An Ethical Education: A New Method and Content, by Hundley Poulson

An Ethical Education: A New Method and Content, by Hundley Poulson

Before looking at the different ways to teach ethics in the future, there are lingering and important questions that must be answered if the American public is ever going to fully acquiesce to such a curriculum. Most importantly, what is the goal of an ethical education? What are we trying to accomplish for our children and future society? The kind of ethical education for which I am advocating does not teach morals, nor does it label certain ways of living as virtuous or deplorable. It does not pass judgment. Rather, the goal of the ethical education that I will present is to cultivate informed autonomy, with the result that students have both the methods and the information to make their own decisions and judgments as they mature. To offer a plausible path forward for ethical teaching, I will examine Anthony Laden’s Learning to be Equal: Just Schools as Schools of Justice and Harry Brighouse’s Family Values and School Policy: Shaping Values and Conferring Advantage. These essays provide valuable ideals with which to build a policy of teaching ethics.

Laden’s method for ethical teaching is a systemic one; it makes no concrete changes to the curricula of schools. Rather, it pervades the institution itself. He proposes a system of respect-based and trust-based justification between all levels of teachers, students, and administrators. By enacting what he terms ‘relational justice’, a teacher treats a student as an equal when “[he] treats [him] as one whose words and concerns matter as much as [his] own”[1]. A teacher should not reject a student’s question of why she teaches the material the way she does, nor should an administrator rebuff the concerns of a teacher about classroom materials. The teacher’s knowledge of the subject and the administrator’s years of experience should not grant them the right to dismiss the concerns, thoughts, or questions of others. While expertise can and does add value to the discussion, it should not prevent discussion from occurring in the first place. Engaging with these questions, even those from the perceived lower levels of educational hierarchies, is intrinsically valuable. With a justification-based method of discourse in place, students would not only be able to practice this reasonable manner of discussing issues and asking questions in the classroom, but they would also see examples of adults and (hopefully) role models practicing a similar kind of respectable behavior. Additionally, students can begin the practice of holding each other accountable through justification-based inquiries. In a system where the surrounding adults ask questions and receive respectable answers regardless of their position or title, the simple question “why did you do that to me?” carries much more weight for students. At its best, this strategy would create an environment in which teachers and administrators are not “commanding”, nor are students “blindly deferring”[2].

Unfortunately, the optimal implementation of justification-based education requires a cultural shift towards a more permeable hierarchy, and inorganically forcing this shift may lead to untenable chaos in the classroom. Brighouse offers a classroom solution that would set aside a certain amount of time each week for students’ requests for justification. Additionally, administrators could allow teachers anonymity when voicing concerns. As teachers, students, and administrators become more comfortable and skilled in practicing reciprocal justification, these training wheels can be removed.

While Laden provides the method, a derivation from Brighouse’s ideals adds the necessary content for the best kind of ethical education. Essentially, Brighouse laments the excessive school choice, particularly for the affluent, in the U.S. Under this current system, parents can choose schools “in which their children will be educated in strict accordance with their [the parents’] values”[3]. Given that these children have access only to the values endorsed by their parents, and given that “ways of life that would indeed contribute to the flourishing of some people raised in them do not contribute to that of others”[4], there is a conflict between excessive school choice and the cultivation of autonomy within students. Good ethical teaching requires an exposure to varying points of view, and challenging values, morals, and customs is critical if we are to educate inquisitive and competent political citizens. Children must experience different cultures, viewpoints, and ways of life if they are to have the ability to create their own moral compasses and judgments as they mature. Unfortunately, it is difficult to envision a policy both centered on limiting school choice and capable of gaining any sort of traction in the current socio-political environment, one in which a perceived infringement upon the right to have choice is grounds for dismissal in most cases. Brighouse’s ideal is still a useful one, however, and it is one around which steps can be taken to implement effective ethical and moral teaching.

Ultimately, the best-case scenario would be a cultural shift towards selflessness or an improved awareness of the kind of education that best prepares children for adulthood. There is a critical need to protect the autonomous and independent decision-making capabilities of future generations, even if it means sacrificing some of the choice for parents within the current school system. Perhaps it is difficult for parents of this generation to see the benefits of exposing their children to new lifestyles in the scholastic setting since their own parents chose not to do it for them. Regardless, until this cultural movement occurs, there are still methods with which we can begin to move towards this goal of inclusive values. At a minimum, curricula need to include studies of and discussions about different cultures, socio-economic lifestyles, etc. To truly benefit from these studies, however, students must discuss them with people of those different lifestyles. A conversation about modern Middle Eastern politics will never reach its full potential in a classroom full of upper class white students. To this end, I would suggest a greater proliferation of exchange programs, whereby schools could add vitally important and distinct voices to conversations in the classroom (and at the lunch table, and on the sports field). The worry here is a legitimate one: would these ‘different’ students not feel out of place surrounded by an otherwise homogenous student body? Ideally, and hopefully eventually, schools will become more socially, economically, politically, and culturally integrated as administrators realize the value of differing perspectives. Until this comes about, however, I would hope that Laden’s system of reciprocal justification would create a truly respectful environment for each and every student and faculty member. The new method and the new content would support each other.

Up to this point, I have focused on ethical teaching’s ability to create informed and autonomous citizens. While moral independence remains the goal, I believe that these morals will tend to move in a direction greatly beneficial to future societies. Firstly, a greater and more widespread sense of empathy would stem from the early and consistent exposure to different points of view, particularly when discussion with these viewpoints is framed within Laden’s respect-based system of justification. When the educational system promotes the question “why?”, I believe empathy and ‘the golden rule’ will be taken more seriously. When both parties can ask “why did you do that to me?” and expect legitimate, respectful and reasonable responses (as demonstrated by the adults around them), the concerns of others are more likely to be considered and valued. Finally, when this empathy is coupled with a greater willingness to engage with other opinions, the result of debating and discussing with differing points of view in the school system, the future of citizenship and government looks promising.


Works Cited


  1. Learning to Be Equal: Just Schools as Schools of Justice, Anthony Simon Laden
  2. Family Values and School Policy: Shaping Values and Conferring Advantage, Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift

Collection From Which Essays Were Selected

  1. Allen, Danielle S., and Rob Reich.Education, Justice, and Democracy. Chicago and London: U of Chicago, 2013. Print.

[1] Laden, Education, Justice, and Democracy, pg. 67/68

[2] Laden, Education, Justice, and Democracy, pg. 68

[3] Brighouse and Swift, Education, Justice, and Democracy, pg. 208

[4] Brighouse and Swift, Education, Justice, and Democracy, pg. 209

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