Should ethics be taught in schools?


Well yes. How? Obviously  morality  and ethics can be said to be intertwined they form our character in life.  What  are the institutions that lay the foundation for these virtues before a child enters school? Are ethics, morality the building of character a life long learning process?  How are these desired attributes reinforced throughout our lives?

To remind us I include important definitions below.

ethics  plural of eth·ics (Noun)

1. Moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior

2. The moral correctness of specified conduct

Synonyms: morality, morals, ethic, moral


As an adjective: Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.

Noun: A lesson, esp. one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived, from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.


Adjective: ethical, ethics virtuous

Noun: morality, moral, ethics, morale, lessons



1. The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

2, The distinctive nature of something

Synonyms: nature, personality, temper, figure, disposition

Above definitions taken from the online Merriam Webster dictionary.

00_blog_ethics1Those who have these virtues ( morality, ethics and of character) recognize when they are lacking in another’s character (a person).  Its sorta instinctive because hopefully the virtues have been instilled in us from the basic institutions (family unit, churches) bottom up. Reinforced top down from institutions of  the school, higher education, businesses and in the government institution.

It is important to acknowledge  what is one’s right and wrong may not be another’s and it varies within cultures.

We recognize and judge when institutions like the family unit, churches.  government, schools (lower and higher education), businesses  stray from ethics, morality and good character.  In our judgement it may be as broken family units, behavior of those in the hierarchy of  churches and the other institutions that are the pillars of society.

Government, Wall Street, law, journalism, bio-science and the like, become warped, shaded in our judgement.  Basically in our judgement  simple as we have been robbed, duped, taken for a fool, the institution is broken and by their institutional behavior  causes great harm to our society.

Each institution:  the family unit, and churches, business ( the Enron, AIG, J.P. Morgan, banks, Wall Street traders, investment firms),  schools and yes importantly in the government are crucial. They are dependent on the each other.

The supposition often made is we need more ethics to be taught in America’s institutions.  And yes that is true. But it is complex.

An interesting paper I came across titled Promoting Ethical Practices Within Institutions  of Higher Education by Marianne Weeger, National University, the academics take on this issue.

Then the question follows how are these values taught, in a person in order that they are incorporated in all aspects of ones life and then carried  to the institutions of work. Starts at the bottom and promoted, enforced top down.

I am no scholar on this subject. I am as you have picked up not an especially good writer however I do have opinions. I am as one might say, opinionated.

We main-street people instinctively and as well judge when moral conduct is lacking when we meet or read about a person lacking in character. We know that it is missing by degrees in institutions.

So back to the question of should it be taught in schools? How or by whose rules of right and wrong behaviors should be taught?  We can’t give up on this for obvious reasons. Whose rules of right and wrong is complex and certainly controversial at the lower school level.

I think it is a bottom up/top down issue to me. Bottom up from the family unit and church. Top down emanating within the other institutions. More importantly it should be rooted from/in all of America’s institutions,  It must, I think, be America’s  branded ethics, conduct,  moral norms and standards of acceptable conduct.

Those who must conduct business with other countries, cultures of course they must learn their culture values their norms and virtues.  The American citizen is the vehicle that  represents American values. The ethics, morality that drives their uniquely American character in all things related to business. While the American doing business in foreign lands must have an understanding of their culture values for how else would a  desirable outcome of a business transaction be driven to ones favorable conclusion?   This too applies in the diplomatic between governments. Top down enforcement, a reminder, must be ever present for ethical conduct.Ethics20_small

The important thing to my thinking  when teaching, instilling ethics, good character,  it is simply perhaps teaching right and wrong within the basic institutions of family, religion and schools. It is further setting boundaries of acceptable behavior within these basic institutions bolstered by reinforcement of good conduct.  However the other institutions must reinforce top down.

Schools, institutions of higher learning, government and corporations are the mechanism  that are essential to keep the wheel of good conduct, morality and ethics moving along.

Schools, the lower grades, junior high, high school and throughout higher education. business, government must enforce the boundaries of conduct. The rules must be clear. enforceable backed by some form of punishment for crossing the line,

We must promote American values not be wimpy in requiring the newbie to our shores to also adopt American values.

