Academic Exchange Quarterly   Spring  2004    Volume 8, Issue 1



Moral Values for Public Education


Daniel C. Elliott, Ed.D.  Azusa Pacific University



The continuing degeneration of personal virtue among the world's societies seems to be emerging as the single-most urgent issue of our time. Until recent years, public schools had long since deferred from their original roles in morality and character education, though many outside of the school systems continued political pressure to move schools either toward or away from a values-oriented curriculum.  This author analyses this history and poses questions and ideas about the appropriate teaching of the difference between right and wrong in American schools.



The continuing degeneration of personal virtue among the world's societies seems to be emerging as the single-most urgent issue of our time. The 1970’s brought a revisitation of ‘values” but under a personalistic approach called “Values Clarification.”  Values were to be presented in a neutral way to students who were to clarify and select their choices.  There were no incorrect choices, except those for which the individual failed to formulate a supporting rationale.  The 1980’s and 90’s saw a rapidly intensifying pluralistic view of American society.   When the question of values came up, people asked, “Whose values should we teach?” Many in North American society believe in a core set of virtues found most commonly in a Christian worldview or a Judeo-Christian philosophy, even many who would not characterize themselves as particularly “religious.” Yet the personalistic approach to identification of “virtue“ failed to bring about a more moral society but has, instead, resulted in moral decline.  Public schools had long since deferred from their original roles in morality and character education and even many churches or religious organizations were not picking up the slack (Meade, 1990


A Major Study on the Morals and Ethics of Children


In March 1990, Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist and Harvard professor, one who called himself “a member of the liberal intellectual left”, was quoted as wistfully recalling “the good old days when religion was taught in the schools” (Meade, 1990).  Coles sensed a void--something missing from American homes and schools-- missing for years.  Coles directed a major research project.  The missing element was, they concluded, a strong, unarguable notion of right and wrong, good and bad.


Coles’ findings revealed a nation of children who have a complicated belief system that usually runs counter to traditional values.  “There was an unmistakable erosion of children’s faith in, and support for, traditional sources of authority.”  More than parents, teachers or authoritative officials, children turned to peers for guidance on matters of right and wrong.  Coles described conversations with many kids whose consciences he said were “not all that muscular.” (Meade, 1990)


The New Character Education


A new ground swell is observed forming in the 1990’s seeking to restore ethics, morality, and virtue to a central focus in public schooling. More than 30 educational leaders from state school boards, teachers' unions, universities, ethics centers, youth organizations, and religious groups met in 1992 at the  Josephson Institute of Ethics.  They formulated eight principles for character education— The Aspen Declaration on Character Education. (Lickona, 1993).  In March of 1993, a national coalition for character development formed with representatives from business, government, and education, as well as churches.  They began to formulate an agenda for reinstituting morality in public school curriculum and instruction. (Haynes 1994)


Four Reasons for Character Education


Young people increasingly hurt themselves and others because they lack awareness of moral values.  Effective character education improves student behavior, makes schools more civil communities, and leads to improved academic performance. Many students come to school with little moral teaching from their parents, communities or religious institutions. We know today that the inclusion of character development emphases within the curriculum of our schools will do the following.


1.     Add Meaning to Education

        Moral questions are among the great questions facing the individual person and the human race. There is no such thing as a value-free education.  Schools teach values every day by design or default.


2.     Sustain and Strengthen our Culture

Transmitting moral values to the next generation has always been one of the more important functions of a civilization. Democracies have a special need for moral education, because democracy is government of and by the people themselves.


3.     Model Civility

There is broad based and growing support for character education in the schools.  Common ground exists on core moral values although there may be significant disagreement on the applicationof some of these values to certain controversial issues (Nyland and MacDonald, 1997). The Boyer Institute has been actively promoting research that reveals North American core values (or “common virtu,” also referred to as “common decency.”  Honesty, responsibility, self-discipline, giving, compassion, perseverance, and loving are virtue terms most often cited.  However, in application, “honesty” can be applied differently according to other elements of the actor’s worldview or philosophy. Compassion and/or responsibility might look different among the sub-groups citing these terms.


4.     Build True Character

Thus, a person of true character, according to experts, is trustworthy, treats all people with respect, acts responsibly, maintains self-control, is fair and just, is caring, pursues excellence, and is an all around desirable citizen.



A State Education Code Basis for Teaching Fundamental Moral Values


Though often humorously critiqued as a state that is less than ‘virtuous’ in its social ethic, nevertheless, California, as a state, has raised the bar for public schools and virtue-based curriculum for several decades.  Ever since the 1970s the California legislature has aggressively addressed the question of values and virtue in the curriculum, though this often went unnoticed or unheralded by the media or even the schools themselves.  Currently, California Ed. Code 44806 tells us that it is the duty of teachers to “impress upon the minds of pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and a true comprehension of rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship...”  The code further directs us to teach students to . . .

avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in the manners and morals and the principles of a free government. Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, a true comprehension of the rights, duties and dignity of American citizenship, including: kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures.


