Religion and Morals in the Classroom

During my reading of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, I was most interested in the portion of chapter two that discussed “natural inclusion” of religion into the regular curriculum, or in other words, discussing religion whenever it naturally comes up. Though the article pointed out many difficulties of this—namely that most people don’t see the connection between the subject they teach and religion, even if they are themselves religions—I think it is an important idea. Historically, religion played a big part in the development of our country and culture, and the world. Almost every single war had some sort of religious influence, for example (think Crusades or the Iraq war—two quick and obvious examples, one from history and one current). Our own pledge of allegiance contains the hotly debated phrase “under God” and is often spoken by teachers and students with no thought to what it actually means or why that phrase is in the pledge in the first place. The concept of zero comes from Muslim mathematician Al’Khwarizmi, whose name is where we get algorithm from, and who wrote the first book of algebra (called Al-Jabr). All of these are examples of places where religion comes up or is mentioned, and all are places where we as teachers could include religion in our normal curriculum. When teaching preschool, one of the things I tried to do was to include every major religious holiday in my curriculum, and we celebrated them all and learned about them. I also tried to use examples of multicultural people and dress types in the materials I created, which included traditional or religious garb for some of the images I used. This continuous exposure for the kids was intended to be a way to help them understand that there are many other cultures and religions out there aside from their own (and I had a pretty multicultural class, which helped with that understanding), and that regardless of someone else’s beliefs these differences are both normal and worthy of respect. I was in 6th grade when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and I’d had no idea that there was even another religion besides Christianity and Judaism. It was so far from my own cultural upbringing that I did not understand what Islam was, and I was fearful of the clothing worn by Muslims and contributed to the cultural fear and hatred that still prevails. I think that had I been given opportunities as a child to understand Islam (which I learned about later in middle school, at which point it was a little late in my opinion), or any other religion that I was not familiar with, I would have been far more accepting as a young adult and even now as a teacher-to-be. Because of this experience, I think that it is my job to find these instances of religion in the classroom whenever I can and explain the connection between my subject matter and its religious background (and though history isn’t the only place religion shows up, it’s the most obvious…I think it’s also my job to figure out how religion relates to current topics too!).

Another place religion shows up in education is the teaching of values, which we have discussed a lot in this course. Many values that are upheld by the US are also commonly thought of as religions values, such as honesty, kindness, respect for others, their lives, and their possessions, etc. These are also found in the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not steal, murder, covet) and in the Sermon on the Mount (Blessed are the humble, the pure in heart, the peacemakers). In Islam, generosity is valued, as is the preservation of life and family (among other things). When teaching these values in school—which many people agree is necessary, including myself—we can make these connections between the value, different religions they might be seen in or come from, and how it can affect ourselves and others. Having students discuss the why of the value might help them to understand the true value of practicing it in their lives.

Nord, W. A., Haynes, C. C. (1998). Taking religion seriously across the curriculum. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/198190.aspx

The Tao in Moral Education

Although I can see how people might think the opposite, I do not believe that the Ten Commandments are a form of what Lewis refers to as the Tao. Perhaps some of them are, such as “you shall not murder” or “you shall not steal”. The Tao in The Abolition of Man is not a set of values from one religion or another, but rather a collection of common morals agreed upon by societies, and many of the commandments are not something you’d see across cultures. For example, “you shall not covet your neighbor’s house”. While the other commandments described actions you should not take, this one describes thoughts you should not have. However, in US culture, it is often widely accepted that thoughts of something you want are fine, so long as you don’t act upon them (or if you do, do so within the bounds of morality). One thing I found interesting about Exodus, and all the rules God imposed on his people, was that he was very explicit in many things. Though most of the rules hardly apply to a school setting, it put me in mind of something I was reading for another class. In Teaching with Love and Logic, Funk (1995) describes a situation where a school had a rule for everything. They thought they had covered every aspect of misbehavior by the students, until one day a boy threw a dead fish at a girl, and there was no rule that stated that “boys can’t throw dead fish at girls”. This approach, having an explicit rule for everything, can be confining, and it’s easy to work around. For example, in All the King’s Men, Hugh Miller—considered an “honorable” man, though he was considered thus by Jack, whose judgment I question—believes that doing the right thing involves following the rules set down by the American government. These explicitly state what should be done in a situation regarding Byram White and his misuse of his political position. However, Willie Talos (Stark) finds a way to work around the law by forcing Byram into a position where he should do as Talos asks lest he lose his place in politics (which he apparently wants). Willie, despite his questionable morals, I still think at this point in his career intends to do right by the people, and believes he is doing so. He is guided more by a set of moral principles (so he thinks), and these are more difficult to break. In the classroom and in life, I think this is a more reasonable approach. I think it’s easier to break God’s rules in Exodus than it would have been had he stated “You shall respect your neighbor, and be kind” or something (which are both rules I have had in my own classroom), and in the classroom it’s easier for students to break “You shall not throw a dead fish at a girl” (maybe they’ll throw a live one next time!) than “be kind”. Though I will add that three of the Ten Commandments are values I personally hold (don’t murder, steal, or lie, essentially). I mentioned in my study guide that I read a book somewhere where a character thinks that stealing is the ultimate sin. To murder is to steal life, to embarrass someone (or bully them) is to steal their dignity and comfort. We all have basic human rights, which are protected by what Lewis calls the Tao. These are basic rules for living in society. He claims that to make an argument against the Tao requires use of the Tao itself, and therefore invalid, which means it’s basically a code we all follow. There is some overlap between the Tao and the Ten Commandments, though again, I don’t think one is the other.

