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Moral education: consensus in a pluralistic society

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THE issue of moral education in the schools is heating up again. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett renewed his call for more emphasis on moral training in a speech at Yeshiva University. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has urged more attention to moral values in public schools. Irving Kristol stresses the importance of school standards that indirectly bolster moral behavior. And the American people overwhelmingly support a movement in this direction. But fears persist. Isn't moral education the job of home and church? Wouldn't it become a means for smuggling religious teachings back into the classroom? Can there be any consensus on moral values in our uniquely heterogeneous society? Are there pedagogical methods that can effectively promote the ends being sought? Or is good example the best that teachers can do in this area? Isn't indoctrination ipso facto undesirable?

All of these are important questions, and all can be answered.

While moral education is primarily the responsibility of home and church, the schools have always taught moral principles; a school that didn't would be unthinkable. Besides, there are millions of homes that give children neither a good moral example nor anything approaching adequate moral instruction. Even homes that do a good job would welcome reinforcement by the schools.

Despite our pluralistic society, there is far more consensus on moral values than critics realize.

What parents would not be glad to have their schoolchildren taught the importance of self-discipline (doing what we believe we should do, even when we'd rather not do it); the importance of being trustworthy; of telling the truth even when it hurts us to do so; or of being honest in all aspects of our lives?

And wouldn't parents be glad to know their children are being encouraged to resist peer pressure; to use honorable means to achieve their ends; to develop the maturity to be able to say, ``I'm sorry, I was wrong''; to practice good sportsmanship; to cultivate civility in relations with others; to respect those of different classes, races, nationalities, or religions; to do work well, whatever that work may be; and to respect the property of others?

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