Teaching Ethics in School

The other day I happened to spend some time leafing back through an old copy of The English Journal that had ended up on my office floor, when I came across a really fascinating article that I thought bears commenting on.

It’s an article written earlier this year by a professor named Ross Collin about the relationship between ethics and what we read in English class.  It’s called “Four Models of Literature and Ethics.” The premise is that the author has identified four different conceptual models that contributors to The English Journal have used, knowingly or not, to explain how to teach ethical knowledge while reading literature.

It’s a fascinating topic, ethics, especially right now during this era of social justice, political activism, and debate over the ethical content of pretty much everything, up to and including every book included in a school curriculum.

Finding the best approach to teaching ethics is also something that I think most teachers don’t really consciously think about, either, even though it comprises a huge degree of what we do in the classroom.  We talk a lot about the skills students need to have, but not about the ethical knowledge of right and wrong.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but nevertheless I think all English teachers (and other teachers too) could do well to think more consciously about our approaches.  

Collin’s article goes through every English Journal article that includes the words ethic, moral, or values in the title, keyword search, or caption and then seeks to categorize the teaching approaches taken.  What is interesting is that Collin writes, “I sought to identify articles that overtly discuss how ethics should be addressed in English classes.  Although most EJ articles have an ethical dimension . . . . not all articles overtly raise ethics as a topic and ask how ethics should be taught in English classes.” This is almost a more important point to me than anything else: that I believe it’s important teachers talk openly about how and to what extent to teach ethics, even though it is a sensitive and hard-to-assess subject.

Collin turns up four approaches, but I really see just three.  The first is transmission: teachers simply teaching literature in order to transmit important values they believe are important to students.  The next two approaches are transaction and clarification, which seem almost like the same approach.  Transaction, a Progressive-era development, is an approach in which students evaluate and amend their own ethics in light of those they read in literature.  Clarification was a 60s-era creation in which literature helped students clarify their own values, though with less of an expectation that literature’s values had much to teach them or to amend their values; instead literature only offered opportunities to consider moral questions and to work out one’s own ethical responses, not to consider a character’s or author’s ethical framework in order to modify one’s own.  In a sense, it’s transaction, but more laissez-faire.  

The last approach Collin calls Cultural Identity and Difference (CID) which emphasizes, “the importance for students not only to have access to education but also to see themselves in curricula” and “holds that students should understand ethics in literature as the beliefs of cultural groups.” This allows students to “affirm their identities as members of cultural groups” and to “affirm the ethics of their cultural groups” and/or “identify and celebrate diverse views of the good.” 

An example of this approach is one author who argues that teachers instructing non-Native American students to read Native American literature should not allow students to simply use the ethics portrayed to clarify their own, but should guide the students to understand the “sociohistorical contexts of the values and practices featured” in the literature as those of Native Americans.  This approach, for Collin, is somewhat similar to the transmission method in that both “seek to direct students toward certain ethical conclusions or, at least, away from other ethical conclusions.” Another article Collin cites asks students to understand their own values as those of a Western culture and to clarify their values within this context.

It is interesting to contrast this approach with both transmission and clarification.  At this point, clarification seems both quaint 1970s-era stuff.  It’s interesting to think how we are in such a different era now; it seems almost impossible for teachers to “abdicate” what almost seems to be a moral responsibility in the era of Trump to teach correct ethics.  At the same time, there is a relativism to both the clarification approach as well as to the CID approach; both postulate that there is not one correct set of ethics, but a plurality.  If I understand correctly, the CID approach differs in that it asks students to appreciate and understand the ethics of others, while the clarification method simply asks students to pick and choose.  One wonders if the CID approach would be opposed to such a thing, and in fact is postulating its own ethics: respect for a plurality of beliefs.

Collin reviews how these four approaches might be used.  For instance, teachers may want to use transmission to inculcate certain important values such as toleration for religious or minority groups.  Collin writes, “teachers might . . . downplay models of transaction and clarification, lest students only attend to (versus take up) some of the books’ ethics or, worse, produce or clarify values of intolerance or indifference.”

He even critiques the use of the CID technique on its own because that can lead to students having trouble understanding “how groups can and do develop internally diverse views of ethics and debate, adapt, and take up other groups’ ethics.” I thought this was an interesting critique for this moment of 2020.  He continues, “Students might come to see social groups as ultimately separate and unable to live with or to learn from each other.” 