In Moral and Civic Education and Teaching About Religion, the Board directs school personnel to teach students about: morality, including respect for differences and the significance of religion; truth; open discussion; justice; patriotism; self-esteem; integrity; empathy, including the “golden rule” (The Christian Bible, Matthew 7:12); exemplary conduct; moral interaction and ethical reflection; and the capacity to recognize values, including respect for the family, property, reliability, and for law. 



The California Board of Education says, “School personnel must foster in students an understanding of the moral values that form the foundation of American society.”  California teachers must teach students that citizens in a free society respect the worth and dignity of others, as well as their freedom of conscience.  Religion is to be presented and viewed as primary source for the presence of basic moral principals.  While no individual religious system may be prescribed, school faculty must help students recognize the sources of morality in history, law, and experience and must help students appreciate the significant contributions of religion, including the sacredness of human life and belief in freedom of worship.  Morality is defined as “responsibility for personal decisions and conduct and the obligation to demonstrate concern about the well-being of others, along with showing respect for living creatures and the physical environment.” 



California teachers are required to help students understand truth and the necessity for truth in a free and democratic society. Telling and expecting to be told the truth is an essential element among free and democratic peoples.  Imagine a word study on the concept of truth, drawn from the Bible and other texts, obtaining definitions of truth



Justice is defined as “fairness in dealing with others, and is considered a hallmark of American society.”  The California Board of Education said that “one owes to oneself and to others the obligation to engage in a constant effort to see that justice is attained.”



Jesus, quoted in Matthew 22:21, (The Christian Bible) instructs people to give to the government that which it was due (give to Caesar that which is Caesar's...) and to reflect similar obedience in relationship to God.  Loyalty to one’s government is taught throughout Judeo Christian thought and scriptures, being only excepted by loyalty to God.  In the case of our nation, we pledge to it as “one nation under God”.  Such a concept bears full discussion in our classrooms, though such discussions must be sensitive and appropriate for the age and maturation levels of the students involved.



The California Board of Education says that “Self-esteem and esteem for others are based on the intrinsic worth and dignity of individuals, not on academic ability or physical prowess.  Jesus said that  we must love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 19:19 ff), that normal human beings do esteem themselves, love themselves, provide for their own basic needs by nature.  It is with God’s permission that we do so.  This discussion is authorized in California classrooms. 



The California Board of Education tells us  “School personnel should encourage students to live and speak with integrity; that is, to be trustworthy.  To foster integrity  is to help build character, to assist students to be honest with themselves, to promote a wholeness unimpaired by self-deceit, and to encourage the development of reliability in relations with others.” In view of recent questions about the integrity among business and government leaders, may would suggest that there is  a curriculum related rationale for teachers to discuss these issues in class with  students.



In Moral and Civic Education and Teaching About Religion, we read, “The golden rule, a rule stating that we should do to others as we would have others do to us, is an ancient maxim shared by many peoples.  This simple rule must be paramount in one’s dealings with others.  For example, school personnel should demonstrate in their lives a capacity to empathize with students;...”  In Matthew 7:12, Jesus said “so in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  


Exemplary Conduct, Moral Interaction with Ethical Reflection, and Capacity to Recognize Values

“Exemplary Conduct,” “Moral Interaction with Ethical Reflection”, and “Capacity to Recognize Values” are three more areas of basic value that the California Board of Education requires us to teach our children and youth. As well, we have so much to teach in curricula that we must infuse content within content, integrating curricula around organizing themes that reflect major real-life problems or challenges. These common virtues can become the themes around which we organize the study of history, social relationships, apply mathematics, hypothesize and investigate scientific phenomena, or acquire and develop our mastery of rudimentary communication skills like reading, writing, and speaking.  Information about religions, too, is necessary and essential to a properly educated youngster.


Values and Valuing: The Identification of Common Virtues


Ernest Boyer, a Christian, an educator, a curricularist, and long-time director of the Carnegie Foundation, taught that there is common ground on which we can all stand and rejoice. “Amidst the diversity [of value commitments]...there is still a great consensus in this nation about appropriate behavior.  We can agree on the need to be honest, to respect the property of others, to refrain from physical attacks on one another, to obey laws, to finish a task once begun...” (Boyer, 1988). 


Values are noun words


According to Webster's New World Dictionary, values are what we "think highly of; esteem; prize; (emphasis mine).  We can clarify the term “values” by asking the following questions:

(a)        Upon what do I continually dwell and about what do I intensely worry?

(b)        For what do I take risks?

(c)        For what do I consistently expend (or more often deficit spend) time, money, and energy? 

