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Philosophy & Children

The Challenge of Moral Education

Wendy Turgeon on ways of getting children to think about values.

If you ask any group of adults, from 18 through 80, whether kids today are worse than kids in their time, they will usually insist that they are. Teachers can offer terrifying examples of elementary school children cursing at them, middle school youngsters engaged in promiscuous sexual behavior, high school students selling drugs, and a pervasive acceptance of bullying, cheating, lying, and general bad behavior. What has happened to the world, that young people today appear so bereft of values? Are parents too busy? Is the media, from video gaming to television to movies, creating a selfish me-centered citizenry? Has moral relativism [as advocated in Issue 81] destroyed any notion of good? Or is this simply a case of misremembering what angels we all were when we were their ages? But regardless of such comparisons, we can consider ways in which education could offer our young people opportunities to learn better values, and live them.

In the nineteenth century one of the prime functions of public education was to prepare a moral citizen. Basic Christian values were integrated into the curriculum, and taught as truths alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. With the pluralization of cultures in Western society, the decrease in a shared Christian tradition and the spreading of the postmodern notion that values are perspectival, this function of education was gradually phased out. Talk of values was avoided. However, it quickly became evident that no social group, such as a school, can profitably disregard all values simply by substituting rules and behavioral guidelines. So the challenge became finding what multicultural program educators could offer children.

Over the past fifty years a number of approaches to moral education have been tried, with varying success. Values Education was introduced as a way to help young people think about their values in a completely non-judgmental way. Scenarios involving value choices were discussed, but to avoid any hint of indoctrination or imposition of any one set of values onto children, the ultimate conclusion was always that ‘there are no right or wrong answers’. This institutionalized a relativistic stance, leading some students to consider racial prejudice or cheating on exams as the same kind of choice as one’s choice of career.

In the 1970s-80s, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of the stages of moral development which was adopted as a blueprint for a new kind of moral education. Kohlberg’s theory suggested that a characteristic of those individuals who have reached the higher levels of moral development is their ability to deal well with dilemmas. Inspired by this, educators present dilemmas in which the leading character has to make a choice between two good (or two bad) values, and they encourage the young people to discuss reasons why the character should do X or Y. This would promote the moral thinking of participants, thereby encouraging their moral development and ultimately translating into moral behavior. However, this approach framed everything as a dilemma, a choice between two rights or two wrongs. It also tended to over-intellectualize the nature of moral decision-making.

Finally, the most recent (but perhaps also the most classical) innovation in moral education is Character Education. Building on Aristotelian notions of virtue and the educational approach of the ancient Greeks, Thomas Lickona and others have crafted a popular model in which such virtues as honesty, courage, integrity, and generosity are taught to students from kindergarten through high school by modeling, didactic stories, and programs rewarding good behavior, such as ‘school citizen of the month’.

Character Education aims to give students enough knowledge of what virtues and vices entail to act virtuously and discourage vice in daily life. It offers a vast improvement over the absence of value talk in the classroom, but it is still problematic. Even Aristotle admitted that acting virtuously is not a matter of simply knowing the virtues. The trick comes in the application – doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. This is not easily achieved, and defies simple instruction. As Plato also pointed out in his dialogue The Meno, moral education is not the same kind of education as education in mathematics or history, where the ultimate goal is acquiring knowledge. We need to practice and apply virtues, and in doing so, we run up against the messiness of life. Is it always so clear what constitutes respect, courage, honesty, or how we demonstrate a virtue in action?

Moral Philosophy For Children

The approaches known as ‘philosophy for children’ (P4C) and ‘philosophy with children’ (PwC) offer a powerful alternative model. Philosophy for/with children is not instruction in the ideas of the great philosophers; nor is it debates on the major ethical issues of our times. While it does not teach a particular set of values, it is not Values Clarification, which examines the beliefs of people but refuses to judge them. The methods and materials of philosophy ‘for’ and ‘with’ children differ dramatically, but its teachers and philosophers share a vision that philosophy is for everyone, including children. They believe that it can help anyone acquire critical reasoning skills, and build communities of inquiry in which we can practice the intellectual and moral virtues as we learn to negotiate across differences. Proponents argue that ethical education should equip the young, from kindergarten onwards, with the tools of ethical inquiry, by giving them opportunities to reflect together on ethical issues pertaining to their experiences.

By discussing stories or other materials geared towards the age level of the young people, PwC practitioners seek to realize the many advantages of philosophical inquiry: They stress the importance of exploring theoretical and practical alternatives to given ways of thinking and acting.The complexity of human experience is recognized and honored. The practice of philosophy encourages not simply thinking, but also good behavior. One must respect others, listening to their ideas and responding in ways which demonstrate acceptance of them as individuals, even while critiquing their ideas. The very structure of a discussion circle is ethical in nature, and the children within it practice recognizing and respecting the feelings of others.

