Friday, July 27, 2007

"Life put to the test"

"Morality is not a subject; it is life put to the test in dozens of moments." (Paul Tillich)

What comes to your mind when "morality" is mentioned? Do you think of the Ten Commandments? Does morality evoke a sense of sin or "fear of the Lord" (in the person of Yahweh, Jesus or Allah? Do you think of right and wrong actions? Do you think of good and bad results of your actions? Are you worried about rules to be followed and broken? Do you focus on scandal, sexual or otherwise? Are you moved to shame? Hell bent on confession? Craving forgiveness?

Is morality a singular event or a plural one? Does it involve the actions of an atomistic individual careening under or out of control in a world we create by the way that we act? Or is morality a systematic representation of the relations between us?

Who decides?

Christian theologian Paul Tillich calls into question even the questions we ask about morality with the statement at the head of this post. If morality is "life put to the test," then how are our religious beliefs, social conventions and interpersonal interactions implicated in this? Put more simply, who's going to tell me what to do????

I think this good Christian and superlative theologian is telling us that nobody can tell us what "ought" to be done. It is my life that is put to the test, tested with reference to what I value, what I believe about the meaning of my life, who I love (in all the various sense of love), who I understand and express myself to be. And where does the test come from? From everywhere!!! In "dozens of moments" as Tillich puts it, dozens of moments every day.

Morality isn't primarily about scandalous behavior (consider Michael Vick's dog-fighting woes or Lindsay Lohan's addictive behavior or a garden variety extramarital affair). Scandals (micro-sized or macro-sized) occur when we have strayed far outside the frame of social convention. Sometimes we stray so far that the only things others can do is pitt us. However, the morality of particular actions cannot – and I would argue should not -- be judged from a distance.

Morality – life put to the test – is about how we respond to the driver who just cut us off, or how we answer the teacher who asks if we did our homework, or whether we provide our employer value (neither too little nor too much!) for wages through our "work ethic." It's a matter of "what's worth doing" in the context of how I make meaning out of my life. So yes, my religious faith and my political commitments and my understanding about the nature of the world will all impact my enacted and expressed morality. No surprise there.

But what do we do when "what's worth doing" is contested? That's the "everywhere" that the test is coming from. And every one of those tests is an opportunity – to be and become "moral."

Hmmm, but is that too circular? Is there no Archimedean point at which to anchor what is of value, or what is meaningful, or who should and should not be loved? Maybe not. Doesn't that complicate the process of moral education for children? Sure. But maybe it also provides the opening for moral education in a public school setting. And maybe it also supports the value of diversity within schools. And maybe it captures something important about democratic culture that we rarely experience.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No one mourns the wicked

No one mourns the wicked
No one cries: "They won't return!"
No one lays a lily on their grave
The good man scorns the wicked!
Through their lives, our children learn
What we miss
When we misbehave . . .

The Wicked Witch of the West is dead. In the original film "The Wizard of Oz," there is unmitigated joy: "Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead!? But in the contemporary musical "Wicked," a retelling from the putative witch's point of view, there is a kind of polluted glee. The delight at the downfall of this wicked person is a schadenfreude, a joy shadowed by a too-intent insistence that wickedness is easily distinguished from good by those who are themselves good. "Goodness knows" that the wicked get what they deserve and deserve what they get.

But it is, of course, not that simple. And just how complex it is develops in the course of the musical.

Is Elphaba wicked? Or wildly misunderstood and mistreated again and again? Is Glinda "the Good"? Or a whited sepulcher -- handcuffed by self-doubt, fear of failure and a slavish attention to others' opinions -- who sacrifices Elphaba to her own need to be popular? Does it matter if we can determine the goodness of the two?

It does if, as the lyric suggests, the lives of those we judge to be wicked are moral lessons to our children. What do children learn through the lives of the wicked? What do we miss when we misbehave?

If the story told in the first scene of "Wicked" is to be believed, children learn that "the wickeds' lives are lonely," that no one mourns the wicked, that the wicked die early and alone. So children learn to emulate Glinda and not Elphaba. Glinda is a hero; Elphaba is an object lesson.