Surely in the historical the Enlightenment Age had an impact. The Enlightenment Age, to me, changed the meaning of ethics and moral conduct in the religious, the governance, society at large, business and academia.  Recall the historical  bloody  religious conflicts that plagued the European continent, the Enlightenment Age aided in altering the behavior.

We in America, I contend, have benefited, from the founding fathers we might say who were enlightened. This is not true in all things slavery, ownership and trafficking, the most egregious. Many founding fathers owned slaves. It again comes down to right and wrong, boundaries of conduct and thus a society’s values defined, practiced in all things, must permeate throughout. In the case of slavery it took a war to abolish this practice. It took systematic opposition of the slavery institution to break it apart. Yet we might say it has not been totally abolished we still have to this day the trafficking of women and children and we can find examples of servitude. An argument for not giving up.

Its a complex problem of ethics, morality and building character within America. However in the basic it must emanate bottom up and reinforced  top down. And while not all of America’s children will define right and wrong exactly the same, lines drawn, for lack of better words  proper and acceptable behavior must be made clear in all institutions. Bottom up from the institutions of the family unit and religious institutions.. Top down from schools, government, business, in law etc.

Churches one might make the argument that it too can be bottom up and top down.

Last night I caught a lecture of Seymour Hersh Investigative Journalist, New Yorker Writer & Author on the topic of Ethics in Journalism at Indiana University School of Journalism, At one point he ask the students after placing a boundary that it was a question to students and not an answer to be forthcoming from a professor, The question was simply, if you had a manuscript,  a story, in an envelope on your desk or one put in a drawer, is it OK to read the manuscript, story left on the desk as opposed to taking it out of the drawer and reading it? Obviously it would be wrong, unacceptable, in either case. What was revealing is not one, let me repeat not one, student spoke up. Yes it is true traditional age students are not known generally of speaking up/out. An obvious question is why are they not? Surely I thought that even just one in the crowded auditorium would speak out. I was needless to say disappointed. I am sure Mr Hersh was as well he was probably a bit baffled. Did the students not understand the question? I think not. Did they not know the right, obvious right answer? Perhaps. Were they shy to give their answer? Well some of them. But wasn’t there just one not so shy student?

ethicsHerein lies one of the problems regarding unethical, moral bankruptcy, wrong or unacceptable behavior you must not only recognize the corrupt, warped behavior one must speak out in some form, not rat out but speak out.

An aside. Is there a difference between “rat out” and whistle-blowing? Well its about setting boundaries around conduct, ethical behavior in government and business. See also a commentary I wrote on DHS’ See Something, Say Something campaign an example of rat out. Whistle-blowing by definition (by-the-way varies among nations) is “an informant who exposes wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it.”  as opposed to the slang word ‘rat out’  “a despicable person, especially one who betrays or informs upon associates, a scab laborer”.

In my family to rat out ones sibling was not tolerated. In fact if I did a rat out of  my sister I was likely to receive a good whipping right along with the sibling if her actions  judged inappropriate or if not I was whipped for the act of the rat out.  Its about boundaries being set, right and wrong being taught and enforced behavior. Of course it taught me the difference between making a judgement, a decision if by my sisters act the act might cause her or others great harm my parents knew where the line was between a rat out and although not part of their language whistle-blowing.  In the case of an act of whistle-blowing my sister might be angry with me for doing so but my parents did not punish me. Lesson learned.

I will address, for the most part, first institutions of business, government and higher learning. I will leave the problems of lower level schooling for a later discussion.

In corporations and government it may be as simple as talking privately to a colleague, pointing to the rules of the ethics committee in government, or talking about a Corporation’s culture of ‘the way we do business’ road map.

In government it is a top down paradigm. If the stage has been set that transparency, in all things in the political i.e. truth must be told not couched in political expediency for one’s political party gain. It is an ingrained lesson of the difference between right and wrong to not accept for personal gain money or gifts from a donor, a lobbyist. There are laws and rules to guide them. Rules and laws are essential for backing up punishment when one is caught. Those in leadership it is their cross to bear/suffer to set the tone, the example of ethical behavior and as well strong punishment and sanctions levied on those who stray under their leadership.

