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Has `values neutrality' left students adrift?

The desired path was difficult. It was filled with anguishing trials, deception, and stupidity - as well as gifts of grace and joy. It was the path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City in John Bunyan's ``The Pilgrim's Progress'' - for over a century, a standard textbook in Colonial-era American schools.

To the modern student, Bunyan's allegory - shot through with Puritan-Christian symbolism and moral lessons - is quaint and hard to follow.

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But placed in the balance with the moral and ethical content of American schooling today, its central message is weighty: Life is a journey requiring the individual to grapple with issues of good and evil, and to be ever watchful about the condition of his or her own virtue and character. Is virtue for real?

The sense of ``journey'' imparted by public schools today is far different, educators say. Students receive little exposure to a moral or ethical framework of thinking. Several things are responsible: The United States Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s to ban religious exercises in schools; the breakup of postwar American political and social consensus after the Vietnam war; and the rise of social science in academe and cultural pluralism in school curricula - all caused schools to steadily back away from teaching a coherent set of values and traditions.

Today, the ``journey'' in American schooling is mainly a matter of acquiring training and skills; the promised land is the job market.

Teaching words and concepts like ``good and evil,'' ``virtue and character'' - even ``democracy'' - is often looked upon with suspicion as a potential form of ``indoctrination.'' (And sometimes such suspicion is deserved.)

Not atypical is this remark from a leading child psychologist at Harvard University: ``Far from knowing whether or not it can be taught, I have no idea what `virtue' really is.''

Meanwhile, experts say, the values that are taught in public schools are filtered through two general modes of contemporary thought: cultural relativity and values neutrality. Basically, these modes support the notion that all concepts of right and wrong, political ideas, forms of behavior, and so forth must be dispassionately tolerated as being equally valid: The individual alone can decide their worth.

It's a situation that causes Harvard educator Robert Coles, author of the recent book ``The Moral Life of Children,'' to throw up his hands: ``Values in education today follow the whole cultural drift,'' he says. ``One must be cool, distant, circumspect. This intimidates teachers.'' (What is needed, he adds, is ``someone who will occasionally slam down a ruler in class and say, `That is wrong!''')

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The formal manifestation of a values-neutral approach came into being as the ``values clarification'' movement in public schools in the late 1970s. Students were asked to decide for themselves if cheating or lying was acceptable. Or they might have to ``clarify'' absurd hypothetical situations: ``If there are six people in a lifeboat with room for only four, on what basis do you choose who gets thrown over?'' Moral stuttering

While the ``lifeboat game,'' as it's called, and the expression ``values clarification'' are on the wane in the 1980s, many educators say the ethic of values clarification remains - has, in fact, become the establishment ethic in education schools and associations.

The vacuum caused by 20 years of uncertainty about the teaching of values in the public schools, and the move away from a traditional-values base in the home, is just now being felt.

``Students come to college today as moral stutterers,'' says Christina Hoff Sommers, professor of philosophy at Clark University. ``They haven't been taught much respect for what I call `plain moral facts' - the need for honesty, integrity, responsibility. It doesn't take a blue-ribbon commission to see this. Students don't reason morally. They don't know what that means.''

Dr. Sommers's concerns are evident at nearly every level of schooling. Teen-age pregnancy is at an all-time high (750,000 live births in 1985); drug use is widespread. A classic example of ``neutrality'' occurred last year, when a New York high school student turned in a lost purse containing $1,000, and no adult in the school would call it a virtuous act. (Her teacher said: ``If I come from a position of what is right and wrong, then I am not their counselor.'')

Textbooks offer another example: Recent studies show that references to religious impulses in American history - as well as the religious or moral dimensions of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi - have been removed from history books by publishers trying to be inoffensive. One book described the Pilgrims as ``people who take long trips.''

``Relativism'' in student reasoning has been noted by Harvard government professor Richard Hunt, who coined the phrase ``no-fault history'' to describe a trend among his students to treat the rise of Nazism in Germany not as something evil, but as ``inevitable.'' It's up to the baby-boomers

An erosion of knowledge about Western values has been described by Cornell history professor John Weiss, who says that in recent seminars, only 3 of 50 students understood a reference to the Sermon on the Mount, and only 8 of 75 knew about the book of Job. Only 1 of 10 graduating seniors answers ``yes'' to Dr. Weiss's query each year: ``Have any of your courses provided the occasion for systematic reflection on moral or political questions?''

Nobody expects a return to ``Pilgrim's Progress.'' And most parents support the Supreme Court decisions to keep churches and synagogues out of schools.

But there is a growing conviction among parents, educators, and politicians that serious moral and cultural values need to be more intelligently communicated in and by their schools. Some, such as University of Chicago educator Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, see the issue in fairly stark terms:

``If there is such a thing as `America,' with its peculiar dreams, its unique political and economic patterns, its values and habits of life style, it is because generation after generation of fathers and mothers have passed on to their sons and daughters some distinctive information. If this information were no longer transmitted successfully, America as we know it would no longer exist.''

Many observers say it is now up to the baby-boom generation - whose political and social maturity was based on questioning traditional values - to attentively develop a new, working consensus of values and standards for the next generation of Americans. Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, says it is a question of filling the current vacuum of moral leadership and authority, of reconciling compassion and justice, civil rights and duties.

Moral and civic questions are as important as economic concerns in school reform, they say.

The issue is already attracting political attention. Last fall, Secretary of Education William Bennett, on the political right, said schools are ``obligated'' to help students be ``morally literate.'' New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, on the political left, said students should learn such basic values as ``loving your neighbor.''

The call for substantial values has also reached quickly into the education world - from curriculum policy sessions in national offices to local faculty lounges. Last week, the National School Boards Association held a major conference on the subject.