Glinda is also shallow and self-centered. She readily uses others to get what she wants. She will "grovel in submission to feed [her] own ambition." And in the process, she accepts social givens. Elphaba, disfigured and dishonored by the sin of being born "green," is honest and caring with herself and others. She acts on principle. She does not tolerate foolishness or dishonesty in authority. When she encounters both in the Wizard, she experiences a moment of heightened consciousness that leads her to "defy gravity," to soar beyond the limits that others impose on her. This act of transgression is the source of her "wickedness," as she refuses to tolerate the wickedness (in the musical, the maltreatment of animals) perpetrated by others. Soon she is being accused – by those powerful others -- of lying and spreading fear. The irony of course, is that dishonesty and fear are defining characteristics for "Glinda the Good" and the "Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Neither Glinda nor the Wizard is wicked; each is weak. But that weakness grounds the judgment that Elphaba is wicked. Wickedness is not Elphaba's trait but Glinda's and the Wizard's reflection. And others -- all of us who need to believe that wickedness is in others -- somehow separate from the one who speaks truth to power, the one who defies social expectation.

This story constitutes a meditation on principled moral action and conventional behavior. (Is adherence to convention ever really moral?) But it is more than principle that motivates Elphaba and it's important to acknowledge that. Her location as a different "other" (she is, after all, green and admittedly odd rather than blond and popular like the good witch Glinda) grounds her experience of injustice and her awareness that the "something bad" happening is not only bad; it is also unfair. And her encounter with the Wizard jars her into realizing what she values precisely by shaking her faith in the Wizard's authority. Elphaba has thought-into-action in response to a situation that shakes up her taken for granted world. She interprets what's going on in the light of her own prior experience, her beliefs about what is fair, and her solidarity with other outsiders. She recognizes the consequences of "defying gravity" but "can't" want what she wanted before anymore. And she lives out the consequences of her action in the context of the overlapping communities of action that shape – but not define – her.

Moral agency is complicated and cannot be described or understood by focusing solely on principles or on consequences or on virtues. But any theory of moral agency and action must make room for principles and consequences and virtues. Is there such a theory of everything?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What social science tells us about children's moral development

Twenty years ago, William Damon (The Moral Child, 1988) offered this set of principles for guiding a comprehensive approach to children's moral education. They were, he claimed, based on current social scientific knowledge.

1. Simply by virtue of their participation in essential social relationships, children encounter the classic moral issues facing humans everywhere: issues of fairness, honesty, responsibility, kindness, and obedience.
2. The children's moral awareness is shaped and supported by natural emotional reactions to observations and events.
3. Relations with parents, teachers, and other adults introduce the child to important social standards, rules, and conventions. Moreover, these relations generate knowledge and respect for the social order itself.
4. Relations with peers introduce children to norms of direct reciprocity and to standards of sharing, cooperation, and fairness.
5. Because children's morality is shaped (though not wholly created) through social influence, broad variations in social experience can lead to broad differences in children's moral orientations.
6. Moral growth in school settings is governed by the same developmental processes that apply to moral growth everywhere.

I suggest that Damon's principles are still valid and that research in recent decades – including new discoveries about neurological function – have supported rather than supplanted these basic principles. Note that relations and emotions constitute the medium of moral development as Damon understands it.

In other places, I have written about the centrality of relation to educational efforts and have begun to focus more recently about educating the emotions with a focus on fear as a feature of educational experience. That may explain why I think Damon has it right.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Moral Maturity?

Nearly two decades ago, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's Panel on Moral Education published a description of the "morally mature" person. According to the panel, the morally mature person habitually:
1. Respects human dignity
2. Cares about the welfare of others
3. Integrates individual interests and social responsibilities
4. Demonstrates integrity
5. Reflects on moral choices
6. Seeks peaceful resolution of conflict.
The panel's statement closed with this: "In general, then, the morally mature person understands moral principles and accepts responsibility for applying them."

As I review this descriptive list twenty years later, I find it difficult to argue with. Who could possibly be opposed to human dignity, caring, integrity, etc.? And yet…

Note that the description is usefully composed in behavioral terms. I know that it's difficult to define some of these terms, but it's actually not as difficult to recognize a trait when it presents itself as it is to define it. I am pretty confident I can name "integrity" when I see it but I am less confident that any verbal definition will stand up unerringly to lived experience. So I find this notion of "moral maturity" helpful as a target. But still…

I do think the items on the list constitute both necessary and sufficient conditions (as philosophers like to say) for moral maturity. That is, I don't believe one can be morally mature without attending to each of the six mandates (necessary). And I don't think there is any significant mandate omitted in this listing (sufficient). And yet…

I'm sure you can tell that I have some reservations about this description of moral maturity, and maybe you also recognize that I'm having trouble expressing my reservations. My concern is not that this doesn't tell me when I (or others) have hit the target. I think it's quite useful for that purpose. But I worry that the list (even in its unabridged version with "indicators") obscures rather than illuminates the path to moral maturity. How is it that I come to understand what integrity is, to form a concept of integrity, and to appropriate it as a life goal? How do I acquire the habit of integrity? I am not convinced that integrity can be taken on in the same way that, say, table manners can be modeled, coached and practiced.

