THR Blog   /   November 3, 2016

Calibrating the Moral Compass

Guest Blogger

“Dominos & Compass,” by Kolby via Flickr.

Writing in the Atlantic last July, high school teacher Paul Barnwell expressed fears that his students have broken moral compasses. At the same time, he reports, they are enthusiastic in classrooms discussion that address deeper levels of morality. Yet schools frequently steer clear of moral instruction because, Barnwell believes, they are too busy trying to meet narrowly defined federal academic success standards. The result? A crisis in character of the rising generation.

As educators ourselves, we concur with many of Barnwell’s observations. And we know we aren’t alone. Witness the rapidly growing interest in character education among philanthropies, researchers, policy advocates, and public schools. And recent legislation has encouraged a more holistic approach by requiring states to include non-academic factors in their accountability systems.

While we applaud efforts to promote character education, folding it into school accountability schemes is fraught with peril. Some argue that if it’s not measured, it’s not valued. But as psychologist Angela Duckworth notes, current measures for non-cognitive outcomes are limited by self-reporting and reference bias. Adding character to the testing regime at this stage would be premature and counterproductive.

Off-the-shelf character programs may be a tempting fix for schools already juggling multiple demands, but most such programs fall short.  A study conducted by the Institution of Education Sciences concluded that only two out of sixty measured outcomes were statistically significant. In fairness, as Duckworth notes, these kinds of outcomes are extremely difficult to measure well, in part because character formation itself is not easy to do well.

This is the heart of the problem in our highly pluralistic culture. We disagree, sometimes sharply, about what particulars should inform a moral compass for our young people. The compass in our smart phones must be calibrated with a standard in order to be accurate. But which way is true north on the moral compass? Who decides? Disagreement over which ethical values should be taught tend to push us to the lowest common denominator.

Solving for an algebra equation is clear; deliberating questions of justice, fidelity, or prudence is another matter. Consider the ethical dilemma Barnwell presents to his class. He’s troubled that his students were “unequivocally unconcerned” for those who had been hypothetically harmed by the felonious actions of a friend. We too would be troubled by their response.

But is the problem necessarily a “broken” moral compass? Loyalty, after all, is a virtue. Perhaps it’s simply misapplied in this situation, or inappropriately prioritized over compassion or justice. The students’ compasses may not be calibrated to the same standard as ours; they might instead point toward a moral orientation that distrusts police and considers the “system” unjust. If so, why not protect a good person from the law? Indeed, one might even have a moral obligation to do so. The situation has suddenly become more complicated.

We can see why it’s easier for schools to ignore these quandaries and focus on delivering knowledge. But thoughtful teachers like Barnwell help us see that “sticking to the facts” is not a viable option. Whether we like it or not, whether our pluralistic society can stomach it or not, education is an intrinsically moral enterprise. How we teach biology, as Barnwell notes, or The Scarlet Letter or the Civil War is a moral issue. How we treat our students, and expect them to treat one another, is a moral issue. The same is true for how we address struggle and suffering, how we honor excellence, the attention we give to athletic programs and the narrative we offer students about why education is important. We cannot ignore the moral questions; they are constitutive of the educational process.

So what can be done? First, we need to be sure that we’re not placing the responsibility solely on schools. Schools do not and cannot operate in isolation from other key institutions that affect the formation of the young (families, neighborhoods, after-school programs, athletics, civic and religious groups, and so on). A child lives in a larger environment that—for better or worse—influences his or her moral development. We must give attention to the moral ecology in which the young are nurtured and their moral identities formed.

We should also recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Questions that bear on character formation must be handled locally and intimately by communities, leaders and teachers who deeply care about the children they are morally bound together to serve. Communities should identify areas of overlapping agreement within a particular moral ecology. This will look different in different contexts.  Private schools may draw on religious sources or a specific pedagogical philosophy (think Waldorf or Classical).  Charter schools will draw on a particular vision or mission within their charter. Traditional public schools must figure out how they might address these questions in ways that accommodate their specific communities.

But we can all agree that every school, embedded rightly within its community and context, needs a North Star of human flourishing. Just as a good teacher has a clear objective for every lesson and course, just as a good school unites students and teachers around an intentional curriculum and program, so a great school must have a vision for the nature of the human being they seek to graduate.

Our communities need these conversations around character. And we need courageous teachers like Paul Barnwell to help guide them.

Jeffrey Dill is the Donchian Fellow for Character and Culture at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and teaches in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University. Dan Scoggin is an advisor to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and co-founder of GreatHearts Academies.