Misconceptions About Adults’ Moral Development

gfayahYet there may be a bigger obstacle to adults developing important moral qualities, and that obstacle is a fundamental cultural misconception about the nature of adults’ moral lives. Most adults, including most teachers, don’t view themselves as engaged in their own moral growth. We have the peculiar notion that our moral natures are established by late childhood—and that as adults, we simply live out the die that is cast.

Yet new models of adult development suggest that adults’ ethical qualities do not remain static at all—they zigzag depending on many factors (Noam, 1995). Some adults become more generous and compassionate over time; others become more selfish. Some adults become wiser, more able to distill important moral truths; others’ notions of fairness become more formulaic or coarse. Many people lose their moral enthusiasms. Every stage of adulthood brings both new moral weaknesses and new moral strengths.

This capacity for change means that the typical adult has not reached his or her moral potential. King Lear does not develop compassion or a mature sense of justice until he nears death. Schools face the challenge of creating cultures in which teachers come to view appreciating and being generous to others, acting with fairness and integrity, and formulating mature and resilient ideals as evolving and subtle capacities. “There is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else,” civil rights leader Whitney Young says. “The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self.”

Much of what passes for character education in schools simply has no influence on adults’ emotional or moral qualities. The constant exhortations that teachers receive to become better role models generate by themselves neither the internal commitments nor the external guidance and support that teachers need to develop these qualities. Minimally, an effective moral education effort would include specific strategies for helping adults deal with disillusionment and helplessness and would focus on creating a culture that supports teachers in their emotional and moral growth.

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