I also worry that the behavioral formulation of moral maturity obscures rather than illuminates both the cognitive and emotional dimensions of moral maturity. In a social and academic milieu where the cognitive is assumed to be critical, the emotional is suspect and to be controlled, and the two are assumed to be distinct domains – all arguable assumptions, I fret especially that we neglect the education of the emotions in any effort toward developing moral maturity.

And take a look at the summary statement with its attention to the application of principles. I don't doubt the value of moral principles but I am no Kantian. I do not view moral principles as rules to be discovered and obeyed but, like John Dewey, as generalizations about past experience to be tested in present living. Thus principles are not "applied" but "proven," that is put to the test in the here and now. So yes, responsibility must be accepted, but responsibility is more than accountability. It represents an ability to respond in a fitting way to moral challenges. More on that in another post.

And then of course there's the question of whether we should frame the goal in terms of "maturity," a term that suggests, if not implies, the possibility of completion and/or superiority. When one is morally mature, is one also somehow better than other human beings? Better how? More human? More sophisticated? Closer to God?

Puppies and moral possibilities

We just got a puppy. She is a yellow Lab (a "Dudley" version with pink nose and beautiful blue-green eyes) and her name is Bailey. And Bailey has me thinking about how the young grow to be "good."

Bailey – like any puppy and any small child – demonstrates a remarkable combination of needs that don't always – or even often – match up. First, she desperately wants affection, approval, and a sense of belonging. She opens herself to us, and almost any other adult she encounters. She craves the authority of the "top dog." She wants the security of clear guidance and good habits. She is not good when she is afraid or when the expectations are unclear. (OK, so I admit I learned that watching the "Dog Whisperer" on TV, but I think you can see it in your own puppy – or child -- even without Caesar's guidance.)

At the same time that Bailey craves structure and approval, she is forging her own sense of assertiveness and efficacy. She recognizes small children as others like her and runs to them (and at them!) in puppy-like games that have both a social and a self-testing element about them. "Yes, I am playing with you, but I am also figuring out who I am and where I fit in the animal kingdom I now inhabit." She wants her own bone and bowl and blanket. She likes her crate (as a place of security – see above), but on a daily basis drags her blanket out of the crate to a spot on the floor of her choosing as if to say "Yes, I need a space but I'll pick it." She needs a sense of efficacy -- "I can get it done" – within a context of collaboration – "you come too."

And then there is the sheer physicality of her presence and daily existence. She uses her body in new ways everyday and with boundless energy and eagerness. Her sense of taste is limited only by our discipline (we've made a commitment to feed her only dog food, but I wonder if that will go of the way of the "no TV" plan I had for my children), but her sense of touch, hearing, sight and smell are stimulated in infinite and variable ways constantly. Birds chirp, bugs fly past her nose, sun warms her coat, bunnies and squirrels offer quarry for the hunt. And then there are the physical challenges we put in her path. She learns "stupid human tricks" as much because it is a way to move in her body as because we are offering her a treat for her performance.

She learns so quickly and so willingly. But she must learn to balance the competing calls and lessons if she is to become a "good dog." And it seems to me that she needs clear and consistent direction and limits at the same time that she needs opportunities to test and assert herself and the space to flex her physical and "moral" muscles. What do these puppy needs tell us about how children grow to be good persons? And what are the adult actions and context conditions that will speed this development toward good? More on that later.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

"Something Bad" is happening in Oz

I reside in Lancaster, PA, an economically prosperous, culturally diverse, remarkably safe, and geographically lovely oasis west of Philadelphia and north of Baltimore. But over the past several years, we have awakened to news of brutal murders committed by "good kids." These teenagers have killed adoptive parents, girlfriends' parents, rivals in love, best friends, and other family members. They are middle class, attend good schools and have adults who care for and about them. As Elphaba and Dr. Dillamond sing in the musical Wicked, "Something bad is happening in Oz . . ."

