Intellectual vs. Moral Education

Some thinkers argue that every university has a hidden curriculum.
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Everyone agrees that schools should teach students how to read, write, do arithmetic and enter a profession, but what about teaching students how to be good people? The question of whether education should deliver strictly intellectual content or whether it should incorporate morality is a classic debate amongst educators and in the larger society.

1 History of Moral and Intellectual Education

For much of history in the Western world, moral and intellectual education were thought to go hand-in-hand. Similar beliefs were held in the Eastern world and in many tribal cultures. According to Mary Elizabeth Murray of the University of Illinois at Chicago, most Western people assumed that any kind of education, whether delivered in a school or in the home, would include morality as an element. How much education focused on morality often depended on a student’s social class and role; in fact, one of the chief arguments for mass literacy campaigns in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was that they would enable poor people to read the Bible.

2 The Emergence of Strictly Intellectual Education

In the late 19th century, as literacy became near-universal in many Western countries and the Industrial Age blossomed, scientific advances inspired a new respect for the value of objective investigation and inquiry. New fields like psychology and sociology, which attempted to address many of the moral and spiritual questions traditionally left to religion, emerged. The popularity of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Marx’s theories of capitalist oppression and Freud’s theories of the id and ego undermined the authority of religion and led many professors and teachers to reduce the use of overtly religious or moral themes in education. Students should be taught to think scientifically and rationally, educators reasoned, and should be left free to form their own theories about right and wrong.

3 Continuing Pressure for Inclusion of Moral Education with Intellectual Education

Despite a dampening of enthusiasm for moral education in the 20th century, a perceived increase in social problems along with academic decline caused the public to continue to press for some kind of moral education -- at least at the primary and secondary levels. This pressure was exacerbated by the breakdown of the traditional family following the social revolution of the 1960s, which gave birth to the “character counts” and “family values” movements of the 1980s and '90s.

At the university level, a strictly intellectual approach to education has maintained its popularity with some professors, but others have made enthusiastic use of the sophisticated moral education theories and practices of the psychologists Piaget and Kohlberg. These involve stages of moral development, differentiation between morality and social convention, consciousness raising, service-learning courses, student courts and government, and reasoned analysis of the principles underlying different moral dilemmas.

4 Debates on Intellectual vs. Moral Education in Society

In the 21st century, debates on how sexual education should be taught in schools and how schools should address bullying and homophobia reflect the ongoing tension between purely intellectual education and moral education. The school reform movement in the United States has produced a number of novel approaches to moral education in both public schools and charter schools, including the Harlem Children’s Zone “baby college” for new parents. The successful KIPP charter network fosters a culture of performance character with the motto “There are no short-cuts.” Students who misbehave must turn their uniform T-shirts inside out, and other students are encouraged to shun them. The network has phenomenal test scores and scholarship levels but also a 50 percent drop-out rate.

5 Continued Debate

At the university level, professors continue to maintain a good-natured debate about their role in the moral formation of students. Advocates for pure intellectualism, like famed English professor Stanley Fish, argue that professors should “just make them into good researchers.” His opponents have responded by pointing out that the entire university system is built on the belief that truth and knowledge are valuable and vital qualities and that by encouraging students to be good researchers, professors are instilling virtuous qualities. When professors fail to address this “hidden” curriculum directly, it can be corrupted in harmful ways.

Laura Holland Fletcher has graduate level training in ESL, linguistics and the teaching of writing. She taught ESL and college writing for more than 10 years in both the US and Asia. She also writes for local and national magazines that cover legal, educational and social justice issues.