strongly about into the mix, like religion, it muddies the water and it is impossible to get people to agree on what perspective is going to be the right one to teach ethics to our students.
Ultimately, it is near impossible to just sit down and point our finger at one solid method and proclaim “this is the way we need to teach our students ethics in schools and it will work!” I wish we could, but we cannot. What we can do however, is teach ethics through leading by example. We need to ensure students are being taught (and raised, if we can help it) in safe, healthy and ethical environments every single day. We can do this by creating comfortable classrooms and communities were values of courtesy, integrity, respect, honesty and selflessness are upheld. We need to create environments where people act within these values, in which people care for one another and look down upon racism, sexism, and dishonesty. We need to teach ethics by example, not just words. That is the only way I can think of being effective in schools when it comes to teaching ethics, if there is a better way, I hope we can find it.