Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ethics education and democratic values in high school and middle school

Every summer since 2012 I've taught at least one workshop on "making ethics part of high school and middle school English class" at the Bread Loaf School of English, a Middlebury College program in which the students, mostly teachers, can get a Masters degree in English in the course of 4-5 summers. I've written a series of posts on what I've learned in the workshops (see here, here, here, here and here if you're interested.)


I build the workshops around the issues the teacher-students bring to it. This year several teachers brought up the question of how best to deal with students who assert views the teachers regard as morally repugnant. They don't want to let the repugnant views go unchallenged but at the same time they don't want to put down the student.To squelch the student goes against the goal of fostering a classroom atmosphere of respectful deliberation, but to let the repugnant view stand can be seen as enabling.

The National Conference of Teachers of English (NCTE) statement on Academic Freedom urges teachers to cultivate democratic values in the classroom as a central objective:
NCTE maintains that students have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others.
At the same time, the NCTE directs teachers not to proselytize or preach to their students:   

Educators and educational institutions must not require or coerce students to modify their beliefs or values. Efforts to convince students to modify their beliefs or values must be academically justifiable.
The teachers are in a difficult bind. They want to encourage  "diversity of thought," but human nature (and adolescence) being what it is, diversity can include prejudice, bias, and hate - the opposite of the "respect for others" NCTE calls for!

The teachers asked each other - "how can we best deal with this dilemma?" Three examples illustrate the kinds of strategies they suggested:
  •  After a hurricane, a  student said "why should we spend money helping people from XYZ?" This touched a very personal nerve - XYZ was where the teacher came from. The teacher kept anger in check and asked the class "does anyone have ideas about why we might want to spend money helping XYZ?" The question led to a thoughtful discussion. 
  • A student called a classmate "you bitch." The teacher used a jiu jitsu-like approach: "thank you for bringing that up - it lets us discuss the implications of the language we use..."
  • Another teacher described how she used "kindness" in dealing with cruel comments: "that might be hurtful...let's put it aside."
In medical practice and medical education we pay tremendous attention to the doctor/patient relationship. For teachers, "classroom management" has the same prominence. But the challenges I've faced over the years in relating to patients strike me as much easier than the challenges the teachers I've come to know at Bread Loaf have to deal with. 

As physicians, we're largely in 1:1 interactions, except for pediatricians, who deal with parents as well as the child, and geriatricians, who often deal with their patient's caretakers as well as the patient. Our field of action is less complex than a classroom that could have as many as 30 youngsters. And teachers typically must consider the expectations of principals and other administrators, parents and the school board in addition to dealing with a classroom full of bumptious students.

At the end of the workshop, I asked if the participants could help me pull together the wide-ranging discussion. The final comment, coming from an ex-teacher, was especially useful. He pointed out how much students learn from the way we comport ourselves and relate to them. Whatever the problematic situation we're dealing with, fairness, thoughtfulness and compassion will always convey "good lessons."


Recalling his comments put me in mind of Francis Peabody's 1927 address to Harvard Medical Students on "The Care of the Patient" that was given to us in a thin red booklet on our first day of medical school in 1960. Peabody's unforgettable final line rings true 91 years later. I expect the same will be said in 2118 and 2218: "One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient."

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