All in all, I thought it was a really useful article.  Having specific approaches for teaching anything is important, but especially for something so challenging to discuss at all as ethics.  And there are many reasons why teaching ethics in the classroom is so iffy: it’s politically sensitive, it’s very hard to measure, it’s one of those things that schools are supposed to teach in a vague and general sense, but when it comes down to it, it’s really supposed to be up to parents.  

Then there’s the weird position that ethics occupies in an English curriculum.  Trying to teach students to understand how Harper Lee worked her craft to create To Kill a Mockingbird, or trying to teach students to understand the important themes include in the book — that’s all one thing; but trying to teach students any kind of specific ethical takeaway is quite another.  For example, empathy: most teachers I think would agree that one of the big ethical takeaways we want is for students to learn to be empathetic.  But for whom?  That you’re supposed to come out of a complex reading experience like To Kill a Mockingbird, written about complex characters with a variety of motives, with an improved moral understanding of the need to rid yourself of biased feelings toward people — that’s an odd stance, when you think about it.  Are you supposed to learn to feel empathy for just Tom Robinson?  What about for Atticus Finch?  He is spit on, antagonized, and has his children attacked as a result of his moral stand, but in the eyes of some people, he doesn’t actually do enough.  Plus, he’s obviously white and powerful — should we feel a kind of proportional empathy for him, less than for Robinson, but more than for others?  What about when the passages about his suffering are more powerful than those about Robinson’s?  Are we supposed to compensate by knowing in our heads who really is deserving of more empathy?  

What about for Mayella Ewell, daughter of poverty and victim of all matter of domestic abuse by her father — who nevertheless lies in court and tries to get Robinson prosecuted?  She is definitely described as a kind of victim deserving of sympathy, but how much?  Is she deserving of empathy, or just the “right” characters?  And what about her father, the book’s antagonist?  I used to teach students to understand his perspective too, in order to understand the roots of discrimination; if this causes someone to “empathize” with a racist by understanding where he is coming from, is that the wrong ethical takeaway?

As always, thorny questions persist: empathy for whom?  Why?

And here is a last point I find myself wondering about.  The notion of “reading for empathy,” of exposing students to “windows” — views of people who are different than they are racially and culturally, for the purposes of fostering greater tolerance and empathy — seems to reign supreme.  But I sometimes wonder if reading always produces this desired empathy.  We like to think that just reading about others’ lives makes us understand other people better in a way that leads to more positive relationships, but I’m not sure that’s always true.  It’s certainly no more true than the belief that simply asking students to read about men and women in previous eras somehow makes them understand or care about the past.  Or perhaps I should say that asking students to *uncritically* empathize is a questionable approach. Students must be able to be critical, to express their reservations, if they are to understand those who are different than they are, and to me that necessitates a somewhat different approach than the sort of uncritical appreciation that I think sometimes the “empathy” notion engenders.

I wonder if instead it’s better to ask students to read in order to understand those who are different than they are, rather than just to empathize with those who are different than they are.  It seems to me very different to say that you must learn about the way that others see the world for the purposes of clarifying whether you agree or disagree than it is to say you must learn about others’ struggles so that you share their perspectives.  Perhaps we need both.

I think perhaps this also gets at a tension that exists between reading critically — reading to question an author’s perspective or a character’s motives — versus reading to appreciate and empathize with an author’s perspective or a character’s struggles.  One is reading to question and to clarify, the other is reading to appreciate.  I think that’s an important difference.

Same goes for the tension between reading a complex work in order for students to appreciate the complexity of moral choices and of the sheer multiplicity of human life — versus reading books of overwhelming power and clarity about moral issues.  

Again, it seems to me that we need both.

Perhaps there’s a balance then to be found between books that teach, fairly powerfully, the importance of, say, racial tolerance and an appreciation of discrimination . . . as well as for books in which the ethical takeaway is secondary to other teaching points. You highlight a few ethical takeaways you want students to learn, and then you teach straight into those. Then you highlight the other skills or takeaways you want students to have, and you teaching into those, too. And then perhaps you have books that you teach specifically to deliver strong, contrasting visions that you expect students to disagree with or to question.

Certainly interesting to think about.