In 1999, the world watched in shock and dismay as President Bill Clinton underwent an impeachment trial for lying under oath about his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Although Clinton was ultimately acquitted of charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, he did admit to the relationship and his attempts to cover it up.
Many critics point to Clinton’s actions as indicative of a severe lack of ethics in America. They insist that modern Americans are far less ethical than previous generations and more willing to accept unethical behavior in their leaders. According to other commentators, however, the notion that Americans were more ethical in years past is simply a myth. For example, they argue, among former presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt continued to have an affair after promising his wife he would end the relationship, and recent scientific evidence has strongly indicated that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemmings. While not condoning unethical behavior, these commentators express the view that the present generation of Americans is not unique in sometimes failing to live up to its own high standards.
Regardless of whether or not ethical standards have declined overall, the controversy over Clinton’s behavior demonstrates that ethics is still an important matter of concern in the United States. Most Americans believe that society operates more smoothly if people adhere to certain core values and do not lie, cheat, or steal. They would prefer for their leaders, coworkers, and neighbors to be honest, fair, considerate, and trustworthy. Perhaps most of all, they want their children to learn these values and to grow up to be ethical adults.
In recent years, as concern over the ethical standards of Americans has risen, more and more parents and politicians have called for the schools to help educate children in good moral values. According to Merrilee A. Boyack, an attorney and parent in California who supports teaching values in the schools,
One of the primary functions of our educational system is to educate future citizens of our country and to properly instruct them in areas that will lead them to function well in that role. We cannot expect citizens to be lawabiding, responsible and charitable if we give them no such instruction.
In response to this call for the schools’ involvement, a number of educators have promoted an approach known as character education. Character education emphasizes the integration of moral and ethical issues into the curriculum. In a character education program, textbooks and other reading materials contain stories promoting courage, responsibility, and tolerance; classroom discussions often focus on finding solutions for ethical dilemmas. Ideally, every lesson and activity in the classroom should include a component designed to teach ethical behavior. Furthermore, teachers are expected to serve as good role models and to encourage their students to behave in an ethical manner.
Character education has been hailed by many as an innovative and successful method for instilling values in young students. These supporters maintain that students who are taught using character education techniques not only learn about ethics but also spontaneously begin to practice ethical behavior in their own lives. For example, advocates point to a long-term study that followed fifty children in Oakland, California, who were enrolled in an intensive character education program from kindergarten to eighth grade. When compared to their peers who had not had character education, these children evidenced better manners, friendlier dispositions, fewer discipline problems, and higher conflictresolution skills. Noting such successes, Esther F. Schaeffer, the executive director of the Character Education Partnership, asserts that “character education belongs as an integral part of a child’s education.”
However, some educators and commentators question whether character education actually has a long-term impact on the behavior of children. Character education programs are relatively new, they point out; most have only been in existence since the mid- or late 1990s. It will take many more years of research to fully evaluate the effects of such programs, these commentators contend. Moreover, a number of educators are concerned that the expectations for character education are overly high. According to James Leming, a professor of education at Southern Illinois University, “If you read the rationale for character education, it says we have a drug problem, a crime problem, a sexual promiscuity problem, and if we’d only do character education in our schools, we could fix all these problems.” Leming advocates a more realistic assessment of character education’s potential, cautioning that “it’s naive to expect teachers to . . . turn everyone into good little boys and girls by doing lessons in their classrooms.” Thomas J. Lasley II, an education professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, argues that children learn far more about values from the messages they receive from their parents, the media, and society. “In a culture in which . . . fewer people think beyond their individual needs,” he argues, “it is doubtful that school programs [in character education] will prove successful if they seek to teach children the lessons that adults have not yet learned.” Lasley and other critics insist that values education must be centered in the home, not in the school system, in order to succeed.
The role of educators in imparting values to children is only one of the debates surrounding the subject of ethics. As modern society grows more complex and diverse, questions concerning ethics continue to increase in importance, but they also appear to become more difficult to resolve. The authors included in Ethics: Current Controversies debate a variety of ethical issues and dilemmas in the following chapters: What Motivates People to Behave Ethically? Is American Business Becoming More Ethical? Are Modern Biomedical Practices Ethical? How Can Ethical Behavior Be Taught? The ethical questions raised in these chapters may not be easily answered, but their consideration is essential to maintaining and improving the moral fiber of society.