            Introspective and reflective answers to these questions begin to clarify our core or primary values rather than ethics, morals, beliefs, philosophies, or theologies.  Secondary and tertiary values most often arise out of the stuff of our core or primary values.  Core values are those things, attitudes, ideas, activities, or people for which we demonstrate a passionate—even non-reasoned, inarticulate, often unconscious—commitment. 


That which we say we value does not necessarily reflect our value-core.  Instead, that which we prove in practice we value  —those "things" which despite our ethics, morals, beliefs, philosophies, or theologies, to which we naturally return again and again—are the true values.  We all have consciously or unconsciously developed “value-driven mental matrices—those ‘mothers’ or ‘wombs’—which motivate or predispose us to manufacture and emphasize certain ethics, morals, beliefs, philosophies, or theologies.  We create secondary values often to counter or to justify our core primary values (Cheskey, in Elliott, 1996). 

Our core values initiate and permeate the way in which we decode or interpret the world:  (1) they focus our attention; (2) they form a processing matrix or schema and (3) because values are idiosyncratic and complex, they force us to attend and to process idiosyncratically and complexly.


Valuing Is A Verb—An Action Process Of The Will


A value is something that we desire—a "good" that guides our thinking, actions, and lives.  Values are good ends that we desire, pursue, and ought to.  Values are involved in all sorts of areas: moral values-—right and wrong.  People's behavior has positive and negative value.  We might be mistaken in regarding a particular value as good.  Intellectual values: truth, understanding.  Aesthetic values: beauty, creativity.  Economic values, economic security, work (beyond the paycheck).  Psychological values: happiness, satisfaction.  Social values: friendship, acceptance, respect.  Religious values: value of knowing God.  These areas each represent different aspects of life, each an area of study.  All areas of life and study are value-laden.  


Value is inherent in the very nature of things—the potentiality for certain value being realized.  There can be a "hierarchy" of values.  Many of the value-judgments we make are actually a ranking of valuing various other things. We look for the "highest good" the greatest value that will unify the other values—intrinsically valuable—good in and of itself, as opposed to being merely of instrumental value—good for something else.  (Holmes, 1986)


Valuing is a very complex activity.  There is a dimension of choice, commitment, direction.  It is a very powerful, effective thing.  Good is attractive, but how do we get people to respond?   Values are transmitted most effectively in human relationships. 


Values assimilated along the way become ideals.  A person might have all the right ideals without having actualized them.  Virtue is a matter of Character.  Character is a collection of one’s virtues.  More than a collection, character is a set of character traits—a unified set of good traits.  Bad character would be an absence of good traits, or even a collection of recognized bad traits, such as selfishness, cruelty, avorice, jelousy, hostility, etc.


Aristotle postulated that if one developed psychologically one would move towards virtue.  Discipline while young (operant conditioning) was paramount for Aristotle, though later writings revealed that even this failed to produce his ideals in children of the wealthy class or the ruling class. Habit formation begins with intentional decisions, made on the basis of repeated reflection, repeated deliberate choices—habit of the mind.  There is a clear understanding about basic virtue in North American societies.  It has been codified into laws, regulations, and rules for organizational operation for centuries.   The challenge is not knowing what the virtues are, but is being able to live according to them.  We will never improve the virtue base of our society by ignoring them in the education of the young.  Theodore Rosevelt has rightly said "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."  It can be done. It has been done in certain lighthouse schools across the United States.  We have the knowledge to do it.  Do we have the will power and the willingness to change?


Reference List

Boyer, Ernest L.  (1989).  New fuel for school reform, The Blackboard Fumble.  pp. 18ff.  Wheaton, ILL: Victor Books.

California Department of Education (1991).  Moral and Civic Education and Teaching About Religion.  Sacramento, CA, Author.

Cheskey, J.  in Elliott, D.C. (1996).  Nurturing Reflective Christians to Teach: A valiant role for Christian schools of education).  Lanham MD. University Press of America.

Coles, Robert, and Genevie, Louis (March, 1990). The moral life of America’s schoolchildren.  Teacher Magazine, pp. 43-49.  Editorial Projects in Education.

Haynes, Charles C. (Ed.).  (1994).  Finding Common Ground:  A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education.  Nashville, TN:  The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Lickona, Thomas. (1991) Educating for Character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility. New York; Bantam Books.

Lickona, Thomas (November 1993) The Return of Character Education Educational Leadership 51: 3 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Meade, Jeff (March, 1990).  The moral life of America’s schoolchildren: an introduction. Teacher Magazine, pp 39-41. Editorial Projects in Education.

Nyland, Larry and Ginger MacDonald, (1997) Character Education: The Transmission of Values in Public Schools and in a Christian Liberal Arts School of Education. An unpublished paper for faculty review at Seattle Pacific University.

The Holy Bible, New International Version, (1984) International Bible Society.