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Developing the Reasoning Skills through Education to Create a More Ethical Society

Changes to the SAT Miss an Opportunity to Develop Ethical Reasoning Skills

Late in life Adam Smith observed that government institutions can never tame and regulate a society whose citizens are not schooled in a common set of virtues. “What institutions of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue? All government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these.” In other words, Smith knew that virtue, or traits of character as espoused by the ancient Greeks, are essential to making our free market economy work and deliver prosperity under our capitalistic system.

Now we learn that the College Board will overhaul the SAT in 2016. Saying its college admission exams do not focus on the important academic skills, there will be fundamental changes in the exam including ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional. The latter is disturbing at a time when both college professors and recruiters are criticizing the lack of writing skills of today’s college graduates.

I’m disappointed that the College Board chose not to use the opportunity to introduce ethical reasoning skills. It is the one way we have a chance, as a society, to reverse the declining work ethic that threatens our economic leadership position in the world.

The president of the College Board, David Coleman, criticized his own test, the SAT, as becoming disconnected from the work of our high schools. It appears that the motivation for the change is to promote the common core standards that have been adopted by virtually all the states.  Why not focus on common virtues that should guide behavior to create a more ethical society? Aren’t these as important as common learning standards? Moreover, the two are not unrelated because one of the best ways to learn virtue and ethics is through reading the classics.

The timeless questions of justice and morality go back to the writings of the Bible and ancient Greek philosophy. How can a student best learn to make the right choice in the workplace and in life – to do the right thing? We learn about virtue and ethics by studying philosophical thought, developing ethical reasoning skills, writing and exercising those skills, and debating ethical dilemmas. What better way to achieve these goals than make it part of “common core standards” of learning?  

Of course, teaching ethical reasoning skills does not mean that ethical decisions will be made when push comes to shove in the workplace, or one’s own pursuit of self-interest gets the best of that person. Also, one cause of the declining work ethic is our short-term focus rather than looking at the long-term good of what we do and how, our actions affect others, and how each one of us can act ethically to improve society. To change this perspective requires an underlying shift in our cultural values.

Today’s students grow up expecting instant gratification, material possessions, a feeling of entitlement, and a disconnect with the ethical standards that have been the foundation of America and feed the can-do spirit we all share – hard work, honesty, responsibility and accountability, and the pursuit of excellence in everything we do.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Tocqueville believed that the genius of America in the early nineteenth century was its pursuit of “productive industry” without a descent into destructive materialism. He pointed to a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty – virtues that grew out of a sense of morality that informed American democracy and free markets.

Going forward, how can we maintain our preeminence as an economic power in the world? Like an addicted person we must first admit we have a problem. The problem is we have become soft as a nation, self-indulgent; we pursue only our own self-interests and have an entitlement mentality that militates against hard work. We need to start a national debate on this issue and develop concrete plans to do what it takes to restore the work ethic that existed when this country first thrived and became an economic role model for the rest of the world. It is unfortunate the College Board missed the opportunity to restructure education to increase awareness of what it means to be an ethical person and promoting ethical values in society.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 1, 2014