Beginning in the 1960s, the American quest for moral education embraced three new "liberal" approaches. "Values clarification" taught children how to judge diverse situations. "Cognitive development" taught children how to think about values. "Feminist caring" considered values as part of personal relationships rather than as abstract principles. These liberal approaches were still based largely on the free choices of individuals, like conservative approaches.



This Post is the fifth in a Series on AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION – attempts to teach "values," mostly in American public schools. Many Chinese are interested in that topic now, as China attempts to strengthen its own moral education.

Earlier Posts introduced a new book on Western ethics and began excerpting its first chapter on American approaches to moral education. This Post reports three postwar LIBERAL approaches to "character education." A final Post will provide philosophical background.

Overall a main point is that recent approaches, despite thinking they are returning to Greek "virtue ethics," misinterpret the Greek notion of character, making it into a matter of individual DECISIONS, not social HABITS.

Another main point is that this individualist-volitional account of moral agency PERSONALIZES and DEPOLITICIZES moral discourse, blaming individuals for misbehavior and social ills while diverting attention from societal issues of power and justice.











From Heidi Ravven 2013 The self beyond itself, 33-41.

[For Notes, please consult the original printed book, where they are numbered differently. Here section Headings have been added or shortened.]


In 1951 the National Education Policies Commission of the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators published a report, Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools, in an attempt to define moral education for the post–World War II era. The report emphasized both the teaching of certain central values as well as a degree of moral flexibility in the face of a fast-changing world. Its authors identified a number of "essential" values that schools had the responsibility to inculcate. These included "respect for the individual personality, devotion to truth, commitment to brotherhood, and acceptance of individual moral responsibility." They also urged teachers to respect and encourage children's spiritual and religious values and expressions. There was a good deal of consensus about this report for its moderate tone and recommendations, but some vocal dissenters outside the mainstream called for the revival of an older form of character education that emphasized the development of specific character traits and the adoption of formal codes of moral conduct. At issue was a progressive notion of the evolution of values versus a notion of the unchanging character of values—hence the latter's call for "the direct teaching of the eternal verities." The dissenters, harking back to an even earlier vision of moral education, were largely affiliated with, or had their origins in, religious institutions, and some prominent advocates received generous funding from the Lilly Endowment. Generally the 1940s and 1950s witnessed a new emphasis on cognitive development and skills, and the sidelining of the moral, due to the needs of a more technologically oriented and quickly expanding economy. Perhaps less emphasis on moral education in schools was also due to the concentration of moral focus on anti-Communism above all else. A judicial atmosphere that encouraged the separation of church and state and the enhancement of the rights of children also contributed to a retrenchment, a treading lightly, when it came to moral instruction in public schools. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the quest for moral education in schools was renewed with three new individualist, free choice approaches with a liberal tenor: values clarification, cognitive developmentalism, and a caring approach to morals.


The immediate appeal of values clarification when it emerged in the mid-1960s was that it offered a ready alternative to traditional inculcating approaches to moral education. Louis E. Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sydney B. Simon, in their Values and Teaching, set out a clear and easy program with curricula and exercises for teachers to follow. It met with great success and was widely adopted in schools in the 1960s and 1970s. The approach focused on individual moral decision making and emphasized the situational character of moral decisions. Children, it was held, needed to learn how to think about values and make value judgments in changing situations. McClellan points out that "what made the matter especially pressing to these reformers was their sense that the troubles of youth in modern America stemmed . . . from the difficulty of choosing values." Hence they emphasized the "personal and individual nature of valuing." The teacher's role was to help students engage in a process of discovering, discussing, developing, and then freely choosing values. These values were chosen from among alternatives after thoughtful consideration and class discussion, and then each student was to act by choosing the actions that fit with the principles he or she had chosen. The role of the teacher in the discussion was as facilitator rather than as moral authority. The teacher, like a therapist, was to help students determine their own values, to help them "find a personal path in a bewildering world." Conservative critics charged values education with promoting moral relativism, on one hand, or with presuming controversial and politically charged moral commitments such as to the environment, on the other. The philosopher Andrew Oldenquist criticized values clarification for presupposing too blithely that human beings are essentially good and just needed help in clarifying how to direct their basic goodness. With these criticisms, enthusiasm for the program waned and values clarification increasingly fell out of use.