Teachers in 10,000 Chicago classrooms now teach ``character education.'' In Atlanta, all graduating seniors must complete 75 hours of volunteer community service.

Eighth-grade teacher Joyce Ahearns and her colleagues at San Francisco Day School have found it difficult to teach values in a direct manner - in a separate class. ``You have to integrate it, weave it into the curriculum,'' she says.

Many educators, in fact, feel that values - particularly civic values - can't be effectively taught. They say students should instead learn, for example, to play a musical instrument in concert with others, to paint, dance, play sports, work. Genuine moral and civic virtue develops out of the caldron of experience, they say.

Still, it's now evident to more Americans that knowledge is not neutral, and that schools impart values in spite of themselves - from the example teachers set, to the way social studies classes deal with the Vietnam war, to sex education.

The standard argument for the futility of ``teaching virtue'' is based on the Hartshorne and May study of 1928, which found that 11,000 students aged 8 to 16 were not less likely to cheat or steal as a result of being Boy Scouts or going to Sunday school.

Less often quoted because it is so new is a major US Department of Education study completed 12 months ago by Alan Ginsburg, a career civil servant, showing that ``traditional values'' such as hard work, religious devotion, and familial care are more important than socioeconomic factors in determining academic excellence, and in preventing teen-age pregnancy. Co-author Sandra Hanson said students from all backgrounds who believed that individual responsibility was the most important factor in their lives - not luck, society, or fate - ``are less likely to drop out or get in trouble.''

The study also concluded that sex education focusing only on knowledge of the body and contraceptives - without a strong values component - had no effect in stopping pregnancy. ``The successful courses stressed responsibility and gave kids options - spent as much time on values as on sex,'' Ms. Hanson said. ``All the knowledge in the world won't stop early childbearing if teens have no sense of hope or future.'' A ``values based'' program between Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore city schools is one working model.

The constant pressure for peer acceptability, the nonvalues of commercial television, and immediate gratification sold on every block - all militate against sober values being imparted.

Yet, values teaching is emerging in two areas. The first is character. The second is community and democratic responsibility.

Proponents for character education want to restore the idea, deeply held by the nation's founders, that a society can't exist by laws alone - but must draw its strength from the virtue of its people. They want this idea more generally acknowledged by principals, teachers, and schools of education.

They also want to redress the imbalance they say has been caused by schools of education ruled for 20 years by a social-science ethic that explains human behavior as mainly a result of social circumstance. While this may be true in part, some educators say, it shouldn't mean children can't be introduced to distinct qualities such as integrity, honor, courage, and kindness. Confronting oneself

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, notes a ``widespread'' and ``confused'' belief among educators that simply identifying the origins of immoral behavior - abuse or neglect - somehow excuses it, precludes moral instruction.

Robert Coles says behavioral psychology explains away negative behavior while at the same time discounting or blocking off recourse to individual capacities and resources as a remedy. Virtue is not on the academic agenda, he says, though ``it's what ordinary people are looking for.''

The proliferation of ``applied ethics'' courses in high schools and colleges keeps students away from confronting themselves, says Professor Sommers at Clark. Studying the ethics of DNA research, nuclear testing, or government actions is fine, she says, but what about practical morality and personal decency? Too often, she finds, ``the student is placed in the undemanding role of the indignant moral spectator who need not face the comparatively minor corruptions in his own life.''

Several groups, such as the Institute for Character Education in San Antonio and the Quest National Center in Columbus, Ohio, have developed curricula that not only help students think freely about character questions but also give them objective standards. As Harriet Bernstein of the Rand Corporation points out, ``character'' today is equated with ``self-concept.'' Yet the two have different meanings. An unsavory person may have a great self-concept, she says. A habit of moral reflectiveness

Nobody argues with teaching consensus values of honesty, integrity, loyalty, and so on. But life is not a list of simple concepts, and both progressive and conservative parents are unsatisfied with such static ``civil morality.'' The left would have children learn about the courage to dissent and question. The right wants to hear more about good and evil, and redemption.

In the area of teaching the value of community and democracy, another consensus is developing. For a decade, schools stressed American pluralism and cultural diversity. More educators today, however, feel that students must understand the structures of democracy. They must be taught about ``the common good'' that ``holds together and underlies our respect for diversity of opinion,'' says David Tyack, professor of education at Stanford University.

Educators say that since virtue and democracy are active ideas, students best understand them through active learning that opens up a world beyond the self. Some of the most effective methods for this are indirect, focusing as much on process as content.

``Cooperative learning,'' for example, is a new method of structuring classes so that students work and interact consistently in groups (see story on Page B2). The Foxfire School in Rabun County, Ga., teaches respect for the rich local history and traditions by having students interview townspeople. Foxfire director Eliot Wigginton now teaches teachers how to take advantage of their own local heritage. Science projects and United Nations clubs that stress learning how to compromise and think quickly are two other examples.

Teachers have a strong implicit role. Minnesota high school teacher Paul Shires says he imparts a strong sense of values in ``subtle and unpremeditated ways - they come from who I am.''

Direct teaching of values may also be effective. Susan Resneck Parr teaches a course on moral dilemmas in literature at the University of Tulsa (see story on Page B2). At one Vermont high school, students learn about the dynamics of democracy by studying how other great democracies have failed.

John Weiss at Cornell teaches ``Resistance, Collaboration, and Retribution in World War II,'' an examination of moral questions surrounding underground movements, the role of Vichy France, and the Nuremburg trials. Says Mr. Weiss: ``Working together closely in a small class, the students begin to realize that the realm of action outside school poses life-and-death questions. They learn the seriousness of ideas. Ideally, school gives time to develop a habit of moral reflectiveness - for when they hit the world.''

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