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On Education and Moral Formation

      All schools shape students in particular ways because every school is built on value judgments about what is good. Public school systems are generally centered on ideas about what people ought to know and be capable of in order to be productive citizens. Prep schools and other high-end private schools tend to focus on academic excellence for the sake of successful college careers and ultimately for the sake of broader social, economic and vocational success. Religious schools are guided by the value system of the faith upon which they are built. The same pattern is present in less traditional models of schooling. Home schooling environments are built upon the principles of a given family or school group. Even free schools, which generally have virtually no set curriculum of any kind, are still bound by a commitment to certain democratic and communal values. It is impossible to have a school that is not animated by judgments about what is good, and students seem to be inevitably shaped by these judgments. Students may reject, accept or continue to contemplate the moral foundations of their educational environments, but what they can rarely do is to ignore such foundations or be unaffected by them.

      Some schools are more intentional and explicit than others when it comes to shaping students in this way. In schools that focus more heavily on preparing students for vocational and economic success, moral formation often tends to be more implicit. On the other hand, schools that focus more on allowing their students to develop into certain kinds of people are more explicit about moral formation and more likely to develop formal structures by which such formation is supposed to be accomplished. Christian schools often make claims in their mission statements about how they aim to shape students. Eastern University, for example, “is dedicated…to the development of people of faith who will enhance the quality of society and the church.” This comes from Eastern’s vision statement. Eastern’s statement of educational values notes, “In a culture that tends to value the credential or degree rather than the person who receives the degree, we seek to educate and develop men and women of intellectual ability, strong character and deep Christian commitment. We seek students who are serious, teachable and invested in their educational experience so that we can have maximum impact on their intellectual and spiritual formation.”

      The idea at the heart of this attempt to shape people goes all the way back to Aristotle, who discussed whether virtue (that is, goodness of the soul) can ever really be taught. The tricky thing about this question is that virtue, goodness, moral formation, etc. are less about what we know and more about what we love. In other words, you cannot simply make someone virtuous by telling them what virtue is; you cannot make someone good by simply explaining to them what is good; you cannot make someone loving by telling them what it means to love. Telling is not enough, because knowing is not enough. We become virtuous not when we know what is good, but when we love what is good. The language that schools use to describe this phenomenon varies: we may speak of it as “formation” or “personal growth” or “developing habits of the heart” or “shaping people.” But the common thread (and perhaps the bottom line) is a transformation of what a person loves.

      What does it mean, then, to make someone love something? This is, after all, what the idea of formation boils down to. Eastern’s commitment to develop people of “strong character” indicates the development of a person who loves what is right, good and just. Similarly, developing a person of “deep Christian commitment” is simply another way of saying a person who loves Christ, loves the Christian tradition and loves what Christ loves. But how is this to be done, if it can be done at all? It seems to me that it is entirely impossible to make another human love something, and thus teachers and schools should not expect to be able to shape people at will. We ought not delude ourselves into thinking that making students do certain activities, read certain books or learn certain material can ever really make them love what we believe ought to be loved. It seems a bit manipulative and perhaps presumptuous for schools or teachers to believe they can change students this way–as if students are pieces of clay to be molded. As an aspiring educator, I find myself convicted to remember that I am not the Potter–that role has already been claimed by the only One who is really capable of molding human persons.

      And yet, perhaps schools and teachers do play some kind of role in shaping what students love. This role is not the all-definitive one of the potter; rather it is one of invitation and example. Love is revelatory, and when teachers actively and evidently love something, it reveals the worthiness of that thing to be loved. When, in the course of teaching science, or history, or literature, or math, a teacher demonstrates a deep and overflowing love for beauty, or wisdom, or creation, those things are shown to be worth loving. This example of love (which ultimately functions as an invitation to love) seems to me to be the strongest way that schools shape students morally.

       Sources: Phil Cary, Jeff Dill, Nicole McKeown

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