One day, our professor began class by asking us whether or not we should teach morality in public schools.

It took about 12 seconds for my credential class to decide that yes, we should. We wouldn’t want our little rapscallions running in the streets, taking baseball bats to our windshields and setting fire to hobos just because they didn’t get taught morality at home. In true Socratic fashion, he almost immediately posed another question.

Whose morality?

We thought it was another gimmie.

Why, Judeo-Christian, we said. That’s pretty common and acceptable, and we don’t need to add in all the theology when we teach it.

In true Socratic fashion, that was another setup.

Who here doesn’t think they subscribe to this Judeo-Christian morality, or something close to it?

Just about everyone grunted in the affirmative.

Who doesn’t?


Hah. I bet you guys are a bunch of hypocrites.

We insisted we weren’t.

Alright, then. Let’s prove it. Could I have everyone who is married or was married come and stand up in the front of class for a moment?

We did so.

O.K. This question isn’t for the people standing up. This is for the people sitting down. How many of you are virgins?

One of us raised a hand.

The rest of you are hypocrites. According to Judeo-Christian morality, if you weren’t married, you should be a virgin. Therefore, according to Judeo-Christian morality, there is only one moral person among everyone sitting down in this class.

Now my question to you is: How can you teach morality if you don’t practice it?

Good question. Awkward way of showing his point, but a good question nonetheless.

  1. Kathryn

    Those who can’t do Teach?
    What utter nonsense. When did nihilism become preferable to the “hypocrisy” of personal shortcomings? When did hypocrisy become a greater sin than violence and exploitation? When did we perfect humanity so that morality became unnecessary?

    Furthermore, the Professor is woefully ignorant of Judeo-Christian traditions. Sin is presumed.

  2. Those who can’t do teach?

    I’m not sure that’s what he was saying.

    Sin is presumed.

    Not in all traditions.

    Professor Rosy had agreed that we should teach morality in school. His most serious question was his last one.

  3. Kathryn

    Well, I seem to have missed the point entirely. My apologies to Rosy.

    Now about that last bit….which Judeo-Christian traditions don’t presume that people sin? This is news to me.

  4. I misspoke. Humanity sins, but not all traditions believe that sin is presumed. I meant to convey that Judeo-Christian traditions disagree heavily on the matter of free will versus predestination, and original sin versus not.

  5. TeacherMom

    I am Unitarian Universalist. We do believe in free will and do not believe that people are inherently sinners. UU is Judeo-Christian. Some famous UU’s were Emerson, Thoreau, Jefferson, etc.

    Kathryn, that is one specific example.

  6. Kathryn

    Thanks. I wasn’t really referring to free will vs not, but that Judeo-Christian traditions recognize sin/imperfection as part of the human condition, something to be dealt with, rather than as an irredeemable failing. Does that fit with a UU perspective?

  7. Scottyb

    This is a fine example of how teacher prep programs waste time. Now you can go into class and tell students its OK to have premarital sex because of this insightful lesson 😉 The bottom line is you can teach most any set of morals in school. A majority of religions frown on murder, thievery, and hurting others in any way. Most of us learned this while still in high school and didn’t need a pompous professor to tell us.

  8. The short responses to this post thus far here are pretty telling: my morality is obviously best, this professor (who I do not know but will proceed to judge anyway, which is against my religion BTW) is shortsighted AND preaches premarital sex, and my morality is best.

    In all reality, my own hesitancy in teaching stem from my thoughts surrounding this last question. How can I teach [insert topic here] if I don’t practice it. Be it an issue of morality or proper grammar, teachers are held as examples, and when they fall they seem to fall hard. It seems most teachers (purely an observation here) want to think they are as invincible as their young students, and that if they fall, they will be immune from judgement. I realize, however, that once a teacher I will be held to scrutiny and made a public example of daily. If I fall…can I get back up?

  9. Ms. Marian: It seems there was a miscommunication, or an overcomplication, of “presumed.”

    Ms. Kathryn: I think we’re being distracted by the side argument, rather than concentrating on the stinger: How do we teach what we don’t practice?

    Mr. Beiter: Which set of morals should we teach, then? How do we pick and choose, and if we do pick and choose, do we just jettison the stuff we never tried to follow, anyway?

    Most of us learned this while still in high school.

    I’d bet that the educators in the lives of every major sociopath had made the same assumption.

    Ms. Jae: … and that’s the direction I had intended this discussion to develop. How much of an example to teachers have to be?

    I think teachers should be like saints. Not in the sense that they’re a perfect example from day one, but in the sense of, say, St. Augustine. He made mistakes. He made a lot of mistakes. Then he got better. Some learn his life story to provide an example: If he can atone, then we can do atone, but we’re better off learning from his mistakes.