The problem in government (and business) the art of skirting the law and rules seem to be valued more.

As in government  corporations the tone for ethical behavior and acceptable conduct it is top down. A CEO and others on the team sets the example, the ‘do’s and don’ts’ road-map the company culture operates under. Cheating our colleagues, people they do business with, transact with, funds of customers they are responsible for, in stock trading and more. If the entity stretches the rules, encourages getting close to the line of irresponsible behavior or the rule of law due to greed the ethical and doing the moral thing is lost. It starts at the top. Ones character becomes the sacrificial lamb.

Those at the top must be held accountable.

Same applies in higher education.  They should not assume that a person who enters a college or university that a person knows not to cheat on an exam or plagiarize someone else’s work nor that a person understands what good conduct is in the social. To be fair colleges do a darn good job in setting the rules for cheating and plagiarizing. The punishment is swift. Is it always fairly administered? Depends for example a student at say an Ivy League school whose student parent is a big donor and/or a person of status in government or a corporation it gets more fuzzy with regards to swift punishment. What message does this convey?Character education

In matters of social  conduct my opinion is the college and university falls a bit short. Over drinking, drug use, date rape drugs is often prevalent as well as hazing in fraternities on college campuses. A college or university first response is to cover their ass. One of the issues that angers me the most is when a college or university cover up crime and rape on their campuses in order to present a campus life that is optimal to bring in new students. Its the monetary gain, greed at the expense of owning up to the truth, greed at the expense of a well informed students and their family. Its a top down thing. Students already on campus know that the administrators do this,. Question is would a student carry this behavior into their work careers? If you are a victim of  the campus life or the one who gets away with bad behavior. What message is being sent?  A student outlook may be quite different depending on their personal experience.

Faculty behavior (and that of the administration) in the social has profound implications with regards to ethical conduct messages that a student comes away with and carry’s into the public workplace.

Adults are masters at compartmentalizing what one might do or not do or act in front of a parent they will do the opposite with buddy’s. Same is true in government or business. What an adult perceives as unethical behavior practices in government and business they will for the most part choose to do the same with few exceptions like a brave whistle-blower or a person who moves on from that workplace. What we see today in government and business is that participation in unethical practices is rewarded. Dangerous precedent. Its top down from leadership.

Now back to the family unit, churches and schools. Be it anyone of these institutions an understanding of basic ethics, morality, character building, honesty, setting boundaries etc, are the building blocks that must be ingrained in these institution and passed down to the children. Obviously there are no guarantees this will work all the time given my .02 cents above. Obstacles in society, higher ed, government and business works to undermine the best of efforts.

We all can make an argument the building blocks are completely absent in some family units.

A live by example thing.  Well that live by example and teaching of beliefs by any church denomination is true as well. The old adage ‘do as I say, not as I do’ will not always cut it.

Teaching a child about adult time or choices an adult can make for themselves versus  what is appropriate child behavior will help. Its about setting boundaries followed by consistent enforcement and appropriate punishment for breaking the rules, the contract.

If someone ask me what would be the most important attribute that I would want in people who had power over me  I would answer knowing the rules and consistent behavior in enforcing the rules.  If this understanding of the rules is not clear and consistent behavior is absent the result is as a child making one’s way through life’s maze it is confusing at best. Luckily  I made reasonable decisions, some bad, and as they might say “I turned out alright”.  For some they may not handle life’s maze well.

Now schools is a whole can of worms unto themselves. In my  thinking it is their duty to (at all levels) reinforce the basic behaviors of good conduct and it follows appropriate punishment backs up the act of bad behavior. Bad or unacceptable behavior may be cheating, bullying, acting out which infringes on other students ability to learn, not respecting one’s elders or another pupil etc. These qualities are not different than one’s we would expect a family  unit or a church to teach. Bottom up, top down.

Obviously some children do not come from a family unit that was taught the virtues of good character. That family unit  having not have been taught these values thus they  carry forward the undesirable.

