The Public Interest

Moral education in the schools

Edwin J. Delattre & William J. Bennett

Winter 1978

THE belief that moral values should be taught to young Americans in the schools is at least as old as the nation itself. Thomas Jeffersons Bill For the More General Diffusion of Knowledge argued for an educational system that would fortify citizens with moral probity to resist the schemes of the enemies of liberty. In his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin prescribed the study of ethics in an instructional program that would seek to instill “benignity of mind.” Perhaps the most explicit embodiment of this drive to inculcate the young with moral lessons is to be found in McGuffey’s Readers. On another level, John Deweys forceful and highly influential writings concerning the interdependence of democracy, education, and moral character are a modern reformulation of the old belief that “virtue” can and should be taught in the schools. To be sure, an opposite belief-that the schools should teach no values, but should stick to imparting skills and basic knowledge-also has its adherents among educators and social theorists. But more and more in recent years, and especially now, in the aftermath of Watergate and accounts of corruption in government and business, there has been a call for reemphasizing moral education in the schools.

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