Concurrent with the popularity of values clarification was a movement to help children develop moral reasoning and judgment. This was the cognitive moral development approach of the widely influential Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. "From the mid-1960s to the present," McClellan writes, "Kohlberg's theories have occupied a central place in the discourse about moral education." Kohlberg wished to counter conservative charges of moral relativism. He focused narrowly on the cognitive component of moral growth and proposed a universally human six-stage schema of moral reasoning, from the earliest, most primitive to the fully mature. The burden of the teacher was to help children rise in their cognitive moral development to more mature levels. Kohlberg's concern, like that of the values clarificationists, was the process of individual moral decision making. Despite various modifications over the years, Kohlberg's schema retained an overall structure of discrete developmental stages that every person had to move through sequentially. Moral development began with primitive selfishness (egoism) and developed by stages to an ultimate stage of personal commitment to and application of universal principles. Not everyone reached the final, ideal stage, but children could be helped to improve their moral reasoning by teacher-led discussion of moral case studies carefully prepared for that purpose. Later on, after working in both prisons and troubled schools, Kohlberg turned to a model of restructuring schools democratically as essential to transmitting a notion of justice. With the Just Community Schools model Kohlberg transformed his notion of how moral development occurs—it is not just as an internal psychological developmental process within reasoning resulting in personal choice and commitment but also needs to takes place within a specific kind of social context. The teaching of moral thinking was transformed from the abstract, hypothetical stories he first developed to the lived community of the school itself. Free rational choice and commitment to act on principle, Kohlberg's stage six, was now set within and supported by democratic structures, practices, and social arrangements, a nod to Dewey. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of individual choice of action on principle, through personal independent rational decision making, remained intact.


A variant of the moral cognitive developmental approach to moral education in schools emerged in the 1980s out of a critique of Kohlberg, especially by his student Carol Gilligan. Gilligan criticized Kohlberg for what she held was his masculinist bias in thinking that ethics was about justice and rights rather than about caring. Caring, she held, was a feminine way of looking at morals, whereas justice was biased toward the masculine. Women, unlike men, conceive ethics in terms of personal relationships rather than as an impersonal arena of justice, she argued. The difference was not due to women's occupying a lower stage of moral development as Kohlberg's schema would suggest, Gilligan said, but due instead to a different way of being a moral person. Women, she argued, had a more relational and emotional approach to morals than the emotionally detached and impersonal and impartial stance of men. Caring, rather than justice, informed women's moral sensibility and should inform the various stages of an account of female moral developmental and how it differs from male moral development. Gilligan developed an alternative version of Kohlberg's stage theory of moral development that traversed an initial stage of caring for self, then an intermediate stage of caring for dependents (mothering), and culminated in caring for all, insofar as all human beings are within interconnected webs of relation. Nel Noddings, Jane Roland Martin, and others joined Gilligan in calling for a moral education in schools that includes what they regarded as female as well as male moral orientations and voices. The intimate relations of women's domestic life were seen as offering a moral orientation of special importance, equal to the male public arena of justice. Practice in caring ought to inform moral life within the classroom and school, and Noddings proposed that the school curriculum could be reorganized around the theme of caring—"caring for self, for intimate others, for strangers and global others, for the natural world and its non-human creatures, for the human-made world, and for ideas." Noddings envisioned the moral model of caring as relation-centered. Virtues are defined "situationally and relationally" rather than abstractly.

