As both a historian and as a scholar of religion, questions of ethics and morality are typically at the forefront of what I study and how I teach. This has, in some ways, become even more true as I have moved from teaching in higher education to teaching in the secondary school environment.

As I mentioned in my last post, there is significant disagreement among scholars and practitioners in history and social studies education about the purpose of the field and what ought to be taught in the field. However, from the various teaching methods textbooks that I have examined so far, all agree that history and the social studies should help students think deeply about questions of character, ethics, and morality. This discovery was initially quite exciting for me, and it seems universal enough of an idea that I suspect that as the devotional teaching of Christianity has been slowly removed from schools in the wake of the Supreme Court case School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, that the social studies have become the default and de facto method of teaching about character, morality, and ethics in the public schools of the United States.

My excitement about social studies being recognized as a chief way to teach morality and ethics in schooling quickly gave way to several questions, including the question of what moral and ethical principals ought to be taught in public schools. A cursory look at my own facebook feed shows that my various friends oppose the teaching of moral and ethical systems in schools that are not their own. Some of my more generous and thoughtful friends oppose the teaching of their own moral and ethical system in schools, both because of questions of indoctrination, and because they recognize that the teaching of their moral beliefs would constitute an establishment of religion under the Constitution.

So, what is a social studies teacher to do? I have given much thought on this question, and the tentative answer that I have come to over the past academic year is that whatever moral and ethical principals I teach, they need to be acceptable to the majority of people in this country, and for them to be taught in public schools, they must be objectively secular. My mind, of course, first turned to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, but I quickly found that this foundational document, though important, just wouldn’t cut it. So much of the Constitution is worried about forms of government and governance, and not ethics and morality. It finally dawned on me that I should think bigger.

While the Constitution and Bill of Rights aren’t focused enough on ethics and morality, another foundational document for our globalized world does: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UNUDHR was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948, three years after the horrors of the holocaust were ended, and three years after the use of nuclear weapons demonstrated to large portions of the world that ethics and morality had not kept pace with the massive technological changes sweeping over the earth.

For those of you not familiar with the UNUDHR, it enshrines rights such as:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

and, Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Using the UNUDHR as a way to organize, categorize, and evaluate the ethics and morality of certain events and actions taken by individuals and governments can provide both an excellent framework for this type of moral and ethics education, but, in the case of historical studies, can also lead to the problem of anachronism. In a future post, I will discuss how I plan to implement the UNUDHR as a moral and ethical benchmark in history and social studies classes, while also attempting to avoid the sin of presentism in the study of the past.

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