Topic: Professions & Institutions

Ethics Are Not a Waste of Time, Dr. Sowell

When a really insidious misconception is celebrated in print by a really smart commentator, as Harold Hill would say, "ya got trouble, my friends."

Conservative economist and Stanford scholar Thomas Sowell has been one of the bravest, most outspoken and provocative social analysts of the last two decades, but when he decided to use his newspaper column recently to deride the value of ethics education in the schools as a waste of precious time that could be spent on math, science, and other disciplines, he was either reacting to a bad deadline crunch that addled his usually reliable gray matter, or he was displaying shocking naiveté for one so wise. Sowell was launched on a rant by a news item that reported how high school classes were discussing the ethics of steroid use in athletics. In Sowell’s view, this exercise constituted an inexcusable waste of class time.

He wrote:

Kids can talk about this at home or on the streets or just about anywhere. What about the ethics of using up precious school time for such chatter when there are serious deficiencies in our children’s ability to measure up to international standards in an increasingly competitive international economy? Presiding over classroom chatter is no doubt a lot easier than teaching the Pythagorean Theorem or differential calculus. But teachers who indulge themselves like this, at the expense of their students’ future, have no business conducting discussions of “ethics” about athletes using steroids — or any other ethics issue. Jason Giambi may have done some damage to his own career, and to George Steinbrenner’s pocketbook, by taking steroids. But that is nothing compared to the damage done to schoolchildren whose time is frittered away talking about it when there is serious work that remains undone.

Sowell could not be more wrong. The ability to analyze ethical problems is as crucial a life skill as there can be, and American schools have unconscionably neglected this aspect of core education for decades. The results are all too evident: widespread cheating in school, business, public and private life, rampant dishonesty, and an epidemic of cynicism. We have seen a succession of generations of Americans who will seek to justify egregiously wrong behavior with arrays of rationalizations, because nobody guided them to do otherwise.

Steroid use is an excellent topic for ethics education. It involves the law as well as basic fairness, the trade-off of short term benefits for long term consequences, the "everybody is doing it" problem, and the problem of doing the right thing even when the perceived benefits of cheating seem over-whelming. These are issues that will affect life decisions by every student, no matter how successful they are or what field they enter. Because the issue involves sports, it creates a rare opportunity to delve into complex ethical dilemmas in a context that students find interesting and relevant. Teachers who take advantage of this opportunity are behaving responsibly and professionally; it is Sowell, not they, who is confusing priorities.

Teaching science and math to young students who lack the ethical framework to apply them responsibly is like giving sharp-shooting instruction to sociopaths. Education, possessed by one who cannot determine right from wrong, is no great gift. Yes: time is limited in school, and yes, that is a great problem. But those, like Sowell, who declare that teaching ethics, or art, or music, or poetry, or any of the other disciplines that train the mind and strengthen the character are simply “frills” that must yield their place in the school day to the hard, productive skills of math and science, are willing to sacrifice the character of a generation for an uptick in the GPA. The purpose of American education is to build good, independent, aware, creative and skilled people, despite the rhetoric of policy-makers who would have us believe that education’s sole purpose is to guarantee lucrative employment. Our teachers are not wasting their time encouraging their students to think clearly about right and wrong. They waste their time if they do not.

Knowledge is worse than useless in the hands of those with flawed character and warped values. It is destructive. By all means, schools must instruct our children in science and mathematics. But right and wrong have to be in the mix as well.

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