Care theorists focused on virtues, "put[ting] far greater emphasis on the 'social' virtues . . . [for example] of congeniality, amiability, good humor, emotional sensitivity, good manners, and the like," than the standard character educators do. Noddings criticized the out-of-context nature of the teaching of virtues in standard character education. Parents, she suggested, most often introduce a moral lesson in context rather than as a lesson in general principles: for example, they often say such things as, "You must not hit your little brother; be nice." That kind of intervention with a direct and directive moral lesson is preferable because it is immediate and relevant rather than theoretical and distanced, Nodding proposed. Nevertheless, she applauded the use of cultural narratives and stories, suggesting that these can be from many cultures and offer differing moral points of view, bringing up legitimate moral conflicts and, hence, moral options to choose from. Noddings and the other care theorists rejected the impersonality of principles and opted for appealing to individual emotional relationships as the proper guide for individual moral decision making. We may no longer be rational choosers, on this model, but we are still choosers, individual subjects who engage in decision making according to our emotional commitments. Noddings highlights and wishes to encourage personal emotional responsiveness as the basis for an ethics of free choice. It is these emotionally rich choices that are to bring the (potentially isolated) individual into a world of relationships.


I became acquainted with the caring approach to character education when I attended a workshop for educators, "The Ethics of Caring," at the Boston University Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, part of the School of Education, in April 2007. The introductory session of the workshop began with the showing of the 1983 German film The White Rose, which tells the story of the group of five Munich University students and their philosophy professor, who came together to form a secret, nonviolent resistance organization in defiance of the Nazis. The group took their name, the White Rose, from a Spanish novel about peasant resistance in Mexico and also gave that name to the underground newsletter they published opposing the Nazis and calling for general resistance to the Nazi regime. The newsletter called attention to the mass murder of Jews in the east and also opposed Nazi militarism and tyranny. The group wrote and distributed six issues of the newsletter clandestinely over a period of eight months in 1942–43, mailing them from distant cities and also distributing them by courier runs to various locations. The Gestapo led a concerted search to find the source of the publication and distribution, and the group was eventually betrayed to the Gestapo by a university custodian who witnessed members hastily doing drops of leaflets on campus in February 1943. The six were tried by a court devoted to political offenses against the Nazi state, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death. Three were executed by guillotine on the same day as their verdict, and the other three some months later. Several of those who assisted the White Rose Six in publication and distribution and in collecting funds for their surviving family members were sentenced to long prison terms.

After the showing of the film, Bernice Lerner, director of the Boston University center, offered the participants in the workshop an interpretation of the film that was strangely apolitical: it was to be understood as depicting a quintessential illustration and model of caring. The film was not seen as portraying grassroots political resistance to injustice but instead as an example of personal attachments being the source of choosing courageous actions in response to feelings of caring. The lesson to be taken away from the film concerned the personalizing and individualizing of the social-political moral arena in terms of personal decision making. This interpretation of The White Rose alerted me to some of the underlying assumptions of the caring approach to moral education: its depoliticizing of the moral domain and its de-emphasis of, perhaps even blindness to, issues conceived in terms of social justice and injustice (which are regarded as masculinist and impersonal). Thus social structure and the distribution of power, especially of political power, are taken off the table in this liberal model of ethics, as is done also in conservative character education.

While eschewing an approach to ethics focused exclusively on rational discourse and decision making according to abstract universal principles divorced from emotion, the caring approach to moral education is nevertheless just as individualist and personalist in its understanding of moral agency. If anything, caring heightens the underlying notion of morals as emergent from individual, freely chosen personal commitments. Both Kohlberg's stage of cognitive moral development and Gilligan's alternative notion of stages originate in the individual and move outward to connect to others and finally to the larger human and natural worlds. Gilligan's model of moral development makes that movement completely explicit. The individual does not begin as relational; instead, relationality is the moral goal and achievement to be taught and learned. Children are to be brought from self-centeredness to community. They begin as infants and small children, having what could be an isolating self-focus if carried on into adulthood, but ideally they end up in family and community, in a full life of personal emotional relations of caring. The bonds of community are believed to depend on individual, personal choice.



Heidi M. Ravven is a Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College in Central New York. She is a leading proponent of basing ethical philosophy on empirical studies of how human beings actually function, particularly as revealed by current neuroscience.

Ravven has published widely on Jewish philosphers Spinoza and Maimonides and on Jewish ethics and Jewish feminism. Ravven's 2013 book The Self Beyond Itself explores Moral Agency: why we are moral, why and when we are not, and how to get people to be more moral.

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