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Jewish World Review /Dec. 24, 1998 /29 Kislev, 5759

Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura How can we teach ethics without defining morals?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) AT FIRST I WAS THRILLED to read that Morse High School has formed an Ethics Committee, because the school obviously believes the students in this Bath, Maine, community need instruction in discerning right from wrong.

According to the story in The Associated Press, "The high school students are not learning it elsewhere; they need an ethics class to help them learn right from wrong, some parents and teachers say."

But then I started to wonder. Why doesn't this school have rules already? I remember seeing a list of such guidelines posted on the wall of a restored little red schoolhouse from the early 1800s! I am under the impression that most schools distribute handouts or booklets at the beginning of each school year that list permitted and forbidden school conduct.

(When I was in school, I thought that vice principals LIVED to call parents and haul wrongdoers into their offices for serious discussions and punishment.)

OK. For some reason, this particular school doesn't have a code of ethics for in-school behavior, like cheating, bullying others, harassing teachers and forging parents' signatures. So, good; they are going to create one. But then I read, "The group's goal is to come up with a code of ethics for the community, then teach that code ... a few weeks each year."

What is actually going on in this school that some believe will be remedied with "a few weeks" of discussion? Isn't ethics as important as other subjects that are taught for the entire school year, or at least a full semester? Let's look at the world our children are growing up in and see if there's not enough material for a semester's worth of discussion.

When the leader of the free world can have a young woman only a few years older than his daughter perform sex acts on him in the Oval Office, and then lie straight out and redefine sex and adultery to exclude his actions, I think students might be a bit confused. When this same president says smoking marijuana without inhaling is not trying drugs, that lying under oath to protect himself and his family from embarrassment is not perjury, it is very likely that students would get the impression that their creativity is best used to detour around right and wrong.

When "60 Minutes" airs Dr. Kevorkian murdering an ill volunteer on camera, the very same night that plucky quadriplegic Christopher Reeve stars in a television remake of "Rear Window," it's likely that children could become confused about the value of life.

When these same children are bombarded by television programs depicting teen sexuality as the norm; when unmarried men are righteously condemned for failure to support their illegitimate offspring, but unmarried women who abort unwanted children are NOT condemned; when parents play musical beds and their guilt prevents them from forbidding alcohol at children's parties and co-ed sleepovers; when single female movie stars are given Mother of the Year awards though they never bothered to provide a father for their offspring -- then, yeah, I think Morse High School could have more than a few weeks' discussion on right and wrong behavior.

However, the school administration has set itself yet another hurdle. According to the newspaper story, a physician on the committee said, "We're not teaching moral rules to kids; but we would like to get them talking about the difficulty of making an ethical decision."

How do you teach children to do right when you won't declare certain things absolutely, MORALLY wrong? What makes behavior wrong if not a dictate from some higher authority? Who decides what is moral if not G-d?

If the committee sets itself up as its own moral authority, won't the children learn that they, in turn, can be their own moral authorities, either as individuals or members of a club or gang (no red sweaters on Thursday; no sex with siblings of fellow gang members)? How are they going to learn the difference between those rules and eternal, universal morality: You Will Not Bear False Witness; You Will Not Steal?

Why the assurance that morality will not be included in the ethics course? It's because instruction in morality includes a discussion of shame, guilt and embarrassment, which, in spite of the discomfort they engender, are G-d-given signals to us to check the correctness of our own actions against G-d's expectations.

Morality is a divine dictate that often makes us feel uncomfortable and stimulates momentary self-doubt. In the last 30 years, not feeling good about ourselves has become abhorrent -- a "disease" worse than any other, to be avoided at all costs. But the cost can be seen in this story about a Maine high school. The cost is tossing out morality altogether.


12/18/98: Parents afraid of firm values leave their children adrift
12/11/98: Spread righteousness by refusing to accept the 'code'

©1998,Universal Press Syndicate