    Teachers should have the same role: Don’t pretend that you were always perfect. Admit to your mistakes. Admonish your students to not make the same mistakes, for their sake.

    Be an example.

  10. Kathryn

    Sorry mr B, it’s an interesting tangent; I didn’t think we were arguing about it.

    In addition to leading by example, it is certainly possible to convey (deliberately) common cultural morals and values without any discussion of religion. We do (or used to do) it with stories, myths, and aphorisms that every child learns by repeated exposure, e.g. George Washington and the cherry tree, “two wrongs don’t make a right”, “What a tangled web we weave….,” Aesop’s Fables, stories of the pioneers (rugged individualism coupled with cooperative activities like wagon trains, barn-raisings and collections for schools,) the Three Little Pigs, even nursery rhymes (thieves face punishment, cruelty is wrong, laziness is a vice.)

  11. No worries — things don’t always go as you plan ’em, eh?

    Certainly: Religion is out of the picture. However, each set o’ morality comes complete. How should we treat this morality? Should we accept all of it, completely? Should we pick and choose the parts that fit in?

    When we use stories, how do we choose which to emphasize, and, most importantly, how much does how we behave affect the effectiveness of our teaching of morality? I’m betting a lot.

  12. Kathryn

    Absolutely our behavior counts for a lot. Children make judgments all the time.

    As for choosing stories and choosing values to convey, part of the answer is along the lines of “I know it when I see it.” It already exists in the cultural canon, and it has withstood the test of time. The Little Red Hen is in; Captain Underpants and Mary Kate and Ashley are out. Again, this isn’t an argument about the relative merits of the last two, but about the established gravity of the former. You can still fill in with contemporary works, especially those that have been vetted by respected authorities (Newberry, Caldecot, a good librarian you know.)

    With young children, the moral position should be clear and you shouldn’t need to explain the text much–over analyzing can kill a good story for a child. With older students, you can introduce nuance and dilemma (Frankenstein, Henry V, or the multiple facets of Thomas Jefferson), and you can discuss.

  13. My professor’s larger point that he hinted at: You will teach morality by example, whatever morals you practice.

    This is nothing new to say, but we can lecture about morality all we want — it means nothing unless we practice it as well.

    There’s the old story about the dad who took his son out for a whole week’s worth of honesty seminars, to learn about the stories you mention. After a tiring, productive week, the kid seemed to have actually learned it all, so they celebrated by going out to the movies.

    Because the child had just celebrated his 13th birthday, he wasn’t eligible for the discount. The dad turns to his son and says:

    If anyone asks, you’re still 12, okay?

    The kid learned more about honesty in a few seconds at the theater than in a whole week of seminars.

  14. Kathryn

    Yes, you’ve said that three times–four if I count the time I didn’t get the point. Maybe it’s one of those self-evident truths, so no one has much to add?

    As a parent, it still makes sense to convey your expectations by multiple means, including telling the child how to behave. As a teacher, it might make even more sense.

    The students don’t–and shouldn’t (generally)–know how you conduct your personal life. They won’t know that you returned the incorrect change to the cashier, that you haven’t lied to avoid jury duty, that you are faithful to your spouse. All you get is the classroom and maybe some extracurriculars.

    Add to that, kids view everything in relation to themselves and grow to consider others. It is human nature. If we want them to understand that they have obligations in their personal conduct, we have to tell them.

  15. Maybe it’s one of those self-evident truths, so no one has much to add?

    Probably. I just liked the way my professor had framed it. Deliciously provocative.

  16. (I’m catching up on blogs, here.)

    Although your students won’t know if you’re faithful to your spouse and faithfully serve jury duty, in some sense the totality of your moral opinions and behaviors is on display in the classroom. It’s not just what you tell the students, or what you consciously choose to show them (being an example) but everything else you do and say in the classroom that will “teach them morality”.

    As teachers, many of our actions have moral implications that we might not consider, and the students might not consciously evaluate them, but they do learn from them. To use a well-known example: you (generic you) call on boys more than girls, not because you are consciously sexist, but out of unconscious habit. Your students don’t sit and count it out, but they start to learn a lesson about whose voice is valued and whose isn’t.

    Also, every little thing you do and comment you make will be evaluated by your students to as compared to what you claim to believe and their ideas of “fairness”. Students are hunters of hypocrisy. You can probably think of examples from your own school days where you were offended by what you perceived as the hypocrisy of adults.

  17. When I look back on my indignation, I cringe. I did the same thing in high school as most of my trouble students did last semester — made me think that I wasn’t nearly as model of a student as I had thought.

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