Recently, in Teaneck, N.J., 15 high school students were involved in a counseling session with Jay R. Wolff, supervisor of the school's guidance program. At issue was the conduct of a young woman who had found $1,000 in a purse at the school and turned it in. The 15 students agreed among themselves that she had been foolish to do that.
They then asked Wolff what he thought of the student's behavior. According to a New York Times report, "Public Schools Avoid Teaching Right and Wrong," the guidance expert said that while he believed she had done the right thing, "he would not try to force his values on them."
Wolff added: "If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong, then I'm not their counselor."
This attitude toward teahing the difference between right and wrong would have astounded the masters at the public Boston Latin School where, like Sam Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson before me, I was taught Homer, mathematics and decent behavior. On such of the basics as lying, cheating or pocketing someone else's money, the masters showed us instantly where the line was drawn, and it was a bright line.
These days, however, many public school teachers are forbidden by their superiors to address directly matters of morality in their classrooms. In some cases, the reason for this careful neutrality is fear that word of a teacher expressing a point of personal ethics may lead to swooping invasions of the school by members of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum or similar true believers, who think teachers cannot be trusted to guide the young in anything outside rigorously approved textbooks. Moral values are to be instilled in the home and the church.ju Another cause, however, for the notion that an adult in school ought not to "force" his moral values on kids is a doctrine of student-centered values that started in the early 1970s and has been adopted by a good many schools. The idea is that students should learn how to identify their own convictions, and then their choices will be based on their own value systems, not imposed from above.
A forceful opponent of this notion is Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction and the preeminent national leader against the dumbing-down of textbooks. Honig has no patience with the idea that it's bad for kids to be instructed in certain basic values, even if they have not yet arrived at those values by themselves.
As he says in his book, "Last Chance for Our Children": "It isn't a matter of personal conjecture, for example, whether stealing a Walkman from a classmate's locker is right or wrong.
It's wrong, and so is cheating." Honig makes another point that Wolff, the guidance supervisor in Teaneck, might think about. When adults avoid leveling with students as to their own values, "it says to children that we adults . . . don't believe in anything deeply enough to stand up for it." And, after all, "the teacher, as an exemplar of the outside world, is a closely scrutinized role model."
Admittedly, there are more complex, and certainly more controversial, questions of morality than cheating or lying. Abortion, for instance, and premarital sex. Here too, however, students rightly regard it as fake behavior for a teacher to hold back his or her own views. And the teacher thereby loses credibility. But another way of losing credibility is for the teacher to become a zealous advocate of one side only. It's also a good way to get fired.
I've been in high school and junior high school classes where the kids know who the teacher is, what her beliefs are concerning moral problems. But they are encouraged -- in fact, challenged -- to argue with her and to do their own counter-research.
Those kids have done more serious thinking about the difference between right and wrong than most students I've seen around the country. Because their teacher is straight with them about what she thinks, they have someone against whom they can test their own discoveries of themselves and the world. And when they got lost, she tells them.