golden rule

The Common Good being taught at school instead of the Golden Rule


My kids attend public school, with that comes benefits and draw backs. One of them came through this weekend that made me do a double take and cringe just a bit. My son is being taught about doing things for the common good. He’s in kindergarten and still developing a sense of self. I know, I know, it sounds nice and all fine, but there’s a major difference between the golden rule and the greater good or the common good.

Synopsis of two moral rules

  • The golden rule: Do as to others as you’d have them do to you.
  • The common good: Do what is best for most of the people.

Oh, I’m not against a greater good and I don’t want my kids to be selfish or entirely self-centered. But individuals need to be able to choose to be part of a greater good, they shouldn’t be forced into it. I’m not sure that there’s any research or even anecdotal information that shows that 5 and 6 year old kids can process this sort of moral information or teaching! I don’t want my young children, whose brains aren’t even developed enough to even have full foresight to have true decision making, to be told they need to do something for the greater good. I want them to do basic ideas of “think of others” and a bit of Kantisms (can everyone do this all the time and it’ll be okay?)

But, when we know that many of the “greater good” issues means that someone suffers, I don’t want my kids being told that the greater good is the means for morality.

I want my kids to think of others, but I don’t like the dogma surrounding the politicalness of teaching a child common good.

Greater Good and Utilitarianism

Why I’m not for utilitarianism is not as complex as it seems. Utilitarianism believes that the sole standard of morality is determined by its usefulness.

British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873) developed the theory for what we know it to be today. The basic principle is:

Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

There are discussions that this idea of greater good or utilitarianism reduces suffering, but does it really? Utilitarianism is a based on hedonistic philosophy – hedonistic meaning – pleasurable. So we want to increase pleasure. So the greater good should increase pleasure for people, or a decision or action is okay if it increases pleasure for most people.

Do we have a moral obligation to the right’s of others? Duty for our own sake and not just for the consequences (see this on Kant’s moral theory). Where does duty come into play? If you’re truly okay with teaching morals at school, I recommend you look at the various theories of morality and realize it is imperative we see that there are just too many view points and desires for morality to have one set of morals taught at schools.

I’m not a fan of Kant either, but it just shows that there are diverse ideas of morality. When there’s a “common good” – we don’t have a true commonality at all times, so there’s never a true common good. There will always be people who lose out. I don’t believe it should always be the same people (or individuals) who lose out – and we need to limit bias when possible. Because others are hurt! This happens in this “common good” ideal as well. This is a philosophy of morality and I’m not sure that, when it becomes political and the mixing of cultural beliefs, we can ever effectively teach morality to young children.

But, we have to look at Kant’s idea that if everyone can’t do that one thing at all times, it shouldn’t be done. And that’s why I just don’t see why we can teach the idea of common good to children. This is the basic categorical imperative.

What are the motives? What are the consequences?

So under the philosophy they’re teaching at the local schools, they look at that common or greater good – and that means that there are people who lose out.

Here’s an issue we see with something Hillary Clinton said to “bring those up.”

Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.  If a school’s not doing a good job, then, y’know, that may not be good for the kids.

  • Hillary Clinton in Keoto, Iowa, 2015

Even if she doesn’t plan to close the bottom 49% of schools, the idea that schools that don’t meet some arbitrary mark should be closed says that we all agree that test scores are what matters and indicates effectiveness of a school. I’m not anti-big data. I love data! I do! But, when we make hard lines to indicate that something is for the greater good, there will always people who are hurt.

We cannot stand by and continually disrupt schools because there’ll always be a bottom 49%. Even if Hillary didn’t entirely mean shut down half the schools, we have to see that we have this major world race that we’ve been put in to with common core. (Please note, this isn’t about how we teach math, it is all the other stuff that comes with common core: data tracking, federal government control, etc) We are being told that “American kids are falling behind” and so we “must” push toward STEM schools, longer school years, fewer breaks, more standardized instruction.

When we do this many kids are missing out.

Those who aren’t strong in math and science are seen as failures.

Those who aren’t interested in math or science are not seen as productive (again utilitarianism at play here).

Who said that those countries whose kids are “succeeding” (are they testing all kids? what is their suicide rate?), are actually BETTER than US?

Why do we even care?

There is a lot at play when it comes to the politics of what our children are being taught. I’m okay with common core math. I think there are some really bad curricula out there – I think that not all kids learn the same (remember, I do have a masters in curriculum and instruction, as well as a masters in psychology), and I truly believe we’re heading in the wrong direction with implementation of common core, data collection, and a push to a perfect work force.

We cannot continue to try to optimize our children. They are children. Not bots.

The smallest minority is the individual.

Is it okay to say that “its okay to bomb a city if the leadership says it is for the greater good?” What about those people? What about the innocent people? What about the family of those who parish? Is it okay to experiment on people if it helps the common good? What about those who gave all?

When there’s no choice in involvement in this greater good, there are casualties.

I don’t want my children to believe that they aren’t important. They are. They aren’t the most important, but they matter too.

If we are teaching our kids utilitarianism and not just the golden rule, are we teaching them self sacrifice? Is self sacrifice okay if we don’t believe in the cause? Are we okay without this sort of indoctrination, when we know that text books are being written by for-profit companies, and teachers are being discouraged or even banned from teaching from the heart?