2013ethicsbowlIt is also true that teachers in a grade school, junior high and high school are placed ‘between a rock and a hard place’. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They are hampered by parents. Parents of all stripes, the PC parents, parents from different cultures, parents of children from different racial communities you name it the schools are left with a big balancing act one that often does not produce good outcomes.

Kids enter school as products of their family life.  When rules to live by are lacking in the home its near impossible for a school to be successful without being given tools of reinforcement, punishment. I have no real answers, do you? Some will succeed regardless, but they are few in numbers they are the exception.

However, schools can not give up. Most do their level best but its a challenge that often leads to tragedy for many students in their life’s journey.

Those who grow up in families built on good foundation,  be it a two parent or single parent household, the child stands a greater chance in life and her/his chance of managing life’s maze is made easier.

A big bugaboo that hampers schools centers around punishment. A crucial ingredient in enforcing, building good character.

Corporal punishment can be defined in degrees even down to the instrument used or the size of the person that chooses to use punishment. The definition varies between nations, cultures, in the religious, between America’s states and is controversial among parents who send their kids to school. Department of Education plays no small role in muddying the water.

What “corporal punishment” means: “Corporal punishment is defined under human-rights law as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort.” There is no comprehensive definition of corporal punishment under U.S. state or federal law. taken from an article in Time U.S. dated, March 2009

The ineffective UN Committee on the Rights of a Child defines it this way

“any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.

There are groups that take great interest in punishment in schools. For example The Center for Effective Discipline, National Child Protection Training Center then there are lawyers and so on. A Google search is revealing.

Other sources:

For personal commentary on this blog regarding schools and academia see:

In my days of going to school my parents had one rule, a line that a teacher could not cross, and that was you can punish her but don’t hit her in the head. What they were saying is that a paddling, if needed, was fair game abusive punishment was out-of-bounds. I never experienced in grade school a teacher hitting me in the head, some may have wanted to give me a good slap. I did have teachers and a principal who paddled me Can’t say I was harmed. Stantis-StateSenateEthics

The bottom line is that school punishment definitions varies from country to country, culture to culture,  laws vary in various American states.

Punishment in school, there are degrees of, as the article in the Time, U.S. article points out latitude may be given in a case where a disabled child with behavioral issues is involved and as well it covers disproportionate punishment deviled out to a handicap child who may just be a bother to a teacher who has hit the end of their rope.

Today we have “Stop Spanking” slogans. We have people who see a parent hitting a child in the butt in the grocery store turned into police. Reasonable people, folks with common sense, can discern child abuse from a spank on the butt. Unreasonable people, those with an agenda (theirs) ones who believe strongly that no child no matter the public bad behavior does not need a spank on the butt. There are those of us who think a spank on the butt useful in correcting an acting out by a child without supporting abusive behavior adult to child. There is a difference.

To me its about teaching common sense and individual responsibility, understanding the rules and consistent punishment for breaking. There will always be knuckleheads who are not teachable.

The schools (lower-grades) education is broken. Throwing more money at this institution will not fix it. Shoving money at public education only temporarily affords us a sense of helping.

The fact that the responsibilities of child rearing has been turned over to the state is a big clue why the education system is in peril. I admit readily why this path was taken and its a complex problem. When state becomes the nanny the outcome will continue to produce unacceptable outcomes.

If I had a child I would do everything humanly possible to keep my child out of public school, especially in a large urban area. I would consider home schooling, private school, including religious schools even though I am not religious. Even the long arm of the Department of Education inserts itself in these institutions as well the state in which they reside. It’s a complicated system a parent must manage.

If the public school system was allowed to return to teaching the 3 R’s along with history, biology, civics and state history, my good friend Steven Sanders makes this point in his commentary on this blog, and not be required to be a nanny we just may be more successful in producing a more educated populace. Likewise the schools must be given back the tools to take swift punishment, reasonable punishment,  for correcting misbehavior. If not, how can a school support good character building?

Parents must not be let off the hook they must take personal responsibility for teaching things they have turned over to the state.  Its about common sense, personal responsibility.

Your comments are encouraged.