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Articles -> all -> History of Moral Education

    History of Moral Education

    The practices of contemporary moral character education can be traced to ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2006; Nucci & Narvaez, in press). The Socratic emphasis on virtue emphasized the mind, particularly philosophical thinking and reasoning. Socrates's own pedagogy—known as the Socratic method—used successive questions to guide students from ignorance to understanding. Knowing what is good was considered the sufficient condition for individuals to be considered good and virtuous. The Socratic emphasis on right thinking and reasoning echoes throughout the philosophy of his student, Plato, in his The Republic in which Plato seeks to define justice.

    Aristotle's teachings and philosophy emphasized the practice of good actions, not only reason, as a means to living a life of virtue. With the tutelage of mentors and moral exemplars, Aristotle came to believe that the virtuous life is attainable through the practice of specific habits and virtues. Aristotle's philosophy of virtue laid the foundation for contemporary paradigms of character education.

    The moral philosophy of early Greek thinkers, coupled with Christian theology, morality, and practice, provided a social and educational foundation in European and American societies from the Middle Ages to modern times. The intersection of moral philosophy and religion was especially evident in colonial U.S. schools; indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, U.S. schools aimed to develop students with good character through reading Bible stories and exhortations, what is considered traditional character education.

    In the twentieth century, the explicit Protestant Christian theology of education became less congruous with the religious identity of many new immigrant citizens. Teachers could no longer rely on the assumption of a single universal religious identity as the foundation of moral formation. At the same time, theoretical and empirical challenges were levied against moral character education in general. Among many provocative findings, the early work of Hartshorne and May, in Studies in the Nature of Character (1928–1930), concluded pessimistically that little if any universality or transfer of character existed across situations and general incongruence was demonstrated between moral knowledge and moral action.

    Empirical challenges to moral character education and a changing social landscape precipitated a general decline in the interest and application of traditional character education in schools in the mid-twentieth century. The study of moral character education in many ways shifted to the psychological arena as issues of personality or values. Values clarification became a way for educators to discuss values without advocating any one in particular.

    In the widespread move against behaviorism in psychology, Lawrence Kohlberg brought the developmental work of Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896–1980), to the United States. Inspired by Piaget, Kohlberg (1984) spawned the cognitive development approach to moral education as a counterweight to traditional character education and its collection of virtues. Kohlberg was concerned about the conventional condemnation of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., who were viewed as common criminals breaking the law. Kohlberg saw that civil rights demonstrators had a higher moral purpose in breaking the law, but he wondered how to prove that was true.

    Kohlberg examined the moral development of a cohort of boys through childhood and adolescence. Looking for underlying patterns, he presented his subjects with moral dilemmas and perceived a three-level, six-stage progression in their thinking over time, moving from preconventional thinking to conventional to post-conventional (Preconventional level: 1. avoid punishment, 2. Prudence and Simple Exchange; Conventional level: 3. Interpersonal Harmony and Concordance, 4. law and order; Postconventional level: 5. social contract, and 6. universal moral principles). Kohlberg proposed that with age and experience, each person moves from simple to more complex notions of moral reasoning, some moving farther up the stages than others. Each stage is more adequate than the previous one to solve complex moral problems. Kohlberg's basic theory was validated around the world, although there is some controversy about the nature and universality of the higher stages.

    In order to stimulate moral reasoning development beyond that promoted by everyday experience, Kohlberg and his students developed the dilemma discussion method. The classic example is the “Heinz Dilemma” in which Heinz, a man of modest means, cannot afford the costly cure for his dying wife. Unable to appeal to the druggist or secure the necessary funds, Heinz breaks into the pharmacy and takes the medicine to save his wife. After the dilemma is presented, students take a position on whether he should steal the drug, and then they participate in small and large group discussions about the reasons for one action or another.

    In his later years, Kohlberg and colleagues (Power, Higgins & Kohlberg, 1989) focused on a true-to-life cognitive developmental method, the just community, modeled on some features of the Jewish kibbutz. Implemented in schools and prisons, emphasis was placed upon developing adolescents' ties to community expectations (concerns of Stages 3 and 4) through democratic decision making of community rules (concern of Stage 5). Although an extremely demanding method, the “just community school” approach leads to increased trust, obedience, and loyalty among students, as well as moral stage growth.

    Author : Anthony Holter | Darcia Narvaez
    References : http://www.education.com/reference/article/moral-education/#A

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