I will again begin with professor of philosophy Justin P. McBrayer's New York Times article on the topic.
What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?
I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.
What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from.
He goes on to describe his discovery that his 2nd grade son was being taught the following definitions for 'fact' and 'opinion' and that part of learning critical thinking for his son's class meant sorting claims into the categories of either fact or opinion.
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
He did some research and found that this was standard across the Common Core curriculum, including in higher grades.
What does he claim is wrong about this? First, these definitions conflate truth with proof: truth is "a feature of the world" and proof is "a feature of our mental lives." Something can be true but unprovable, and sometimes we "prove" something that turns out to be false. Second, students are directed to sort claims into a list of either facts or opinions, but many claims are both: If you believe something that is true, then it is both a fact and an opinion.
How does this connect to the amorality or moral relativism of today's freshmen? According to McBrayer, schools that use Common Core spend 12 years indoctrinating students with the idea that claims are either fact or opinion but not both, and that all value statements fall into the opinion category. In doing so, they are thoroughly convincing students that there can be no moral truths. Thus, the idea that cheating or murder are wrong is just someone's opinion, and if someone has a different opinion, that's OK.
Additionally, this way of teaching critical thinking produces a powerful doublethink in students' minds. Schools do teach morality in their codes of conduct, such things as academic integrity, student rights, student responsibilities, etc. But according to their own critical thinking instruction, these are mere opinions, and many students see that. Many others, I believe, are taught not to see the difference at all and doublethink becomes normal for them.
What is the answer? As McBrayer points out, the actual Common Core standard is to sort things into facts, opinions, and reasoned judgments. However, apparently teaching 'reasoned judgment' is being left out, but that is exactly what we should be focusing on. He states:
We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation. Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.
While there are other factors at work in the recent glut of cheating scandals, I agree with McBrayer that this is one factor, and I think it's important that we be aware of this failure in our education system. To the extent that we can, we need to advocate for changing the way this is taught in our local schools. And, to the extent that we have the opportunity, we need to correct this idea in students, whether we are teachers or not.
PS I'll make another run at whether there are moral truths or not, and if so whether we can ever prove them, in another post.