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Ethics Without Indoctrination

In an essay entitled “Ethics Without Indoctrination” in a now 20-year-old issue of Educational Leadership, Richard W. Paul writes:

“If we bring ethics into the curriculum – and we should – we must take pains to ensure that we do so in a morally unobjectionable manner. This requires us to distinguish clearly between espousing the universal, general principles of morality shared by people of good will everywhere, and the very different manner of defending any particular application of these principles to actual life situations as conceived from a particular standpoint (liberal, conservative, radical, theistic, nontheistic, American, Russian, and the like.”

This is such an important point, whether written 1,000 years ago, 20 years ago, or 20 years hence, and it represents such a fine line to walk as an educator. Every one of us has a bias. Even if our bias lands us squarely in the mainstream and is perceived as moderate, it is still a bias. None of us is immune to the culture that shapes us, the opinions we hold dear, and the particular ideologies that embody our values in day to day life. It may appear that we have no bias if we find ourselves in the proverbial middle, but this is false. This is why Richard Paul’s quote above is so well-articulated, and so important for educators in general, and for humane educators who teach about the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation in particular.

The universal principles of morality that Paul mentions would include such values as generosity, kindness, compassion, integrity, honesty, courage, perseverance, and wisdom and would exclude such things as cruelty, corruption, exploitation and abuse of others, deception, and so on. But what one person considers cruel may be different from what another considers cruel; and one person’s perception of exploitation may be another person’s perception of opportunity. How can the humane educator – whose goal it is to explore ethical issues, invite positive change, and encourage innovative ideas for a healthy world – balance her own vision of what that world looks like with what a particular student’s differing vision might be? How can the humane educator teach about ethical issues while painstakingly avoiding indoctrination?

Here are some ideas:

  • Choose one of these two approaches: Either be honest about your biases and explain their origin and your thinking OR choose to remain utterly impartial in discussions and encourage students to think critically, whether they are articulating your own position or one that you do not share. My personal approach is to be up front about my biases. The truth is that I am choosing texts that provide a point of view, and not choosing other texts. I may try to “balance” the reading, but there is a bias in my choices. Invite your students to critique you and your choices.
  • Be stalwart in your commitment to require those who share your views to be vigilant in supporting their perspective. And be open, receptive, and ready to learn from good critical thinking that leads to different positions. Further, be willing to being persuaded. Be as ready to change and grow from what you learn from your students as you hope they will be open to changing and growing because of you.
  • Agree on fundamentals. Invite students to generate a list of humanity’s best qualities and narrow these down until your class is in agreement that these are indeed fundamentals. Bring back all discussions about systems to whether and how they uphold these fundamental values. Be prepared for complexity and apparent contradictions. Remember physicist Niels Bohr’s statement that the opposite of a great truth is often a great truth.

All education has the potential to veer into indoctrination, not simply education about ethics. Be vigilant. Our world needs more critical and creative thinkers, not more believers.

Zoe Weil, President of the Institute for Humane Education and author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education and Most Good, Least Harm

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About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.

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