Whose Morals?

The conversation going on over at Max Bean’s blog on moral education has greatly activated my own thinking on the topic.  As the daughter of Southern Segregation-era, late Depression-era, Korean War-era, African-American parents who were raised in the Black (Baptist) Church, tradition, there a multiplicity of  factors have contributed to my moral education, and those factors continue to impact it to this very day. Socioeconomics, race, and gender, not to mention being a Civil Rights-era, Voting Rights-era, affirmative action-era and feminism-era baby, also impact and shape my moral beliefs.

The aforementioned explains why I often encounter conflict on a semi-regular basis with the predominately White, upper middle class population that I teach.  In some fundamental ways, I don’t “get” them, and, similarly, they don’t “get” me.  Take the matter of wearing hats in the classroom, for example.  My father, being a man of his generation – he is 78 years young – wears a hat everywhere. But, he also knows and exercises hat etiquette, e.g. takes it off when at a restaurant, at a ball game when the National Anthem is being played, etc. Conversely, my male students don’t seem to be aware of hat etiquette, and the school is pretty laizzez fare about interceding in the matter.

So, left to my own devices, I tell them that they must remove their hats when they cross the threshold of my classroom.  Some whine and debate, but, rather than give them a long, socio-cultural diatribe as to why they cannot wear their hats in my classroom, I simply tell them, “One doesn’t need a hat indoors, unless it is for religious purposes.”  There was one point in my teaching career when I did embark on the socio-cultural diatribe, but, it left them looking at me as if I had eight heads, and me voiceless.

I have also learned to temper my reactions when my students fall short in their responsibilities with homework. A soliloquy on the importance of preparing for the future gets lost on them.  Having been a first-generation college student, such a speech would have had a significant and heart-felt impact on me. However, given that many of the students I teach are but one of a long sequence of people in their families to have completed college, there really is no use in inflicting that degree of moral shame on them.

So…whose morals?  Definitely not those of a Black woman such as myself. That’s not to say that my moral education was not a good one; it has served me well in my personal and professional lives. However, given that  my moral beliefs have gotten me into trouble with the with the independent school cultures and populations I have encountered, the mission and philosophy of a given school, in this case, an independent school, becomes a reference point when considering moral education. Since students and teachers alike are coming from so many places – geographically, culturally, and spiritually – what the school sets forth as its guiding principles can serve as a unifying platform for all concerned.  Of course, given my own moral education, the mission and philosophy of my particular school have to consist of things that I can at least live with, even if that means I cannot tell my male students that they cannot wear their hats in my classroom.

Thus the reason that in many respects, the Episcopalian school where I taught for three years was perhaps the school culture that made the most sense to me. My moral education was more congruent with its mission, philosophy and spiritual foundation. Progressive schools, on the other hand, have proven to be a much harsher, rougher ride. Nevertheless, I have been able to find things, even at a progressive school, that I can grasp onto without feeling I was selling out critical aspects of my being.

For me, moral education needs to be grounded in beliefs and practices that will make students smart, responsible and healthy people in their civic, career and personal lives, and able to promote equity and justice.  Anything more is a bonus in my mind.

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