Recently, I visited a Catholic high school, touring the facilities and sitting in on numerous classes for a few days. Catholic schools, unlike other Christian parochial schools, are struggling to find priests to oversee chapel and administer communion as well as provide spiritual leadership. As a result, the task of fostering the Catholic identity or developing moral and spiritual education falls to the faculty. Initially, when learning about this predicament, I wondered to myself how much longer the Catholic educational system would endure. However, after a few days of watching individual teachers begin each class with a moment of prayer, reflection, or focused intention, I began to wonder if their solution to the lack of religious leadership was in actually a blessing, not a bane.
In many schools with a religious affiliation or a professed focus on moral development, the task of teaching ethics or spirituality falls to chaplains and religion teachers. While the impetus for this delegation of responsibility may be well intentioned, the effects may not be fully understood. Fostering the ethical development of a young person requires an intentional, collaborative response from every member of the faculty. Offering Ethics as a stand-alone course, without asking the rest of the faculty to engage students in the process of ethical reflection, teaches students that the study of morality and the focus on leading a principled life has a time and a place. Ethics becomes theoretical, not practical, and as a result students may learn to justify unethical decisions or refuse to accept their consequences. On the contrary, when every teacher, coach, administrator, and staff member embraces the mission of instilling in students a reflective and purposeful approach to establishing ethical principles, students will recognize that choosing to make moral decisions does not exist in a vacuum. They begin to see Ethics, not as the study of a subject, but rather as the creation of a disposition.
I became aware of the distinction in my own class today. My students, all girls, were engaged in a shared inquiry discussion of the novel Speak, a book I assigned as a modern day accompaniment to our study of Catcher in the Rye. In the book, which reads like a diary, a young woman starts high school after a senior rapes her at an end-of-summer party. Alienated by everyone at school because she called the police (but did not report the rape), she becomes severely depressed and ultimately mute, hence the title “Speak.” When I asked why the young woman did not report the rape when it happened or even after school started, I was both impressed and saddened by the mature insight my students shared: “Why would she want to open herself up to betrayal and shame all over again?” “The students at her school as a whole lacked forgiveness – why reach out to those people?” “There might be people who would understand, but there would definitely be people who blamed her for what happened. I don’t know that she felt strong enough to put herself through that.”
Somewhat hesitantly, because of the lurid nature of the accusations, I asked my students if they had read anything about the recent Penn State child abuse scandal. A number of them had; one girl mentioned that her father is a Nittany Lion. I gave the students a brief summary of the story and attempted to answer their questions regarding the young men who had been abused and the man who abused them. I said it’s easy to pose the same question I asked regarding the character in Speak – why were these children silent or, if not silent, why were they not heard? Students offered the same responses: shame, fear of betrayal, a lack of faith in those who have the capacity to protect or to defend.
But then I asked them about the role of the larger culture at Penn State that failed to safeguard children from this predator. What about the grown men who witnessed the abuse and did not immediately intervene? What about the men in positions of power who heard about the abuse but failed promptly to investigate or to inform the police? If they had witnessed their own son being abused, certainly they would have torn the man from limb to limb. What ethical lapse allowed them to compartmentalize their disgust and rationalize their obligation to intervene? Perhaps, they are not legally culpable, but is that the only measure by which they should be judged? How does one go about challenging that culture or better yet creating a culture that would never allow an abuser the opportunity to abuse again?
Sadly, I don’t think the answer is a class in Ethics.