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The Ongoing Challenge of Helping Students To Become Decent Human Beings

As educators, we all want to help our students grow up to become decent human beings. The question is, “how exactly do we do that?”.

It is actually much more difficult than one might imagine. We can, to be sure, create environments in our schools where basic virtues -- like honesty, respect for persons, integrity, etc. -- are publicly introduced and recognized as personal touchstones to embrace. We can also engineer certain experiences for students -- e.g. service projects, conflict resolution workshops, and so on -- in the hope that some of the embedded lessons will take hold.

All of these things, important as they are, might nonetheless sidestep the actual matter at hand. How do we get kids to ask themselves what kind of people they want to be, and at the same time help them to construct answers that are morally defensible? Put differently, how do we invite young people to adopt personal values that are grounded in defensible ethical principles? 

In May, 2019, I was invited to give a keynote address to 11-14 year old students on the topic of Cultivating Ethics, Values and Humanity. This, of course, is a gigantic topic with lots of layers. The precise challenge was to somehow show these young students, (and the parents who also attended), how their individualized “values” might be understood and defended within a broader ethical framework. And the real trick was to find a way to render all of this into a language they would (hopefully) understand.  

The video below is a shortened version of the original 30 minute address. You can be the judge as to whether or not I was successful in tackling such difficult but important subject.

Regardless of the merits of this particular presentation, I think the most important point is that we, as educators, need to try as many ways as possible to introduce our students to those deeper and richer narratives about how we want to be in the world. Whether it be a literary analysis of a particularly compelling novel or a scientific examination of human effects of the environment, we need to show students the moral presuppositions embedded within all our  thoughts and actions. And we then need to teach our students how to develop their own ethical presuppositions in a way that will express the very best of who they are.  

Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.