How do we explain this phenomenon? The tendency is to look for something "wrong" in the young person who perpetrates this act. We want to be able to blame them – or their abusive family members or their parents' divorce. If we can place blame, we can isolate the germ. It affects "them" but not "us." But to identify mental illness in this one or bullying of that one or dysfunctional family system for his one is to beg the question. For who among us doesn't experience neurotic patterns of behavior, or hasn't bullied or been bullied, or doesn't have a dysfunctional family? In and of themselves, these are not causes of murder and other violent behaviors.

And, of course, there are those who will explain our lost moral horizon by linking it to a failure of religious faith, usually of a particular brand of faith with its attendant presumptions about propriety and social organization. While I think it right to reflect on the impact of spiritual understanding and religious faith on patterns of action, I am wary of explanations that imply absolute answers to questions of meaning and action.

Instead we would do well to ask ourselves why violence is imaginable for anyone, but especially for any young person. What is it in our cultural patterns, our social interactions, our educational institutions that introduces the possibility of violence? This is, of course, a question for books, not a blog post. Here I just want to highlight a couple of things that we're doing that, in my opinion, do not close the door to violence.

We make more – and sillier -- rules. Last week I read about a Virginia middle student who put his arm around his girlfriend's shoulder (Do middle school students really have girlfriends? I know they talk about "going out" but of course they never actually go anywhere). For this offense, he ended up in the principal's office. He had violated a rule against hugging. Now the actual rule proscribes any touching, any physical contact among students. I can understand why the thought of banning touching occurred to the administration. Middle schoolers, like puppies, utilize touch as a form of communication. And sometimes that touching is inappropriate and they are not mature enough to tell when or to control every response. But middle schoolers' immaturity is not a justification for adults' idiocy. Rules cannot do the hard work of relationships. Efficiency of apprehension, adjudication and punishment will not replace the painstaking (and time-consuming) process of discriminating between touch that is appropriate (and needed and welcome!) and touch that is inappropriate. We have developed all kinds of zero tolerance policies over the past decade in the name of security, authority, consistency, rigor, etc. and none deserve to stand. Such policies defeat their own goals. Security is lost because trust is defeated. Authority is undermined because order outweighs human flourishing.

We create "programs" to fix "the problem." Policy-makers and educators (administrators and teachers) are problem-solvers who have been trained to make problems go away. We want to identify the problem and then fix it. So we create a program and declare the problem fixed. Think here of Head Start or CHIPS (the PA children's health care program) or various remedial reading efforts. These may well be excellent programs but, for a variety of reasons – limited funding, inadequate outreach, inappropriate application or a simple failure of will. the strong strategy doesn't fully address the issue at hand. It does however "fix" the problem; that is, it identifies a problem and sets it in stone as "the problem." This means that the phenomenon that prompted our concern and consideration can be set aside as identified and solved when, in fact, there may be more facets and features to the phenomenon that require our continued attention. Given the nature of human behavior and growth, I suggest that such "problems" are never exhaustively identified and require on-going definition and re-thinking. We not only need new solutions to old problems; we need new formulations of the problem in order to generate novel responses.

I was thinking about this when I read about the United States Golf Association's First Tee Program. It's a good program, one that contributes to what we might call the moral formation of young people. It's also a marvelous example of marketing meeting moral education. Public golf courses make tee times (and fees) and coaching available to youngsters at times when the course is not crowded. Youngsters learn the rules of golf (a "whiff" counts as a stroke) and the values that implementing the rules require (honesty). The program involves connections to life outside the golf course and parental communication. It's all good. And it's good for the golf course owners who are grooming future paying customers.

This is a good program. But any program like this is dangerous because it allows us to think that we have identified the problem (kids don't have the right values) and offered a "fix" (teach them values through participation in sport). We congratulate ourselves because we have these programs – in schools, in churches, and in community settings. And it seems likely that almost all kids have some experience with some kind of program like this. But still we wake up to news of murder by children.

I have some thoughts about what we can do to excise violent reaction as an imaginable response. And I will write about those over time. But those things are more complicated than making rules and developing programs. They involve changing hearts and minds and habits. I better start with my own.