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Class Notes
Putting ethics in education
(Published December 16, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

A controversial fertility specialist in Italy, Dr. Severino Antinori, has announced that a woman is scheduled to give birth in January to the world's first cloned human baby. President Bush placed a ban on federal funding for stem cell research, a field that promises bold new treatments for disease but is opposed by those who view it as reckless experimentation on innocent human lives. Since prenatal screening allowed parents to selectively abort fetuses based on gender, parts of the population in India and other countries have become lopsided with many more men than women.

Advances in biotechnology are creating ethical questions never before considered. Existing moral codes may be inadequate to address situations that just decades ago were technologically impossible. At the frontier of science lies new power, and also new questions about how that power might be used or abused.

In physics, some of our practice problems involve guns, such as plotting the trajectory of a fired bullet or calculating the recoil momentum of a rifle. To compensate for what might be seen as an endorsement of weapons use, I also have my students read an essay on gun violence and discuss whether sales of firearms should be restricted. Science allows us to understand and shape the world around us, but with that knowledge comes responsibility to use our technology for the right reasons.

One of the most remarkable scientific triumphs of all history coincided with one of the greatest single moral tragedies when the Manhattan Project successfully built the world's first nuclear bomb. Thousands of the world's brightest physicists united to unleash the power of the atom - a triumph of Einstein's theory of the interchangeability of mass and energy. But because this force was used for destructive purposes, more than 100,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki perished as a consequence.

I would much rather teach my students to use their skills to promote good in the world than to simply teach them a multitude of skills without purpose. After all, it is not only on the cutting edge of science that ethics is important. Every day in our lives, we make decisions about right and wrong. Do I throw a snowball at the boy who taunted me yesterday? During lunch do I sit next to the new kid who doesn't look "cool"? Do I offer to help take care of the children when my aunt falls sick? Do I follow my buddies out the back door to smoke a cigarette when I should be in class?

Being equipped to analyze situations when right and wrong are not clearly defined is arguably one of the greatest fruits of a strong education. And yet moral quandaries are often side-stepped in our schools' curricula. Sometimes we teachers fear that debates over moral issues will turn into bitter disputes that lead to behavior problems. It is hard to test the knowledge gained from such discussions, and they take away precious time from a required list of syllabus topics.

Still, ethics is so important to how we live that it is a travesty to neglect it in our basic educational programs. I propose that a course in moral reasoning be instituted as a graduation requirement for all high school students. Currently, such courses are usually only found on college campuses, but the subject material can certainly be adapted to a level appropriate for an adolescent audience.

No doubt a required ethics course would enrage people on many points of the religious and political spectrum, who might fear that such a course would become a propaganda tool to indoctrinate impressionable youth in one ideology over others. However, the goal of an ethics course is not to tell students what is right and what is wrong, but rather, to teach different approaches to moral reasoning.

Ethics students would read about the great philosophers of ethics throughout the ages, such as Plato, Locke, Kant, Mill and Bentham - and evaluate their relative merits and weaknesses. Pure philosophy can also be applied to ethical problems which arise in literature, economics, history and government. Is Oedipus guilty of murder if his actions are sealed in fate? Can a tax cut be justified if it increases per capita GNP but exacerbates income inequality? Are the soldiers who slaughtered women and children in the My Lai massacre guilty for following orders from superior officers? Do political campaign spending caps infringe on freedom of speech or serve to protect democracy?

The fundamental goal of a moral reasoning course is to teach students to think and write persuasively, logically and clearly about ethical issues. Postponing the study of ethics until college (which three-quarters of Americans will not complete), or reserving ethics classes for advanced-track students, denies that ethical reasoning is a vital tool for making important decisions that shape our career, our relationships and the mark we leave on the world.

On Nov. 24 of this year, philosopher John Rawls died at age 81. He was one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century. In Theory of Justice, he argued that we ought to design the rules for our society as if we did not know what position - gender, race, health, income - we would occupy in that society. From behind this "veil of ignorance," Rawls claimed that the laws we would choose would necessarily be ones of justice and fairness. For example, given the good chance of being placed into one of many under-resourced schools across this nation, I expect that most people, without knowledge of where and to whom they would be born, would demand drastic reforms of our educational system. I wonder whether if those same people had studied Rawls they would still accept the status quo of our school system today.

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Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator