Why don’t schools teach morality and empathy?

A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary.

It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.”

They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food.

We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.

I was satisfied that students were clearly thinking about tough issues, but unsettled by their lack of experience considering their own values.

“Do you think you should discuss morality and ethics more often in school?” I asked the class.

The vast majority of heads nodded in agreement. Engaging in this type of discourse, it seemed, was a mostly foreign concept for the kids.

Widespread adoption of the Common Core standards—despite resistance by some states—arguably continues the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The 2002 law charged all public schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, meaning that all students were expected to be on grade level.

This unrealistic target forced schools to track and measure the academic achievement of all students, a goal lauded by most, but one that ultimately elevated standardized testing and severely narrowed curricula.

Quantifying academic gains remains at the forefront of school-improvement efforts to the detriment of other worthwhile purposes of schooling. Continue reading

  • Paul Barnwell is a teacher, writer, and urban gardener based in Louisville, KY.

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