An impact on the decline of moral education

Published 17 May 2017

Moral education in U.S. has long been a lively topic. From the early discussions of public schooling in the United States (schooling that would be compulsory and supported by taxes) to laments about the lack of morals of U.S. youth (which cite increases in vandalism in schools, teen pregnancy, delinquency, and drug abuse), moral education has been seen as a vital part of schooling. Moral education takes place whether or not there is a deliberate and formal curriculum in moral education. Why did college students have such an impact on the decline of moral education in the 1970`s and 1980`s? Do students aspire to be selfish or altruistic, reckless or disciplined? The central importance of these questions seems self-evident from a moral socialization perspective, which emphasizes the social transmission of values. The focus is on a person’s learning particular moral aspirations that serve as the value content of moral reasoning.

McClellan (1992) observes that in the 1970`s and 1980`s “as young Americans began to pursue opportunities away from home, communities lost the capacity to educate their children slowly” (17). In the 1970`s and 1980`s there has been a sharp increase in violations of widely accepted standards, such as acts of murder, narcotics abuse and trafficking, rape, sexual molestation of children, and fraud. There has been a marked growth in uncertainty over standards that once were generally accepted, notably, norms strictly opposing abortion, homosexuality, venereal disease, bas- tardy, suicide, and euthanasia. There have been pronounced symptoms of social irresponsibility, as exemplified by the selfishness of the 1980s, the widespread apathy toward those living in the rotted areas of central cities, and the persistence of racial and ethnic tensions. Finally, the violation of social regulations in America has spread from such familiar types as gangsters, juvenile delinquents, local politicians, and Wall Street operators to many once thought to be the personifications of rectitude: clergy, bankers, judges, librarians, directors of charities, school administrators, school teachers, university presidents, college students.

Many of college students in the 1970`s and 1980`s believed that they were not in control of their lives. They felt victimized by an enormous amount of social disruption, yet they were expected to be extremely autonomous. They looked at a society where the family is under siege and where trying to find the “mainstream” amounts to chasing a moving target (Jackson, Boostrom, and Hansen 10). They wished to explore their personal value systems because they wanted to forge a more reliable set of connections to the culture than those that they presently had. Virtually all these students felt less connected to their families, neighborhoods, churches, and workplaces than their parents and grandparents felt at their age; as a result, they were often lonely and disoriented. Many longed for deeper and more permanent relationships and had a genuine interest in examining their own moral beliefs about such relationships.

It is widely believed that those college students were too pragmatic to be interested in debating moral issues. Those students were thought to be unusually fearful about their future, especially when it comes to earning a living. The employer loyalty and job stability that their grandparents experienced in the fifties and sixties disappeared for generation in the eighties and nineties. These students have seen their parents struggle through being downsized or relocated or treated like little more than a commodity by their employers, and they worry about their own careers. This fear, it is assumed, has caused them to become more self-absorbed and practical about their studies and less interested in the analysis of abstract values.

College students in the 1970`s and 1980`s seem to hold opinions about these issues that are substantially different from those of their parents’ generation. Oddly enough, when the subject is either abortion or the death penalty, the change in view appears to be in opposite directions, depending on the method of terminating life that is under discussion. Most abortions performed in the sixties were still criminal offenses in the penal codes of most states, and college students of the day were accustomed to seeing abortionists arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned. Few college students—or professors—in those days spoke of a woman’s “right to choose” or of a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy (Wilshire 62). In 1973, all that changed with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. While many of college students in the 1970`s and 1980`s still believed that abortion was morally wrong and should be limited or even treated as a criminal offense, clearly there has been a massive shift in opinion to the left on this issue. College students in the 1970`s and 1980`s were more accepting of abortion than their parents were.

Equally massive has been the shift in the opposite direction on the issue of the death penalty. The fear of crime that pervaded the American public and the frustration with our inability to “do something” about violent crime have changed the prevailing view of capital punishment. College students in the 1970`s and 1980`s were, by and large, supportive of the death penalty in far greater numbers than their parents’ generation was during their college days. But the arguments favoring or opposing abortion or the death penalty were so well worn that many of those arguments sounded platitudinous. It was difficult to engage students in moral quandaries that require them to wrestle with issues they may not have considered before, such as the right to die.

By and large, white students did not tolerate overt racism or racial epithets. But they did not understand the fear of racism among African-Americans. They did not understand what one of them called the “gratuitous hostility” of young African-Americans, and a large majority disagreed with affirmative action programs. The feelings they voiced were so strong that when they debate racial issues many of their professors notice that the students would rarely even look at each other. In college classrooms, race continued to be an “American dilemma.”

Explaining why college students had such an impact on the decline of moral education in the 1970`s and 1980`s is not easy. Somehow the sum of the parts never adds up to the whole. It was not like anything they have experienced in their lives. It was a time of revolutionary social change, it was a time of almost nonstop protests, and it was a time of some dramatic challenges to the status quo. All over the campuses of the 1970`s and 1980`s were advocates of utopian social experiments and a collection of radical agitators calling for violent political upheaval. But how do we capture the symbols and the confrontations of that era, the changes in lifestyle, in family relationships and in personal freedoms—areas that continue to be debated more than three decades after the fact?

“The 1970`s and 1980`s” simply refuse to fade into history. Christian conservatives view the era as some kind of Satanic victory over traditional social values (Bennett 23). To the extent that we can read the minds of people on the so-called “American left,” we see them still admiring many of the achievements of the era, though they wince at some of its cultural excesses. The challenge to authority raised by that generation no doubt helped spur on the fight against war, racism, sexism, and environmental pollution. But did it also destroy a sense of personal responsibility? Weaken the family? Produce a scourge of drugs, out-of-wedlock births, and sexually transmitted diseases? Part of the left—activists for blacks, women, and gays—still argues that the sixties actually changed very little and that America continues to be the same racist, homophobic patriarchy that it was in the 1970`s and 1980`s.

At the core, the demands of the college students were essentially for justice. They were asking for a re-evaluation of what the “establishment” considered policies that were just (Heslep 12). If we define justice as the proper balance between autonomy and social obligation, then how do we strike that balance? True justice, it was felt among our contemporaries in the 1970`s and 1980`s, required fundamental changes in areas as diverse as the military-industrial complex, race relations, recreational drug use, sexual behavior, poverty programs, freedom of speech, police authority, abortion, and environmental issues. Certainly, the challenge to traditional morality by the college students of the the 1970`s and 1980`s preordained a period of confusion in the aftermath of the “revolution.” It should come as no surprise that this moral confusion would be fertile ground for the decline of moral education.

Works Cited

  • Bennett William J., ed. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
  • Heslep, Robert D. Moral Education for Americans. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1995.
  • Jackson Philip W., Robert E. Boostrom, and David T. Hansen. The Moral Life of Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
  • McClellan, B. Edward. Schools and the Shaping of Character: Moral Education in America, 1607-Present, Bloomington: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1992.
  • Wilshire Bruce. The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.
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