Do Morals Have a Place in Education?

Over 20 years ago, a diverse group of youth leaders and educators decided on six “pillars of moral education”, or values they believed were central to the lives of ethical people, regardless of their differences. These values are service, honesty, respect, kindness, participation, and commitment, all of which I think have a place in education. In particular, I think that honesty and respect merit extra attention, though this may be because these are values I personally appreciate in others. However, each one has its own level of importance in providing students with a caring, working environment that prepares them to be citizens with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many of these values encourage this kind of citizenship in the classroom to help each other learn, which I think is also significant. Respect is imperative for a warm and nurturing classroom environment that encourages learning, while participation in group, partner, or individual activities improves academic achievement. Without these values within the classroom, it is easy for students (and the teacher) to fall into habits of disrespect or apathy. As an example out of the classroom, several of the characters we read about this week exemplified some of the characteristics that aren’t ideal in a classroom and are not conducive to good learning. In the Bible, Jacob convinced his uncle to let him keep the spotted and striped sheep or goats as payment for his labor, while he left the pure white ones for his uncle. A seemingly decent trade, his uncle agreed, and Jacob was true to his word in this regard. However, he also used trickery to ensure that the babies born of the strong sheep and goats were spotted or striped, and therefore his, while the weak sheep and goats were white, and belonged to his uncle. Though no consequences came of these actions (at least yet, as far as I know), what Jacob did was dishonest and unkind. He helped himself at his uncle’s expense through cheating. In the classroom, tricking other students in such a way would be considered bullying or cheating, and either way is something I’d like to discourage through building positive relationships and a respect for values in my students. In All the King’s Men, Willie Talos seems to start out a decent man, but appears to later be corrupted by politics and the treatment of others. In the chapters describing his later life as the governor, Willie tends to do what he wants despite how it makes others feel. For example, when he and his crew were visiting his father, he disrupts his wife’s happiness (or feeling of success and importance as a hostess) and ignores his father’s wish to spend time with him. All this to speak to a judge hours away who refused to do as Willie asked. Afterward, Willie orders Jack to dig up some “dirt” on the judge, no matter how long it takes and despite Jack’s previous relationship with him. I don’t think he is oblivious to the feelings of these people who are “close” to him, but I think he has lost his sense of caring about them. He does not work with them, he works on his own and orders them about. If I were to assign groups in a classroom, this is not something I would want to see my students doing. When one student takes over the work, he or she is doing everything and not letting others contribute. These others aren’t able to talk about their ideas or discuss anything, and lose interest in the project. I think this is what happened to Jack, whose idea of morality is that “what you don’t know won’t hurt you because it ain’t real” (Penn Warren, 1946, pg. 44). He just goes along with Willie, and though he seems to be thinking along the lines of what is right, he never acts on it. These examples show that values like honesty, kindness, respect, and participation are important in life, and that they do have a place in the classroom.

There is no one way to educate students for character. As I will be teaching elementary students, I hope to make it as fun and interesting as possible, with both explicit and implicit teachings to really get the point across. Explicit so that students have words to describe what they are learning, and can talk about whether or not they were respectful or committed, but also implicit so that they see that these kinds of values can be found everywhere in life, in and out of school. I read a great article on educating kids about lying in a fun way, to help them understand that “covering it up” doesn’t make the bad go away. Briefly, if you put salt on your ice cream, it makes the ice cream taste bad. But what if you cover it up with chocolate syrup? Does it taste better? (It might…I love salty sweets, but the kids probably won’t if you REALLY salt it up!) It’s a fun kind of explicit learning opportunity that you can later reference as needed. These aren’t necessarily the only or the best ways to teach kids about values and character education, however. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that “without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (Lewis, 1944, pg. 24). I interpreted this as meaning that someone who is taught from birth that some immoral act (his example is cheating at cards) is something you don’t do is less likely to commit the immoral act than someone who grew up cheating and likes to argue about moral philosophy. It seemed as if he were arguing for training emotions rather than letting students make their own judgment calls, though this was the most difficult read for me (and I needed help from the internet to interpret some of what he was saying!) and I may not have understood it correctly. Does he favor rote memorization over experiential learning? It seemed that way, but I’m not so sure. Regardless, he certainly believes that values are important, and that if we remove all sentiments from the mind, we produce “men without chests”, or people of no will and conscience. He argues that making value judgments are an essential part of clear thinking, which I can certainly agree with.

Sources:

Penn-Warren, R. (1946). All the king’s men. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace & Company.

Lewis, C. S. (1944). The abolition of man. New York, NY: Harper One.