The influence of the conduct and example of adults on the infant mind has been much too slightly regarded, though it would seem sufficiently obvious that the habits and characters of children are formed upon the model of those to whom they look up for support and protection. If these indulge in angry passions, show a disregard to truth and sincerity, and are otherwise immoral in their conduct, can it be a matter of surprise that the children should be depraved?

—Manual of the Free School Society
New York City, 1820

The trustees of the Free School Society, a philanthropic organization that established tuition-free schools in the early 19th century for poor children in New York, knew perfectly well what to expect of their teachers: only to have “the most unblemished characters with regard to moral conduct,” to be truthful, sincere, frank, open, self-controlled, firm, reasonable, loving, and kind. They were responsible, after all, for nothing less than “the habits and characters of the men and women of the next generation.” There was no doubt in the minds of the Society's leaders that the “evil example” of parents and the neglect of a proper education were what caused children to become the “pests of society.”

In the 19th century, the belief that schooling had a beneficial impact on character and morals was far more widely held than was the notion that it led to a higher income. Elementary readers often contained a set piece, of the kind which children were supposed to memorize and recite, with titles like “Knowledge Is Better Than Wealth,” a point presumably worth stressing because of the popularity of the contrary view. Moral education was homiletic, stressing rote memorization of simplistic slogans, but there did seem to be broad agreement throughout American society on the importance of inculcating a moral code that stressed industry, honesty, bravery, piety, diligence, orderliness, punctuality, and frugality.

The relative simplicity of 19th-century moral strictures is interesting today for the contrast that it offers to our own muddled state. “Moral education” is hardly discussed any longer among American educators; if anything, the phrase itself has become discredited, conjuring up as it does insincere posturing, empty and hypocritical lecturing. The issue is further complicated by disagreement over such traditionally moral questions as pornography, infidelity, abortion, drugs, euthanasia. Besides, certain behavior once generally considered anti-social now finds apologists; the defacing of public property, for example, now a common phenomenon, has been lauded in both the academic and the popular press as an ingenious expression of folk art. In fact, there is scarcely any form of individual behavior, regardless of its personal or social consequences, without its defenders, whether it is Eldridge Cleaver justifying rape, Yippies justifying “trashing,” Watergaters justifying eavesdropping and burglary. A great many people, on both the Left and Right ends of the political spectrum, seem to have concluded that one can choose which laws to obey and which to ignore. Personal morality has become a matter of each doing his own “thing” and negotiating afterward for amnesty or immunity, as circumstances warrant.

Let us for the purposes of this essay consider moral education, as the Free School Society did in 1820, to mean that which influences the “habits and characters” of the rising generation, or, in John Dewey's phrase, “ideas of any sort whatsoever which take effect in conduct and improve it, make it better than it otherwise would be.” In this sense, we are surrounded throughout our lives by moral educators, whose influence on our behavior, values, and attitudes may be good or bad. The family is the primary moral educator, offering daily lessons on how to act toward others; the law educates; the government educates; the media educate. The number of sources attempting to influence habits and character is large; obviously not all of them accomplish their ends, nor are all their ends salutary. In many instances, indeed, the educators follow curricula of which they themselves are not aware.

Moral education in school has a special importance because the school represents a planned and presumably controllable environment; the public school, moreover, as opposed to the private school, is a place to which presumably everyone in the community has access through a variety of representatives and on a variety of levels. Adults who are responsible for school policy can deliberate and choose among ways of creating a “proper” school environment. Yet today, people who think and write about education are divided, not only on how to go about creating a “proper” environment, but on the question of whether it is possible to do so, and even whether schools have the right to do so. There are basically three approaches to the question of moral education. First, there are those who believe that the school should not try to influence the development and attitudes of students at all. Second, there are those who believe that the school should implant specific attitudes in students. Last, there are those who believe that it is possible to educate within a framework of moral values without resorting to indoctrination.

