Morality as an academic subject


Kenichi Ikeda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Education

Can morality be taught as an academic subject?

“Class for moral education” was originally established when the Government Curriculum Guidelines were revised in 1958. There is now a movement to establish a special academic subject in morality. Until now, class for moral education has been positioned outside of regular academic subjects. However, if morality becomes taught as a subject, textbooks will be printed and children will be graded and evaluated. I am sure that many people feel genuine discomfort regarding such circumstances.

To begin with, could ethics and morality really be taught academically? Subjects such as Japanese and mathematics possess scientific correctness which can be systematically demonstrated. This means that a curriculum can be developed. Can such a process be applied to ethics and morality?

Of course, I am likely to receive heavy criticism for writing an article which criticizes the establishment of morality as an academic subject. Some people may ask whether I am denying the need for morals. In no way is that my intention. Morality is an important element for forming human society. However, as I will discuss later in this article, when considering the nature of morality, making it an academic subject will interfere with conveying its great importance to children. Furthermore, when focusing on the actual results of such an academic subject, the negatives are obvious.

Remember your own experience

Most people reading this article may remember attending class for moral education at elementary school and junior high school. I would like you to try to remember how you spent time in that class for moral education as a child. Let’s examine our experience from two perspectives.

First, many people may have felt that class for moral education was stripped of its meaning. For example, the time was used for changing seats in class or appointing students to be in charge of various tasks. Indeed, class for moral education is often used in such ways. Then, why do we describe such time as being “stripped of its meaning?” I could understand if this phrase was used to describe the time to study mathematics being used for other tasks. However, making decisions together as a class, particularly new seating arrangements, is of great importance to children. For that reason, they sometimes display their ego. Within such conflicts, children find a path for solution and bring order to the class. This process is the ultimate exercise in morality. Furthermore, the solution can be sometimes a dynamic class development.

Next, I’m sure you remember how reading materials are often used in class for moral education. Texts portray the emotional conflict of a main character, or may deal with issues related to life or the surrounding environment. I think children were required to write about their impressions of the text. In your case, were you really able to express your true feelings? Most likely, you wrote something appropriate just to satisfy your teacher. Instead of developing morality, you developed the skill to predict the impressions desired by your teacher.

Loss of morality

From the above, we can draw two conclusions regarding morality as an academic subject. First, it is impossible to conduct classes in which the definition of morality changes depending on the circumstances at that time. For example, it would be impossible to create a mathematics curriculum if the answers to multiplication problems changed depending on interpersonal relationships and the social environment. Similarly, morality cannot be treated as an academic subject because moral judgments changed according to the situation. A certain action or value cannot always be defined as being moral. Indeed, in order to value these characteristic of morality, it is clear that teaching morality as an academic subject is not an appropriate form of moral education.

Secondly, as discussed in our example of students writing their impressions, treatment of morality as an academic subject will escalate to further increase in the use of duplicity. If they are going to be graded academically, children will become even more sensitive to the judgment of their teacher. In other academic subjects, it is possible to study without the constant awareness of the teacher’s perceptions and values. Perhaps if you believe that learning about hon-ne, or the real intention, and tatemae, the stated reason, to be the true form of morality in Japan, such academic subject would be appropriate. This is the irony to such a situation.

Lack of historical verification

The teaching of morality as an academic subject is often criticized by people who believe that it would revive to the moral training conducted in Japan prior to World War II. At that time, the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) proclaimed the most important element of moral education in Japan as follows: “In the event of a national emergency, citizens shall serve as volunteers in the national army and shall ensure the eternal prosperity of the Imperial Household.” Some people are worried that the debate for teaching morality as an academic subject is based on this generalization. Indeed, the debate regarding morality as an academic subject lacks recognition for such educational history and therefore stands on perilous ground.

Many people are concerned that morality as an academic subject would teach a certain brand of nationalism endorsed by the government. Provisions of nationalism are contained within the Government Curriculum Guidelines, the revised Fundamentals of Education Act, and the School Education Law. Therefore, nationalism would be subject to grading due to morality to be taught as an academic subject. When debating morality as an academic subject, the Central Education Council appears to deny such concerns regarding moral education through the following statement: “The aim of moral education is not to enforce certain values, nor to teach children to behave as told without acting autonomously.”

