Encouraging A Moral Conscience in Students

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In 1787, at the age of 81, Benjamin Franklin made this astute observation about freedom and moral character: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." 

Franklin recognized that political freedom is directly tied to a people's ability to govern their moral behavior. The less well behaved, the greater the need for rule-makers and rule-enforcers. Personal morality leads to social morality. Without personal virtue, all the laws in the world can only dictate punishment, they cannot empower a person to right conduct. 

Every educator wants students to act virtuously. Virtuous behavior goes beyond merely proper behavior. A student can conform to rules of conduct out of fear of punishment rather than from a sense of right and wrong. Acting virtuously arises from a moral conscience which prompts the actions. Certainly, conduct and character formation are intertwined, and expecting good behavior contributes to the formation of character. But, without virtuous character, students merely submit to rules until they are not being watched. Thus, as Franklin would say, "they have more need of masters" to oversee their conduct. 

However, the topic of forming a moral conscience in public school students is troublesome for some educators because it sits so close to religious beliefs. The dictionary defines conscience as "the faculty of recognizing the difference between right and wrong with regard to one's conduct coupled with a sense that one should act accordingly." It is the word "should" that causes problems for some educators, because it begs the question, "Why should a person conduct himself virtuously?" This is where religious faith comes into play for many people. They answer the "why" by stating that God expects them to be virtuous. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: 

"The psalmist loves the law. . . because he is happier living in a world where people feel addressed and summoned by God. It is law that keeps us from returning to the jungle, to a situation where the strongest take what they want." 

Laying down rules is certainly a simple way to point students to right conduct. But Kushner makes the point that, for people of faith, behind the law is God. This answers the question of why they should conduct themselves morally. Of course, this gets sticky for public school educators who cannot teach that students should act virtuously because God requires it. 

It is interesting, however, that the vast majority of students today consider religion to be an important part of their lives. The Josephson Institute of Ethics surveyed over 20,000 middle school and high school students regarding their ethics. In answer to the question, "how important to you is your religion?" three out of four (76%) middle school students and better than six out of ten (63.2%) high school students indicated religion to be "essential" or "very important" to them. Only 9.3 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively, indicated religion was "unimportant" to their personal lives. Nearly the same percentages were found in answer to the question, "how important is living up to your religious standards?" 

With this in mind, there is a way for public schools to help students form a moral conscience directly from their religious faith, and at the same time not violate any First Amendment prohibitions concerning church-state relations. Public schools can encourage students to act on their already-existing moral conscience derived from their religious faith. A school need not endorse a religion in order to encourage students to act on the religious principles they, at least, say they desire to practice. 

How, then, can a school encourage the fostering of a moral conscience formed by religion without actually endorsing or establishing that religion? A school can inform students of their religious rights on campus and encourage them to exercise their rights. The issue, then, is one of rights, not religion. 

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Too many school administrators prefer a "don't-ask-don't-tell" approach to the subject of religious rights on campus. The attitude is, "don't ask me about your rights, and I won't tell you what they are." However, this reluctance to be pro-active about explaining students' religious rights is unnecessary, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Education's document on religious expression in public schools. 

Originally published in 1998, the document is prefaced by a statement from President Clinton: 

"...Schools do more than train children's minds. They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we can help our schools do this is by supporting students' rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in schools..." 

Secretary Richard Riley then introduces the guidelines with a letter to American educators. In it he writes: 

"The great advantage of the presidential guidelines, however, is that they allow school districts to avoid contentious disputes by developing a common understanding among students, teachers, parents and the broader community that the First Amendment does in fact provide ample room for religious expression by students while at the same time maintaining freedom from government-sponsored religion." 

The guidelines were updated and reissued in 2003 by Secretary Rod Paige.  (While this document is from 2003, it is still available on the Department's website and considered current by Department officials.) Similar to Richard Riley, Paige did not intend the guidelines to simply sit on a school administrator's shelf, only to be used when needed. Instead, he urged school officials to take the initiative in informing students of their rights on campus. He wrote: 

"I encourage you to distribute this guidance widely in your community and to discuss its contents and importance with school administrators, teachers, parents, and students." 

With such resounding support, a school principal can confidently have teachers explain to students their religious rights at the beginning of the school year. This may, at first, sound like a radical idea. After all, that would involve actually explaining to students things like their right to pray, to talk about their faith with classmates, to express their faith in class assignments, to wear clothing with religious symbols, and to read their religious scriptures at school. Just the thought of having every teacher in a school do this is enough to cause some administrators to reach for the antacid. 

But just imagine the impact this could have on the moral climate of the school. As we have already seen, the majority of students at every grade level consider their faith to be important. If the school makes a point of, in essence, saying, "We welcome you to live your faith on campus," the climate will be more inclusive for students of faith. Such action will remind all students that a person's development is more than just education of the brain, it is also the nurturing of the heart. 

Currently, we may be sending the wrong signal to students. Because public schools are too often viewed as religion-free zones, we may be subtly implying to students that religion (and the conduct it motivates) is not all that important to one's development. On the other hand, by openly affirming students' religious rights, schools will be inviting students to conduct themselves by the dictates of their religious beliefs. Such action by schools certainly cannot hurt, and it may encourage students to live by the moral conscience their religion has cultivated in them. 

Inviting Lawsuits? 

Some may fear that being this up front about religion will invite the ACLU to bring a law suit. But, how can any organization dedicated to promoting civil liberties be opposed to telling people what their civil liberties are? The school officials who have teachers explain students' religious rights at the beginning of the school year will not be establishing religion, they will be promoting students' rights. They will be acting on what both Secretary Riley and Secretary Paige recommend they do.

Can't this be done by drafting a memo to parents or including it in the student handbook? Does a school have to verbalize the students' rights? I believe the impact of actually talking about it, of actually telling students their rights is what will have a positive affect on the school climate. 

Developing a moral conscience in children and young people is a multifaceted and lengthy process. It involves many inputs in a student's life, and schools cannot be expected to be the only molder of character. Neither do schools need to be silent regarding one of the most powerful molders of character -- religion. Moral conscience will be better supported when the adults, the authority figures, in schools say to students of all grades that religion is a welcome aspect of peoples' lives, and that it is welcome to be expressed on campus. 

Suggested Actions for School Officials

1. Obtain a copy of the U.S. Department of Education's "Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles".  While this document is from 2003, it is still available on the Department's website and considered current by Department officials.

2. Conduct a meeting with teachers in each building to review and discuss the guidelines. Explain the need to inform students of their religious rights and how those rights should be explained by each teacher. 

3. Create copies of the guidelines to hand out to students and send home to parents. 

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