They aren’t Jesus Christ. They aren’t the sacrificial lamb. My husband, after all, isn’t even Christian. And we don’t need religion to be moral or to have ethics. Religion does effect us, but it doesn’t make someone better or worse; moral or immoral. Kids do not need to be taught that to be good citizens they need to sacrifice for the common good.

We know that the government has maximized the common good with unjust acts (Tuskegee experiments, is just one example), so I’m not okay with this sweeping generalization is okay to be taught. From Time linked above on Tuskegee:

As unethical as the methods were, the basic research questions behind both studies were highly relevant at the time, said Peter Brown, medical anthropologist at Emory University. Research in Guatemala focused on the powers of penicillin; in Tuskegee, researchers wanted to know the natural history of syphilis.

“In a racist context, they thought [syphilis] might be different in African-Americans; the real unethical part in my mind had to do with denial of treatment and, most importantly, the denial of information about the study to the men involved,” he said.

Oh my.

Are these set of moral teachings enough to pull my kids from public school? I guess I’ll be asking for a copy of the social studies books to see what’s coming down the road.

As Mark Twain said, It is easier to fool people, than to convince them they’ve been fooled.

Sometimes the greater good is not better.

What morals are being taught at your child’s school?

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  1. Hmmm, you’ve put a lot more thought into this than I have and now I’m wondering should I have been thinking of this more? I just want my kids to come out of childhood being decent humans but that is proving to be more difficult than I thought it would be, lol. Who knew? :-)

  2. You ask some good questions that I do not know that I have the answers to, but I will say that I have heard this question and argument from a lot of people that home-school. They do fear that there is a lack of morals being taught within the public schools. Not an easy topic to address, but you did a great job at starting the discussion!

  3. You bring up some really great points. This topic does seem a little mature for the 5-6 yr set. I think a lot of adults struggle with this concept so it certainly seems a bit much for young children. I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. It’s definitely something worth thinking about. The easy answer is that I think both have their place. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kids need to learn both rules. When in doubt, do unto others as you would have done unto you. Yes, sometimes the great good must be considered too, but following the golden rule is always a good place to start.

  5. I am not sure the extent of greater good that was being taught to your child’s class… but to the extent that I teach my daughter (6yo and homeschooled) is that we do things for our family and community. I don’t call it greater good. We pick up trash on the road, we do chores, we are kind to others, we donate our time to help when we see a need, we might buy a homeless person a meal. Yes, it can be taken too far for sure, but I think the goal was to help some of the kids move from a more ego-centric way of thinking to thinking about the community.

  6. Wow, I have never stopped to think about these types of message and how they are being taught in the school system. I don’t have kiddos yet but this certainly was an eye opening read.

  7. I am in soul-sister mode right now. I couldn’t agree more with you – especially on “Do what is good for the most people.” That’s politically motivated and something young children really have a hard time grasping. We have always taught our kids the Golden Rule – and any time another child came into our house, we would explain to them it was our only house rule. Most parents really like the way their kids behaved at our house,too!

  8. This is a really interesting posts. I grew up going to school outside of the United States (for K-7 I went to school in Sao Paulo, Brazil) and I can tell you I did notice a lot of differences in the level of maturity and intellect of the students with whom I shared a classroom with. Education in the US tends to be slower paced and some issues aren’t even discussed with kids until at least high school.

    In the question of morality, I think school plays a role in molding a child to understand what is right and what it wrong, but it’s the parents’ job to really cement it in. Just the fact that you’re asking these questions yourself show that you’ll do a great job letting them think for themselves when important issues are in front of them. I enjoyed reading this post! Thanks!

  9. Living in the south I think sometimes the schools are more golden rule centered. BUT–yes. I see this everywhere in life. People in general seem to be only centered on what benefits them and only ‘Their people’ and their own interests.

  10. The fact that you are spending so much time thinking about this shows that you are a good parent. I feel like the common good principle is a much more sophisticated concept that young children may not be able to grasp. The golden rule is important to teach and for kids to understand. I don’t know if you watch Madam Secretary on CBS, but on the show, one of the Secretary’s children got in trouble for making a mean comment on Facebook to another student. When her dad confronted her about it, she said that another student made in her name, but that she didn’t do anything to stop it because she didn’t want to get made fun of. I think issues like that are difficult for children to do the right thing. But if you could keep the golden rule in these situations it could make school a much better place.

  11. I’d hate to have a child in the public school system today. If I were raising a child now it would be home school or catholic (private) school for me. Morals are not taught in the public school system and I don’t think you over thought this at all. Good read.

  12. My son attends a private preschool. They are teaching him to be kind to others. And at his age, that’s the most I can ask from him. I know it’s impacting him because he’ll tell me when something I’ve done makes him sad or he thinks I’m not being kind.

  13. Wow, I didn’t even know most public schools taught any type of morality. I taught at a private Christian school for almost 10 years and still occasionally sub for it. It is sad though that the Golden rule is being replaced by the greater good! I guess anything further away from the teaching of Christ is the direction we are going.

  14. Although I teach in a public school, both of my sons attend parochial school. I like the spiritual foundation that they receive there as well as the discipline that students learn.


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