The notion that schools should teach no values at all commands a diverse following. It is the view of “romantics” like A. S. Neill of Summer hill and of a portion of the contemporary “free school” movement; both groups are opposed to the imposition of adult authority and discipline, which they see as an attempt to squelch the freedom and individuality of the child. The teaching of values in public schools is also opposed by those groups whose values are threatened or offended by the majoritarian position. Thus, Catholics reject public-school nonsectarianism, militant blacks reject “pasteurized” approaches to black history, political radicals reject patriotic interpretations of American history; the list could be extended to include others who perceive that their rights and values are compromised in a public-school setting. Many such groups form their own schools, expressly to preserve and inculcate their own values.

Yet another version of the anti-value approach was stated last year in an article in the Harvard Educational Review by Carl Bereiter,1 a professor at the University of Toronto who achieved some fame for his part in creating a highly structured reading program known as the Bereiter-Engelmann method. Bereiter argues that schools are not successful in influencing the way children turn out in later life and hence should not even try to do so. He maintains that only parents have a “clear-cut right” to educate their children and that schools should stick to providing child-care and skill-training.

At the opposite pole from the anti-value adherents are those who believe that the school must purposefully instill values and that indoctrination is a legitimate function of the school. This camp, too, includes a curious collection of bedfellows, among them the ideological extremes of American politics, religious groups, and old-fashioned moralists who would like to see the schools drill “proper” attitudes into the heads of their charges. (Of course, those deeply committed to a particular ideology never see its transmission as “indoctrination,” but only as education in the true faith.)

Educational radicals are divided on the question of indoctrination. Some romantics, as I previously noted, oppose any attempt to press authority on children. But others on the Left believe that the school should transmit a radical perspective of American society, one which will expose its sickness and rapacity. The political Right, too, believes in indoctrination. Conservatives feel that the schools should insure conformity and obedience, as well as unquestioning acceptance of American institutions; in support of their views they undertake campaigns to remove controversial books from public-school lists or to fire nonconforming teachers.

The third path to moral education is the direction in which I would argue schools and teachers should aim. The reasons emerge from a consideration of the problems that arise when one decides either to teach no values at all or to indoctrinate.


All education implies the transmission of values. How a teacher acts toward children; how he resolves disputes among them; whether or not he requires children to be responsible for themselves and to act responsibly toward others—in short, every lesson he teaches, every decision he makes, every expectation he holds, has the potential of influencing his students' ideas about the world. In not giving children responsibility, in not expecting them to clean up after themselves, in not demanding that they cooperate with their fellows or requiring them to respect the rights of others, a teacher does not suspend the teaching of values but simply substitutes one set of values—a supremely selfish one—for another. Similarly, a teacher who will not teach a subject until his students ask to be taught, proceeding on the assumption that what children want is what is best for them and that he must not manipulate their growth, is in reality indulging in an elitist manipulation of another kind; by refusing to guide, inspire, prod, or challenge his students, by with holding choices and declining to impart skills and attitudes, he may be actively blocking the child's freedom and growth.

But suppose a teacher exposes his students to history and literature and the various academic disciplines while withholding judgment about good and evil, desirable and undesirable? This is what Professor Bereiter proposes in his article, “Schools without Education.” Here too the teacher would merely be substituting one set of values, the values of moral relativism, for another. Perhaps, more to the point, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what a school without education would look like. In such a school, dedicated solely to skills and custodial care, teachers would energetically refrain from any effort to influence the behavior, values, and convictions of their students. This may do for a good vocational training program, but how can one teach literature or history without a sense of the good? Can either physical or social sciences be taught without regard to their human and social consequences? Dewey wrote that the teaching of geography, for example, was pointless unless connected with social life, with questions of how and why people's lives were influenced by geographical facts. To learn facts without understanding their implications is nonsensical; yet implications, interpretations, and judgments mean values.

The teachers in a school without education would have to work very hard to avoid exposing their students to the great works of art, like Picasso's Guernica or Shakespeare's tragedies, which make moral judgments on history and comment on how a man should live and die. The works that would have to be excluded from the curriculum of the Bereiter school would fill an entire library. In addition, since children from such a school would have no guidelines by which to assess their own behavior or anyone else's, literature and history, stripped of judgments, could be taught only as an accumulation of sterile facts and dates.