Moral thinking occurs within context. Through the use of stories, pictures and games, moral issues emerge in contexts where the personality and background of the characters and their situations matter. In the traditional P4C model, a text is read and the children choose what topics they’re interested in discussing [see also here]. Generally, the teacher/facilitator helps the children (‘the community’) shape their discussion so that they use principles of logic and informal reasoning as they explore such questions as what constitute virtue and vice, what moral principles should guide our behavior, what values matter and why, and how we deal with emotions in our interactions with others. Concepts such as care, concern, personhood, duty, the good, the right, the just – all of these merit careful examination as they arise in the children’s and adolescents’ lives, within the schoolroom and in the larger society.

A distinctive feature of the P4C/PwC approach is the ownership of the conversation by the young people themselves. By setting their own agenda, they actively engage in thinking and talking about the issues and ideas that matter to them, and not what matters to the teacher or the adults in their lives. This avoids one of the major criticisms of other approaches to moral education – that teachers are imposing their own set of values on students. At the same time, good thinking is nurtured. The facilitator’s role is that of a Socratic gadfly, challenging the participants to put forward their own ideas, but also enabling the testing of these ideas by communal scrutiny. Some ideas are better grounded than others, and the community’s goal is to discover what those ideas and grounds are, even as it remains open to revisiting and revising an idea that has been put aside. This means that ethical thinking is open-ended but not relativistic.

For individuals who see morality as black and white, this can be unsettling. Some adults worry that if we present these sorts of complicated notions to children, especially young children, we will confuse them, or leave them apathetic to morality. But this has not proven to be the case. Children rarely abandon the values of their families, unless those values turn out to be unsatisfactory in serious ways. In ‘On Becoming a Moral Agent: from Aristotle to Harry Stottlemeier’ (in Thinking Children and Education, ed. by Matthew Lipman), Michael Pritchard argued that even very young children can distinguish between prudential (practical), conventional, and moral rules, and that a sustained program which helps them bring these intuitive distinctions into an arena of discussion and reflection can strengthen the good values received from their family and school. The PwC movement is founded on the assumption that there are better and worse ways of thinking and acting, even if there may not be one single best way. This assumption is necessary for the enterprise of seeking better ways of thinking and living to be meaningful and genuine. For a detailed study of the nature of philosophical inquiry and the role of the facilitator, see Catherine McCall’s Transforming Thinking: Philosophical Inquiry in the Primary and Secondary Classroom (Routledge, 2009). She gives an excellent account of how to conduct genuinely philosophical inquiry with children, and includes sample discussions with children and young adults.

Relevance and Experience

Advocates of PwC support the moral inquiry approach equally for young children and for adolescents. What does differ with age group are the materials used and the questions asked. We don’t introduce questions of capital punishment or welfare reform to eight-year-olds. Elementary school pupils’ moral thinking revolves around issues that are real to them: How should we treat the new kid who dresses weird? Why is cheating on a quiz wrong? Can we keep the lunch money we found in the hall? Do I have to show respect to a teacher who belittles me? Matthew Lipman’s P4C program offers two novels written specially to encourage thinking about moral issues: Nous for 8-10 year-olds, and Lisa for older children. Nous invites children to consider how they should live, as fictional children help a talking giraffe make a decision about her future – should she stay in the human world or return to her giraffe community? In Lisa we find young people on the cusp of adolescence grappling with decisions about boy and girl friendships, dealing with parents and their seemingly unreasonable demands, and negotiating with the adults in their schools.

Other PwC practitioners have developed short stories, scenarios drawn from common school and home experiences, or have used relevant news items as materials, to stimulate philosophical discussion. Movies and current events can prompt a discussion of what values or virtues are being demonstrated, and how one should behave in such situations, and why. For example, in the movie A Few Good Men, how do the characters demonstrate honor? Or, is a young actress in the news for her self-destructive behavior responsible, or did society push her into it with the pressures of fame at an early age? However, these rich sources of discussion do come with some caveats. Going it alone in terms of using your own sources requires some systematic training in philosophical inquiry – ethical inquiry in particular – so as to avoid simply chatting about ideas without really examining them. While a philosophically-untrained teacher might be able to spot the issue or value, having some familiarity with the tools of ethical inquiry, and of philosophical inquiry in general, is vital for a successful philosophy program. One of the dangers of the P4C model is to confuse the position that philosophy is accessible to all with the view that everyone can automatically think well philosophically. The potential may be there, but techniques and background knowledge are essential for the facilitator to help the participants engage in genuine philosophical dialogue.

To insist that children are too young or too impressionable to think independently about philosophical, and particularly moral matters, or that we will just confuse them, is to deny our younger people an important opportunity to acquire the tools of better thinking and better living with others. How we live our life is the ultimate choice we make. Nothing counts more in the grand scheme of things. Parents, even (or especially) the most loving, must encourage their children to become their own persons. Philosophical inquiry can support both them and their children in this endeavor.

© Wendy C. Turgeon 2011

Wendy Turgeon has been involved with philosophy for children for many years, developing courses at Stony Brook University and at St Joseph’s College in New York, where she is associate professor and Chair of Philosophy. Along with Susan Gardner, she organizes conferences for the North American Association for the Community of Inquiry.

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