Essentials of Citizenship: Critical Thinking and Ethical Values

When children lack reason-based thinking and ethics in school, they become ill-prepared for our complex, interdependent world. Paula Fraser makes a case for teaching ethics in public schools.  

The Christian Right folks of the Mike Huckabee variety often look at our society in the aftermath of tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shooting, or the many challenges that young people face such as drug abuse, unwed parenthood, high school dropout rates, and see an absence of values—Christian values. Their solution to addressing these challenges is simply to place school-sponsored prayer back in classrooms, or to hang the Ten Commandments in public school hallways, or to encourage young people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They believe if only we implemented these Christian values we would have a more ethical society.

Of course, we humanists understand that there are far too many complicated societal issues and problems facing young people today that the Religious Right has recognized as highlighted above. In fact, one facet of these multi-faceted problems may be related to what I call the values vacuum; however, the Religious Right’s exclusively Christian approach to addressing this values vacuum is not appropriate in a pluralistic constitutional democracy. I argue that we humanists should stand up for those inclusive democratic core values that are appropriate whether one is a believer or nonbeliever. The American Humanist Association’s Ten Commitments: Guiding Principles for Teaching Values in America’s Public Schools are the type of values that need to be fostered within young human beings so that they might lead full and flourishing lives within our own country as well as in the greater complex, interdependent global community. My current purpose is not to explicate each of the Ten Commitments, but to explain why they could be helpful in a greater context.  However, there are tensions inherent in implementing these inclusive values in our public schools of which we need to become aware.

One challenging tension is time constraints and its accompanying focus. Although an emphasis on academic competence in our public schools today is imperative given the challenges of the world that we live in, I am concerned that a sole focus on academic, “high-stakes tested” subjects such as math and literacy leads to a narrowing of the curriculum as an unintended consequence. Too often the social studies, arts, and humanities are excluded and yet, these are the very subjects in which students might learn to become critical thinkers and ethical human beings and citizens. In recent years there has been an increased focus on STEM subjects–Science, Technology, and Math—all necessary for our country’s economic growth and development, but this focus has resulted in a further eroding and narrowing of the curriculum in many, if not most of our public schools to the exclusion of the social studies, arts and humanities.

In addition to time constraints, teaching critical thinking and ethical values is often considered too controversial to find a place in the public school curriculum. Ethical values are thought by some to be entirely contingent on religious belief. It is thought that without religious belief there is no absolute foundation and moral relativism is the result. Furthermore, critical thinking is thought by some to be a negative challenge to authority and morally absolute worldviews. Conversely, others of a more secular persuasion are wary of religious indoctrination related to values in the public school classroom. In order to avoid controversy, public school students are often left without the tools to critically reason or to reflect upon the role that ethical values should and could play in their lives—the very attributes that are essential for thoughtful and ethical citizenship.

We have a long history of individual freedom of conscience and separation of church and state in the United States. Our First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution seeks to neither establish nor inhibit the free exercise of religion; in other words, citizens in our country are free to believe in religious tenets or not. Because of this freedom and diversity, there are conflicts and tensions within the public schools. However, I believe that teaching critical thinking and ethical values can help individual young people to navigate these conflicts for the common good, while still maintaining a high degree of respect for pluralism in matters of individual conscience in the true spirit of e pluribus unum. Students might learn that they have the right to make choices and must exercise those choices with responsibility to self and others.

While ethical values do not necessarily rely on specific religious principles, they do not necessarily exclude religious values when these religious values are of a more universally accepted and inclusive nature. For instance, empathy inherent in the idea that we should treat others as we would be treated is present in many religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, as well as secular philosophical systems; most agree that the ethical principles within the “Golden Rule” are foundational in matters relating to conscience. In fact, Immanuel Kant, the great moral philosopher, calls this idea a “universal categorical imperative.” Empathy is just one ethical value among many that diverse citizens may agree upon, given the wide range of religious, philosophical and ideological perspectives.

The American Humanist Association’s Ten Commitments could help fill this values vacuum by encouraging the citizenship dispositions of critical thinking about the core democratic values that are needed to perpetuate a functioning democracy that should be inclusive of all—believers and nonbelievers alike. Honesty, the common good, equality of opportunity, justice and fairness respect for individual liberties and dignity, etc. are values and principles that we should all be able to agree upon.

When students have the opportunity to learn how to internalize and apply critical thinking skills and ethical values in their lives and in interactions with others, they are able to intelligently and courageously work to balance individual rights and the common good. Rather than avoiding controversy, this approach teaches students to embrace controversy with critical thinking, fair-mindedness, reasoning, civility and courage with the intent of arriving at reasoned and ethical judgments in the public space. This inclusive approach combats the charge of moral relativism that is often leveled against humanists, while respecting the common values contributions by citizens from the faith community.

The American Humanist Association’s Ten Commitments with its emphasis on critical thinking and ethical values could be a very helpful and inclusive educational guide in leading young people to more thoughtfully and ethically reflect upon their rights and responsibilities in this complex interdependent world in order to assume the highest office of the land—citizen!

Paula Fraser is on the advisory committee of the American Humanist Association’s Kochhar Humanist Education Center. She is a former elementary school teacher in Bellevue, Washington.