Friday, December 10, 2004

Evaluating Moral Education

The following was published in the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin. It was written in response to my professors' belief that tolerance would solve the problem of moral education in the public schools.

Tolerance is not a Viable Foundation for Moral Education

Tolerance is the buzz virtue in education today. Admittedly, the public schools deal with many students from many cultures, religions and worldviews. How do we educate in the midst of diversity? Our educational system consistently answers that we must create classrooms of tolerance - places where all people find a sense of belonging, where all ideas are valued equally and all lifestyles are accepted as morally valid.

But there is a deeper issue at stake than tolerance in the classroom. I fear that as tolerance has become such a focus of moral education, we have left out the subject of truth. Tolerance has set the standard too low. It is much easier to tolerate someone than it is to learn to practice love. It is much easier to practice tolerance than it is to discern truth.

"What is truth?" This needs to be the subject of much discussion in education. It is a difficult question to answer in a pluralistic society and when teaching in a diverse classroom. But if we despair of answering the question, "What is truth?" I fear that we have despaired of education itself. And if we conclude that there is no truth, then we must evaluate why we are educators. Perhaps we are educators to merely represent a myriad of contradicting statements, but it can easily be seen that society would suffer if there was a complete lack of moral truths and if all truths were identically equal.

Perhaps we would say that all truths are equal in the event that they did not lead to the harm of another human or the societal good. But, truly, a major goal of the moralist is societal good. The genuine moralist stands on truth, not because of pride, but because moral behavior is for the good of the person and for the good of society. This does not mean that the moralist must be rude; it certainly does not give the moralist the freedom to taunt those who do not believe in her statements. It means simply that there are truths that she stands on because she believes that they are for the good.

In fact, promoting tolerance, is, in and of itself, the promotion of morality; it is a truth claim that sets itself above all other truth claims. Tolerance states that all truth is relative and that all ideas must be tolerated equally. But there is a truth claim that tolerance cannot tolerate equally and that is the claim that truth is not relative and that some ideas are right and some ideas are wrong. If tolerance claims that all truth is relative, then tolerance cannot tolerate truth that is absolute. So, tolerance is built on a truth claim that states that truth is not supreme. To say all truths are relative, is in fact a truth statement. But, I believe, contradictory.

Contradictory, as well, is our own school language. Carelessly, we praise the diversity and tolerance of our schools at the same time as we affirm our successful “zero-tolerance” campaigns against weapons, drugs and alcohol on the school campus. Whether we admit it or not, we are only tolerant of the lifestyles that we believe will benefit the good of society. This is why the discussion must change from formulating new ways of affirming all lifestyles in a spirit of tolerance to addressing the question, "What is truth?"

The answer to this question is not impossible. Moral education in the public schools has separated virtue from orthodox religion. This is the operating ethos of the time. But, in fact, the cornerstone of morality that we have found apart from God has been tolerance, and tolerance is not a viable substitute for God. We would do well to consider Fyodor Dostoevsky’s words, "If there is no God, everything is permissible." Were we to recognize God and the testimony of the Scriptures as the necessary foundation for truth, I believe that we would discover, perhaps to our surprise, that truth finds one of its ultimate expressions in love.