Enforcing morality instead of molding a conscience

by Mr. Sheehy

Two students had some free time in my classroom today, a kind of study hall where they had nothing to do. I told them they could play around on the computers for a bit.

One: “So where can we go? on the Internet?”

Me: “To school appropriate sites.”

One: “What’s school appropriate?”

Two: “If it’s not school appropriate, it’ll block you out.”


And there you have school-morality. We don’t help you develop a strong moral sense, we simply protect ourselves from lawsuits and complaints. Folks like accusing Christians of sheltering their children, of protecting them from the world instead of teaching them how to live in it. But here I am in the secular public school, and I fail to see how this is not worse, because now we’re protecting students, not teaching them. Why figure out what might or might not be school appropriate? School appropriate is whatever you can click on that is not blocked, whatever you can wear that you are not told to cover up, whatever you can say without being sent out of the room.

It’s enforced-morality without taught-morality. Since these students are already in high school, they’re no longer unmolded clay; they’re pots in the midst of a kiln’s fire.

They’ve gone through the molding process, now they’re solidifying the results. As their teacher, I get to inspect these urns, and here’s what I have discovered about the molding process: enforcement does not affect conscience, it only affects behavior. Enforcing morality is fine – hence, our entire legal system (even wearing a seatbelt is a moral law) – it’s the enforcement without education that seems so terrible, because enforcement is not education.

In schooling these students by enforcing a stripped-down morality, we lose our chance to partner with parents in molding their consciences. The ethics that develops out of such a lost chance is the most concerning aspect of it all. Instead of “Whoever knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” we’ve got “Whatever you do is good if you aren’t arrested for it.” We, as a society, will reap what we sow. Congratulations to us.


Image attribution:

Original image: ‘hmmm whoops‘ by: Martin Cathrae