However, shortly afterwards, the Central Education Council makes the following statement regarding the content of moral education: “Based on a specified curriculum, study, understand and acquire shared rules and manners which have been inherited from past generations, as well as various moral values which are important within the community (omission of a passage).” The following statement is also made: “It is essential to teach children social rules, manners and actions unfitting of members of society.” At the very least, when considering today’s multicultural environment, this would result in the enforcement of certain morals and values, unless there is a movement to reconsider the content of said values.

Lack of rights theory

Undoubtedly, it is important to refute that students should “behave as told without acting autonomously.” However, has such a concrete image been established? Getting straight to the point, the right of a child to express his or her own views is defined within the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Schools must place great importance on guaranteeing this right. If this right is not guaranteed, children must behave exactly as told by the teacher. As stated by the Central Education Council, this should not be the aim of moral education. However, the debate regarding morality as an academic subject makes absolutely no reference to education based on this right.

Human relationships are extremely specific and individual. Accordingly, moral judgment also possesses the same characteristics. In other words, people analyze each specific situation, consider the possibility and priority of behavior options, make a judgment regarding the appropriateness of taking a certain behavior, and then actually engage in that behavior. This is an extremely complicated process which is related to the lifestyle of each individual. It does not possess the generality required for systemization. As a one-time-only judgment which prevents application to other situations, morality forms the bases for interpersonal relationships. For this very reason, it is imperative to ensure that respect for human rights is at the base of morality.

Everyone knows

Despite the objections raised above, teaching of morality as an academic subject is considered important as a response to problems such as bullying. However, why does bullying occur? Is it because the parties involved fail to understand the principles of getting along and obeying rules? No, all children understand such virtues. Problems do not occur due to lessening of the normative consciousness. Instead, perhaps the constant stress placed on children in the current school environment leads to bullying. It is essential that we establish frameworks for problems and conduct critical analysis of conventional education policy. Bullying is not a simple problem which can be attributed solely to the morals of individuals.

What kind of moral education is needed?

“That’s not fair!”—Such cries can often be heard when observing kindergarten children at playground. Even at such a young age, children make a judgment regarding fairness. In this way, young children develop their own unique criteria for moral judgment before entering elementary school. It is only natural for them to be clashing values in elementary school. Indeed, response to such clashes is a social issue in today’s multicultural, multilingual and multifaith world. In such clashes, the very moral judgments made by each individual will waver.

I believe that moral education should focus on creating agreement from such disputes regarding values. This requires extremely flexible thinking and action which is not useful for the mere listing of virtues. It seems too flippant to describe such thinking and actions as simply “respect for diversity.” There is not room for optimism when considering behavior within actual interpersonal relationships; instead, we must bring great seriousness to the task. When focusing on individuals, it is clear that people are diverse. It would be unthinkable to deny such diversity. Therefore, we must focus on the aspect of the continued existence (sustainability) of society based on such diversity. Diverse values are needed in order to respond to various changes. In addition to morality being the issue of individual values, it is also a social issue.

In principle, it is impossible to conduct such a process as an academic subject. Some people may argue that we should incorporate the characteristics discussed above into morality as an academic subject. However, in that case, schools are already engaged in precisely such an education and we must develop an environment which supports such activities at each school.

Teaching morality as an academic subject is useless when truly considering the clichés of “globalization” and “response to a rapidly changing society” which are often discussed during educational reform.

Kenichi Ikeda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Education
Born in the Adachi Ward of Tokyo in 1962. Participated in the University of Tsukuba Graduate School Doctoral Program in Education. Holds a PhD in Education. After holding positions at the University of Morioka and Chuogakuin University, began working at Chuo University in 2005. At Chuo University, he is in charge of international comparative education, educational systems and educational governance. His specialty is education policy for immigrant children in France. From 1993 to 1994, he worked at France's National Institute for Educational Research (INRP, Paris), surveying and researching the form of educational support for immigrant children while visiting local schools. Now that France has recently changed its policy to one of inclusion, he is reviewing reforms in the French educational system for disabled children.
His major written works include "Immigrants & School Education in France" (Akashi Shoten Publishing), "Public Education and Religion in the World" (co-written, Toshindo Publishing), "Educational Disparities" (co-edited/co-written, Gendai-Shokan Publishing), and "What are the Goals of Legal Education?"(written/edited, Advantage Server Publishing).