The school environment is itself a prime focus for the continual exercise of moral choice. The everyday occurrences of a school life, as of life in general, require evaluation and decision. A teacher is often faced with the dilemma of choosing among the conflicting rights of individuals or between the rights of an individual and those of the community. How is a teacher to deal with cheating? What is he to say to the student who asks for advice about a moral problem not connected with school—for example, the knowledge that a classmate has committed a crime: should he report him or help to conceal the facts? Most children are taught informally to be good team players, and not to be squealers; does Watergate cast this in a different light? Is it wrong for such questions to be discussed in a classroom?


What children need to learn is not the right answer, but how to think about a problem; banishing the subject is too easy a solution. This is not to say, however, that the school must lend itself to indoctrination. A teacher indoctrinates if he teaches without giving evidence for his conclusions and evidence (or tools) for criticizing them; if he purveys his own point of view, or a particular ideology, as though it were established fact, intentionally disregarding differing views, or ideologies; if he presents only one side of a controversial issue; if he teaches what he knows to be false. The indoctrinated person tends to have pat answers for difficult questions; though he may defend his views with logic and proofs, he is likely to treat evidence in a slipshod fashion, reinterpreting facts to fit his ingrained faith.

If a teacher sets out to instill the belief that whites are evil, that whites are good, that blacks are inferior, that blacks are superior, that America is a sick society, that capitalism is the best economic system, then he is indoctrinating. Where the educator concentrates on teaching methods of inquiry, ways of assessing evidence and arriving at reasonable conclusions, the indoctrinator concentrates on implanting convictions. The educator succeeds when his students have learned enough to choose their own point of view, even if it challenges the teacher's; the indoctrinator succeeds when his students have absorbed his ideology.

In a new book, Free the Children,2 Allen Graubard chides those “free” schools that shy away from politicizing their students. He feels that many of these schools, though obviously part of the counter-culture, are unnecessarily fearful of the charge of indoctrination, and that they should forthrightly immerse their students in a radical perspective of politics and culture. Graubard advocates indoctrination because he believes that the radical analysis of American society is correct, just as others believe that their ideology, and only theirs, is correct. In this Graubard resembles indoctrinators of the opposite political persuasion. When I was going to high school in Houston, Texas in the 1950's, for example, we were taught that Senator Joseph McCarthy was the greatest living American and that those trying to do him in were Communists. Our class was compelled to sit through anti-Communist and anti-Socialist lectures and movies; books about Russia, its geography, its history, and its infamous economic system were carefully removed from the shelves of our high-school library. Teachers who did not agree with the orthodoxy of the times were watched closely by parents and “members of the community,” who occasionally sat in on classes to check out suspected subversives.

The indoctrination program of the Houston public schools was not especially effective; in fact it was probably counter-productive, it being the general tendency of my silent generation to discount whatever we were told by our teachers. Perhaps it is the inevitable reaction of adolescents against their environment that explains why many students of the 60's who were schooled in a libertarian atmosphere subsequently chose highly authoritarian figures for their heroes. In any event, the mark of dogmatism is as clearly identifiable on the Left as on the Right. Writing in the Harvard Educational Review, Graubard quotes a statement by “the students” of a West Coast free school, giving their view of the public schools: “. . . after graduation from school the students go out into the world trained to fit into society. Our economic system must create men and women to fit its capitalistic needs. The system has to have men and women who have the same values, who feel free and independent but who will nevertheless do what is expected of them, people who can easily be controlled.” This may have been easier to understand as the statement of an individual, rather than the collective voice of “the students.” As it is, one wonders if there are divergent views at that school, whether the students have learned to criticize their own thinking and that of their teachers or are simply feeding back the ideology they are taught with no more independence of mind than those who learned morality by rote in the 19th century.

Where will these students go in order to avoid fitting the needs of a society they deplore? If they become reformers, they will help to ameliorate the ills of society and thus end up strengthening the system; if they engage in useful work, they will be perpetuating the status quo. Graubard is himself stumped on the question of how one lives in a society as “sick” as ours without contributing to the sickness; he proposes nothing more dramatic than that free-school people try to get elected to local school boards and press for government funds for their non-public schools in the form of a voucher plan.


