Can Secular Education Teach Character, Morality & Ethics?

th-2I will never forget April 20, 1999.  It was the date when the Columbine High School massacre took place in Colorado.  If you recall, two high school seniors planned and carried out a deadly shooting rampage killing 12 students and 1 teacher while wounding 21 additional people.  The two attackers then killed themselves before anyone could take them captive.  This deadly attack triggered heated debates over gun control laws, cliques, violent video games and goth culture.  One national religious leader stated that education without God merely created clever devils.

As a result of what happened at Columbine, there was a cry for schools to provide more character education.  A popular character education program was established called Character Counts.  This program is still in operation today.  Everyone would agree that character training is an absolute essential part of how we should educate our children.  However, I began wondering if secular education could teach character to its students.

There is no question that we can all name character qualities that should be part of everyone’s life.  Things like honesty, integrity, kindness etc. would probably make everyone’s list of character qualities most admired.  However, the real issue behind character training is how to define the various character qualities that are to be taught to young people.  There must be an absolute standard that defines each and every character quality that is taught.

Secular education in essence ignores and, in the end, denies the existence of God.  Without God, there can be no accurate definition of character or character street sign copymorality and ethics.  Everything becomes relative and is left up to the individual to define.  I am reminded of the teacher who asked a student how he spelled the word crocodile.  The student spelled it K-R-O-K-O-D-I-A-L.  The teacher said that that was wrong.  The student replied, “you didn’t ask me the correct way to spell it but how do I spell it.”

Character, morality and ethics are all based on the nature and character of who God is.  God’s nature defines true character and right morals and ethics.  As programs like Character Counts were being emphasized in public schools all across the country, I began studying how character was being defined in these programs.  I found several interesting articles that were directly tied to this one program.  I was dismayed when I saw the dangerous philosophies that were part and parcel to the Character Counts program.

One area that caught my attention involved “The Golden Rule.”  Here is how this concept was presented in an article in 2002 by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.  The article was entitled Models of Ethical Decision Making.  It stated (emphasis mine),

This most basic and useful ethical theory, sometimes called the “Rule of Reciprocity,” has a long history:

  • Confucius (500 B.C.): “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
  • Aristotle (325 B. C.): “We should behave to others as we wish others to behave to us.”
  • From the Mahabharata (200 B.C): “Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou wouldst not have him do to thee thereafter.”
  • Jesus (30 A.D.): “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

You might say that this is good because they even included Jesus.  But when you think of how Jesus’ words are fit into a timeline, you come to realize that Jesus is being presented as just another good teacher.  In fact, you could surmise from this that Jesus got His thoughts from those who came a long time before Him.  You could even say that Jesus plagiarized Confucius and others.

Teens Thinking ?The article went on to say the following:

Most people have convictions about what is right and wrong based on religious beliefs, cultural roots, family background, personal experiences, laws, organizational values, professional norms and political habits.  These are not the best values to make ethical decisions by — not because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal.

By lumping religious beliefs in with the other subjective aspects of life once again takes God out of the equation when deciding whether something is ethical or not.  So what are some universal values by which one should make ethical and moral choices?  Let’s read on.

In contrast to consensual ethical principles — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship — personal and professional beliefs vary substantially over time, among cultures and even among members of the same society.  They are a source of continuous historical disagreement.

Again, we have to take note that when mentioning what is presented as universal moral values (trustworthiness, respect, etc.) is different from one’s personal values and/or professional values, religious beliefs included.  Here is where the article promotes moral relativism as the universal standard for ethical decision making.

Although it is proper for individuals with strong personal and professional moral convictions about right and wrong to treat these beliefs with special reverence, they should be careful about imposing these individual, non-consensus moral values on others.  This is an area where, as much as possible, the universal ethical value of respect for others dictates tolerance and respect for the dignity and autonomy of each person and cautions against self-righteousness in areas of legitimate controversy.

Do what feels good copyEverything comes down to what the individual believes to be right and what is best for him or her.  If one claims that God is the one who defines not only character but also morals and ethics, you are “imposing these individual, non-consensus moral values on others.”  This was made even clearer when I read:

But while we must insist on honesty and integrity over hypocrisy and corruption, we cannot also claim that a particular religion, political philosophy or sexual orientation is ‘universally’ superior to another.  Indeed, allowing the widest possible latitude in matters of personal choice and conscience is critical to upholding the core ethical value of treating all with respect.

Yes, everyone wants our children and grandchildren to become moral and ethical adults who model strong character.  However, this cannot become a reality unless God is the one who defines moral truth, ethical behavior and good character.  Secular education will always fall short of producing in the lives of our children the qualities that we say we so desperately desire.


Glen Schultz

Author Glen Schultz

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