A New Breed of Students
Length: 1814 words (5.2 double-spaced pages)
The American public school system does not prioritize the moral education of its students. As a result the majority of so-called "well educated society" is ethically challenged and morally desensitized. In Jonathan Kozol's book The Night Is Dark And I am Far From Home, Kozol develops a series of virtual indictments against the American public school system. According to Kozol students emerge both brainwashed and without a sense of purpose. In essence, many students do not understand the full potential of their intellectuality: "public education, for most children, is a twelve-year exercise of ethical emaciation" (Kozol 169). In the course of twelve years students have been sculpted to accommodate the needs of society; they have been conditioned to repress their own ethics and morality. In order to rectify this situation, schools should make the necessary adjustments to their philosophy. Instead of merely churning out "good citizens", public schools should take the time to educate "ethical human beings" for the benefit of humanity.
It seems as if the typical middle class citizen is practiced in the custom of ignoring the root cause of any educational issue today. The question of integrating moral and ethical components into the school structure is virtually taboo. The national standard is to escape all topics surrounding morality (i.e. religion, racial issues, and homosexuality etc…). As American citizens attempt to be politically correct all the time. It would be too risqué to start incorporating personal concepts into public institutions. Many would argue that as a country America has come incredibly far in terms of open mindedness in the past several decades. It is true that since Kozol's book was published, there have been tremendous advances in many aspects of social issues. However, resulting from this progress is the overall hesitancy to delve into any aspects of morality on an educational level. This hesitancy directly hinders the educated person from truly thinking as an individual.
Throughout this essay I will refer to the terms morality and ethics on several occasions. For clarity's sake I will explain what I think they represent. Morality is a learned characteristic. Society tends to equate moralism with the church. However, morality and ethics have less to do with religion than they do with a general philosophy on living. People can be without a religion and still be looked upon as moral beings. Morality simply has to do with being able to identify the difference between right judgements and wrong judgements.
Being ethical connotes the conscious decisions humans make in order to determine the correct course of action. A person who possesses both moral and ethical characteristics is more qualified to both recognize whether something is right or wrong and then take the necessary action.
Kozol's interpretation of morality vs. "good citizenship" does not suggest that public schools should adopt a single principle from which they preach to students the fine points of humanistic living. Rather he recognizes the fact that it is necessary to educate students to their fullest capacity. Education has many facets and can not be fulfilled solely through textbook understanding.
By eliminating morality, an entire element of the educational process is lost and forgotten and students are, "defeated and unprovocative": mediocre contributors to society. In contrast, the inclusion of morality would allow students to gain a stronger sense of self rather than a constantly wavering confidence level. Moreover, the shape of the American family today is in no position to foster moral development. Whether or not intended to be so, students who continue without a moral/ethical component to their schooling gradually become indifferent to the plight of humanity.
From the very beginning of a student's education they are taught never to proclaim their own intelligence or even potential intelligence. When writing papers students are often forbidden to use first person. Personally, when a teacher forbids me to use first person pronouns, I feel disheveled. My perspective is undermined and somehow I don't feel as justified stating any original thoughts. Kozol points out in chapter eight of The Night is Dark and I Am Far from Home, that [students],
"fear their progeny will not be licensed, or legitimized, unless they can assign it to a neutral party, anonymous imagination, alien parenthood, another intellect more admirable, but less accessible, than mine…" (Kozol 109).
Teachers who have adopted this form of instruction are essentially contributing to the deterioration of confidence levels. Gradually students begin to disassociate themselves from their beliefs. The fundamental problem with this is that upon the completion of public schooling, many "individuals" are less likely to take a risk and voice their opinion freely. What does this amount to? In reality, nothing more than a generation of people who can not, and will not think on their own.
A nation that is not afraid of taking risks is a nation in which its inhabitants take an active role in their existence. Conversely, how can the United States possibly exist as a nation that champions free speech and democracy when in fact its children a re taught to take a passive role in their educational experience. Kozol examines this idea in chapter eight again stating,
"It is tragic enough that millions of young people have no sense of active ethics; yet this is not the worst…They have no sense of leverage either. Power is beyond them" (Kozol 113).