Indoctrination, whether it takes place in an authoritarian or a libertarian context, is an inappropriate and coercive solution to the problem of moral education in a democratic society. But is there a middle ground between indoctrination and the abdication of all values? Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard University has articulated a developmental approach to moral education which blends together Dewey and Jean Piaget and attempts to establish a theoretical rationalization of just such a middle ground. On the evidence of crosscultural studies, Kohlberg believes that there are unmistakable stages of moral development which are common to all societies and all cultures. Morality does not consist of a predetermined list of values, force-fed into young children, nor is it the spontaneous unfolding of the individual's impulses and emotions. Morality, Kohlberg has written, is justice, “the reciprocity between the individual and others in his social environment.” A commitment to justice implies a commitment to individual rights, to freedom, and to a society which embodies these principles. The language of justice is comprehensible across time and across national and cultural boundaries, whether it is spoken by a Socrates, a Gandhi, a Thoreau, a Solzhenitsyn, or a Martin Luther King.

Kohlberg's views echo those of John Dewey, who wrote that “apart from participating in social life, the school has no moral end nor aim.” Those who would leach schoolchildren without exposing them to the principles of justice, without making them aware of their social responsibilities and without awakening them to genuine moral dilemmas, cannot be called educators. In contrast to the romantic (or value-free) educator, whose concern for the child's freedom makes him reluctant to direct the learning process, and the cultural transmitter (or indoctrinator), who sees education as an input-output process, Kohlberg's educator wants his students to think rationally and critically. Thus, he exposes his students to problematic situations, examples of social conflict among groups and individuals, which they must think about and participate in resolving. The goal of the teacher is not to find the “right” answer, but to encourage students to progress in their capacity to make moral judgments and to assess the consequences of their actions.

In order to teach justice, a school must itself be just; it must be committed to equality of educational opportunity, to respect for rationality, and to freedom of belief. These values necessarily preclude the use of indoctrination. Writes Kohlberg: “Not only are the rights of the child to be respected by the teacher, but the child's development is to be stimulated so that he may come to respect and defend his own rights and the rights of others.” If indoctrination has no place in Kohlberg's scheme, it is likewise clear that the school's responsibility to its students does not begin and end with skill-training, by standing back and seeing whether children develop their own sense of values. The school's responsibility is to enable the student to grow by training him both to follow and to lead; to impart his cultural heritage; to prepare him to be a full participant in the political process; and to cultivate the physical, intellectual, and emotional discipline which will enable him to do well in later life.

This, the classic liberal idea of moral education, may seem inappropriate, to say the least, at a time when almost all critics are agreed that we should lower, not raise, our expectations of what schools can do. These critics have a point, for many Americans have indeed come to believe that the schools and the schools alone will bring about a just and equal society, quite irrespective of the actions of other private and public agencies. Putting so much faith in the corrective power of schooling is a way of avoiding other kinds of social and economic reform.

Yet what is needed now is not lowered but changed expectations. True, schooling does not guarantee success, but lack of schooling does appear to guarantee lack of success. Undeniably there is much that is wrong with the schools, including their tendency to substitute indoctrination for moral education. But the schools are where the children are, and the importance of improving them cannot be slighted. To rescue the schools and the idea of education both from unreal expectations and from nihilistic assaults is an urgent task, for what we do or fail to do in this area will have a profound effect on the future of society as a whole.


Whatever we may think about the current state of moral education, moral education goes on. Whether it is to be planned around a core of values stressing what Kohlberg has called the universal ethical principles, or imposed by those with a single message to proclaim, or haphazardly conducted by whatever images and models may impinge on a child's consciousness, is a choice which we make, consciously or unconsciously. In this connection Dewey's reflections in his Moral Principles in Education (1909) remain appropriate today:

We need to see that moral principles are not arbitrary, that they are not “transcendental”; that the term “moral” does not designate a special region or portion of life. We need to translate the moral into the conditions and forces of our community life, and into the impulses and habits of the individual.

1 “Schools without Education,” August 1972.

2 Pantheon, 306 pp. $7.95.

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