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Schools and the Moral Contract

by ,

Pub Date: Aug. 16th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8070-3120-8
Publisher: Beacon

A passionate argument that moral education should be seen as an intrinsic part of high school life suffers from the very abstraction the authors seek to avoid. Sizer, noted author of a trio of school-reform books (Horace’s Hope, 1996, etc.) and his wife, who trains teachers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, believe that most educators view character education as an “extracurricular” activity designed around a series of “absolute” nouns: respect, integrity, honesty, and so forth. The authors, on the other hand, insist that “the routines and rituals of a school teach, and teach especially about matters of character” and that becoming an ethical person ought to be an active struggle that engages students’ minds as much as calculus does. For even as the typical high school preaches a “civil religion” intended to turn out young people of good character, the Sizers point out, the sights and sounds of a typical school day may undermine these same values. Students who walk into broken-down school buildings learn that their education is not a priority. Teachers who come to school ill-prepared also teach their students how to cut corners. Schools with predominantly white honors classes teach that academic winners and losers break down along racial and class lines. Though the Sizers do a wonderful job of highlighting the hypocrisy that students see all too clearly, the authors frequently use “real-life” situations as springboards for airy theorizing. Rather than discussing the frightening rise in student violence, for example, the chapter on “Shoving” contemplates pushing in the hallways, dirty jokes, and rudeness, before redefining ’shoving” past the point of absurdity to mean breaking new intellectual ground. This book makes an eloquent case that schools need to practice what they preach. But because the authors define their moral categories so broadly, the values they champion lose their power. When words mean too much, they ultimately mean too little.