In denying yourself a voice you are denying yourself the option of speaking up when something is disturbing. There is nothing more discouraging than knowing that you had the power to remedy a bad situation or prevent it from happening and not taking action. This is part of the problem; students do not feel as if they have the power to change things.
Perhaps the greatest voice of opposition to Kozol's demand for 'ethical education" is the cry from outraged citizens who insist that morality is a characteristic that must be taught at home. This seems the best alternative for those who wish to prevent a conflict of ideology between the schools and home. A similar argument was made in the decision to separate church and state. It was thought that if religion were altogether ignored in school, education and individual development could be entirely independent of one another. This has worked in some respects. However, to ignore the moral and ethical component to a child's education is almost like shutting off an entire way of thinking.
I agree that ideally the family should provide children with a warm, cozy picture book rendition of what is right and wrong. But let's be realistic; the current state of the modern American family is in no condition to foster moral development. Indeed, something has gone drastically wrong. The structure of family has changed. There are too many broken homes and an over abundance of apathy. To suggest that a child growing up without parental guidance can in fact enter the adult world wit a secure sense of how to live ethically is ridiculous. Children learn from the nature of their environment. Kozol seems to have positioned public schools as being the evil force behind the virtual desecration of any educational promise. However, public schooling is the least common denominator with the greatest impact on its participants. Every child who attends school is affected profoundly; whether the outcome is positive or negative. By way of efficiency it seems most beneficial that schools adopt some method of preparing students to deal with questions of morality. In a perfect world children would be nurtured ethically at home by family members. Yet when that can not happen, as in many cases, the schools have a basic responsibility to step in.
The opportunity for risk taking (intellectually speaking) is virtually non-existent in America's classrooms. Year after year a graduating class of high school seniors emerges from twelve years of public schooling. They have a great deal of knowledge under their belts, yet every one of them has in some way been desensitized to society's woes. Schools have, "[planted] in each of us a simple and straightforward bias against ethics" (Kozol 174). This type of education carries with it an air of resignation: the unwillingness to truly stand out among others. Why is it so important that students don't just fade into the scenery? In order to attain the best possible education , students have to become part of the process. Intelligence is not automatically acquired by simply letting someone else's knowledge wash over you.
In today's society it is difficult for the teachings of morals and ethics to co-exist with the well established subjects of history, math, science etc… people wince at the mention of prayer in school and are quick to proclaim that matters of personal significance have no place in a classroom. That is why the question of morality grates so hard on society's ideals. But regardless of how hard the system tries to water down strong opinions, students can not come away with a totally objective education. It is not possible;
"What the teacher 'teaches' is by no means chiefly in the words he speaks… The secret curriculum is the teachers own lived values and convictions… written in his eyes" (Kozol 138).
What Kozol is charging public schools with is the mass production of, "defeated, unprovocative, well-balanced human beings." These students he argues, will be the ones to perpetuate the flaws in the system.
Morality and ethics are essential to the developmental process. The opposition to Kozol's original point is apparent. While the conservatives rally for strengthening of home and family, others say that the morality factor detracts from the efficiency of the standard educational experience. However, given the absolute deterioration of society in almost every single institution today, it seems necessary to provide young people with a moral standard of sorts. By teaching ethics we empower the student to make changes in the course of his or her lifetime. Little by little, problems that plague our society such as violence, rape, teen suicide, depression etc… are eliminated. The bottom line is more or less a question of responsibility. Whose job is it to make sure that American children get some idea of how to be "ethical human beings"? It is the job of the American public school system.
There is no one denying the difficulty of this process. Obviously it will take a great deal of time and effort to make significant changes. But the benefits far outweigh the negative aspects. In doing this, society is essentially breaking out of its inclination towards neutrality. A good education should not be presented as a "pre-packaged commodity. As students are individual, they deserve an individualized education. Human beings are products of their environment. Likewise, schools should be able to adapt to the changes in society. That includes providing students with a moral and ethical foundation, upon which they can build their lives and become intelligent, risk taking individuals.