Should Education Teach Right from Wrong?

EducationThe Big Question

The collection of editors and I have sidled into the main room. We sit and splay across couches, then migrate to the carpet where my itchy nose tells me a furry dog was recently pet.

The arguably more acute, rigorous work of editing and providing feedback has been completed. We now sit in anticipation of the approaching routine. As at the last KidSpirit Ed Board meeting, and the one before that, the final 30 minutes or so are allotted to the big picture and the abstract, accompanied always by a tray of assorted cookies. It is in this personally cherished time that we depart from minutiae to decide what topics and questions writers will tackle in future issues. It is here that we can take liberties in our exploration of greater concepts, and, most importantly, disagree. Consistently, I am surprised by the breadth of views that are on display, even within the bubble of New York City.

These conversations are fruitful because each person can come equipped with their own opinion, a reality not viable under a universal education that teaches right from wrong.

The importance of disagreement on what is right and wrong is not limited to the moral — we edit while trying not to impose on the authors’ voices. This results in a collaboratively generated curriculum on what we consider to be the right way a piece should be written, aesthetically.1 A version of right is inevitably upheld, but at least it is reached democratically and as a result of multiple educational backgrounds.

For KidSpirit to exist and for every student to achieve the most out of their education, right and wrong answers to both aesthetic and moral questions must not be dictated and imposed by educational institutions. It may seem unfair to expect our educators to teach a completely morally and aesthetically indifferent curriculum, but it is a goal that must be strived for to truly allow artistic and moral growth. After all, working towards our own conception of what is right and wrong is the first step in adulthood.

This ideal is not common in traditional education. While right and wrong may not exist, we must choose something to teach, and what we choose in the U.S. is typically one-sided and usually incomplete. However, even if there is an objective right from wrong, we as individuals still can’t access that universal truth. No matter which path a teacher takes, the values and morals inherently instilled by the curriculum are inescapable. And even if the content of a class is completely impartial, students necessarily learn through the lens of a teacher. While I am learning US history, I’m learning Mr. Goldberg’s US history.

The question of right and wrong situates itself in the moral as well as aesthetic realm. STEM subjects aside,2 there is just as much subjectivity in any given curriculum as in its morality. Just as there is no universal moral truth because even the “moral consensus” is constantly in flux depending on region or era, no one set of language rules will ever be objectively favorable over another. Considering the purpose of language is only to communicate with others, we can dismantle the concept of teaching “proper” English, codified in the Oxford English Dictionary. While there may be incorrect English, this dissolves as soon as any group begins to use it to understand each other. Formations of new dialects or slang can be summed up this way. The role of a language teacher shouldn’t be to hallow the Queen’s English as superior to other dialects, but to teach and contrast it alongside non-standard variants, noting in what instances each is appropriate.

Similarly, in the discipline of music, it is difficult to obtain a correct pedagogy because there is no clear consensus on what correct is. Often, teaching a musical education based on previous examples of “correct music” and encouraging musical innovation are two cleft concepts. Unless there is departure from the status quo, creative advancements will never be made. For example, the late 1970s New York-based No Wave movement rejected punk’s replication of rock tropes and created a wholly new experimentational art and music scene unique to New York and the period. The name itself, a sub-par pun, satirizes new wave music. Because the movement was short-lived, never reaching prominence in a zeitgeist or appearing in the curriculum of elite music schools, it is one of the few truly successful counterculture movements. Even Banksy, one of the most renowned contemporary artists hailed for his societal and capitalist critiques, has his work sold for millions at Sothebys. Banksy subverts his goal of breaking down the establishment by becoming the establishment. Paradoxically, an emerging aesthetic movement that dissents against normalcy can only be successful when it isn’t popular.

In terms of education, one of the biggest dangers of teaching a moral code can pose is to create a homogenous body politic. It is patently obvious to any pragmatist student that an individual classroom, much less an entire nation, will never reach moral consensus by censoring and filtering concepts. Still, we attempt to approach this ideal. Universalizing a moral code reduces the possibility for dissent. If every free-minded individual were to agree on even one issue, there would be no issue. However, even in miniature, this utopian ambition is unreachable. If anything, teaching a single moral code would alienate minority opinions and undermine hopes for unity by forcing schismatic thinkers underground.3 Within a system of education that accepts ambiguity in right and wrong, there is still room for homogeneity. Columbia University’s common core has struck a balance; they prescribe each student the same book, but encourage individual perspectives, which are necessary for the exercise to be worthwhile.

I think it is important to make a distinction between values themselves and the conditions and norms needed as a preface to discussing them. A necessary and often overlooked duty of the teacher is to monitor and maintain the classroom space. Common decency, as a baseline, necessarily precedes any other lesson — moral or not. This is why raising my hand and sharing were two of the first things taught to me in kindergarten. Even these moral baselines ought to be challenged at some point, when they create a stricter environment than simple civility.4

Dissent is not purely theoretically beneficial. This paper itself is the product of the democratic KidSpirit. Because no stylistic or moral perspective is idolized or given more weight than another, dissent can be voiced in the form of constructive criticism and engaging debate. The input I receive from fellow editors is both a direct product of each editor’s individual background and a microcosm of a dissenting society.

Because a society and the individuals that make it up will always be inextricably linked, individual growth and advancement will always cause societal progress. And what better way to encourage growth than to let the individual have unfettered, unmitigated, and unmanaged rights to explore? An individual who approaches the world with questions, confusion, and introspection is an individual who engages more with the world around them; individual thinking makes the individual better. While there is a good argument to be made for learning for the sake of learning, what I learn in school becomes even more interesting to me after I see that it is applicable in the real world.

It is hard to find a more terrifying and fascinating application of right and wrong than in artificial intelligence. Self-aware robots are the next student, eagerly awaiting any input of moral code. While it is difficult to quantify moral decisions into metrics understandable by a computer, we may be forced to complete this Sisyphean task in the upcoming decade with the introduction of self-driving cars. One of the questions being weighed is who the car will opt to kill in an emergency: the passenger or the pedestrian? Even though a computerized education seems like an easy solution to teacher bias, we would only be replacing it with coder bias. In the foreseeable future, the answer to thought experiments will be chosen and rendered concrete by coders. Coders from a small, select pool will become educators of an entire new generation, human and not. Even worse, until more sophisticated AI is ubiquitous, computers will be given only a set of examples of where and how they should act, rather than a fully rounded moral compass that would take each unique instance as an independent moral dilemma.

Several questions must be raised. Will morals ever become interpretable to a computer? How will they be decided, and by whom? Will there be dissent against the technology’s new role in morality? Will the code permutate until a robot uprising kills us all? I can’t claim to know the answer to any of these, so for now I’ll choose to let my thought experiments remain as experiments, debated in the NYC Ed Board living room.

Oscar Luckett is an 11th grader at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. When he's not writing for KidSpirit, he enjoys playing the piano, solving crosswords, and fencing for the school team.