Power  /  Argument

Yes, Schools Should Teach Morality. But Whose Morals?

Belief that schools must teach moral values is older than public schools themselves. But whose morals?

Beyond Americanization, politicians and community members alike looked to the public schools to pass on other moral codes—essentially lists of virtues presented in the form of pledges. For example, in response to a competition sponsored by the Character Education Association in 1917, William Hutchins’ outlined the “ten laws of right living” including self-control, good health, kindness, sportsmanship, self-reliance, duty, reliability, truth, good workmanship, and teamwork. His “Morality Code” was published in education journals and actively marketed towards superintendents and Commissioners of Education across the U.S.

During World War II and the Cold War, the use of public schools as patriotic propaganda and civic education received wide support. A 1951 education report titled Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools reaffirmed the importance of moral education in the postwar era and simultaneously defined certain values as central to the “American experience.” The report called for a set of courses that would “preserve basic American and Western values at a time when free, democratic societies were threatened by the specter of totalitarianism.” Who fit within these “American ideals,” taught in conjunction with civic morality, were narrowly defined and exclusionary—centering around Anglo-Christian values, at the expense of everyone else.

Such narrowly defined conceptions of morality and citizenship were precisely why the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s prompted reevaluation of moral education in public institutions. In 1978, the intellectual Carl Bereiter declared, “education in the areas of personality and values is never free of authoritarian imposition,” addressing the intrusion of public-school value-based curriculum blurring the separation of church and state. Notably, there were more court cases challenging school practices between 1969 and 1978 than in the previous 50 years combined.

Reform efforts continued to use the language of morality, though. They just redefined it. University of Notre Dame president Father Theodore M. Hesburgh spoke to the inclusion of civil rights as “the concern for civil rights is not just another economic, political, social, or ethnic movement, but there is a deep moral dimension… to achieve full civil rights for all our citizens.”

In the subsequent years, the political demand for moral education persisted, especially as evangelical conservatives prioritized legislative changes to ensure it. Since the 1990s, many states passed legislation requiring some type of moral education in public schools. Indiana, for example, required schools to teach the virtues of honesty, respect for the property of others, and personal responsibility to family and community.