The role of public schools in the United States has been disputed since its inception, from arguments over the proper extent of formal academic schooling in a largely agrarian eighteenth-century society to today's battles regarding the appropriateness of formal health and financial education. But in an age where traditional familial and community roles have eroded, and where public moral questions become so weighty and pervasive, schools have become increasingly involved in what used to be students' private lives. In the ever-changing face of its character, an important question regarding the nature and extent of its responsibilities becomes increasingly relevant: are public schools responsible for teaching students basic, societally-accepted morals in addition to the scholastic requirements of the subject area? If public schools are to respond to pressing societal problems and prepare students for engagement in the oft-mentioned "real world" beyond school, the answer is yes: they indeed have a responsibility to actively engage in the moral education of their students.
Even as public schools change in scope, one of their fundamental missions remains a constant driving force: public schools respond to and prevent societal problems. This duty in itself compels schools to address ethics. Among the societal obstacles that require moral education from schools are bullying and violence. Aside from the unchanging fact that abuse of any kind is unacceptable, bullying lends itself to grander societal problems because it has been identified as a contributing factor in school shootings; and the resultant fear and anger of the disrupted learning environment pushes student victims toward depression and suicide. In order to become engaged, able, and well citizens, students must now be guided to cultivate patience and peaceful self-expression, and this requires the teachers to do the brave thing: cross the moral line and be present for students as people, be invested in and aware of them as unique individuals with unique needs. Because the myriad issues that students are facing, both personal and public, are problems that educational institutions are responsible for addressing in order to fulfill their purpose as institutions charged with the task of releasing stable people into the world and helping to eradicate societal obstacles.
Another mission of schools has been to prepare students for what is often referred to as "the real world" and provide them with the resources and instruction necessary for success in their professional futures. But surveys concur that the importance of character outweighs the importance of scholastic ability as students function in the real world: surveys by the Business and Industry Advisory Committee, which represents numerous employer organizations from around the world, find that a large percentage of employers not only consider character more important in the workplace than academic skill, but seek employees with ethics, leadership, resilience, curiosity, mindfulness, and courage in particular. In order to produce prospective employees in today's commercial climate, schools must reach beyond the one-dimensional delivery of curriculum and incorporate these qualities and abilities, which means looking deeper into individual students and considering how they will react to scholastic material. On a broader level, the world thrives on connections and partnerships... it is when people come together that they are able to effect lasting change, and these connections, forged from mutual respect, open-mindedness, and communication, rely entirely upon character. If educational institutions are to meet their professed goals of preparing the individual for all there is to face after primary education, these are the lessons that, like arithmetic and English, simply must be taught.
While it is not likely that many would completely disagree with small and perhaps inevitable integrations of morals in the classroom, opponents of a more significant focus on such lessons assert that an intense moral focus is too private a matter to be appropriate to an academic setting. If the basis for hiring teachers is to adhere to strictly academic instruction, then it may appear that teachers would be presumptuous to inject morality into their classroom lessons and could be seen as insinuating themselves into what is not their businesses as an educator. The course that public education has been taking, however, begs to differ: more and more contracts between teachers unions and county school systems encourage the investment of teachers in the individual lives of students. Involvement is inherent to today's educator—the profession is no longer one of separation in which teachers merely present curriculum.
It is easy for schools to resist responsibilities that lie beyond their contracts and limited resources. However, the moral lessons that can be easily dismissed are the most important lessons students must learn in their youth, and indeed are part of the contract of being an educator. Courage, indiscriminate respect, and common decency are the tools students need in order to respond to the problems they face in this society and to fulfill their potential as its contributing and respectful members. It is a compassionate human interaction that builds and fuels the individual. Morality is pervasive; it can never be cordoned off from life, but rather bleeds into life's every aspect.