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. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled “fact vs. opinion.” The definitions I found online were substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.
So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed. We then had this conversation:
Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”
Him: “It’s a fact.”
Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”
Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”
Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”
The blank stare on his face said it all.
How does the dichotomy between fact and opinion relate to morality? I learned the answer to this question only after I investigated my son’s homework (and other examples of assignments online). Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here’s a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?
— Copying homework assignments is wrong.
— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
— All men are created equal.
— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.
— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
— Drug dealers belong in prison.
The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.
Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?
Our schools do amazing things with our children. And they are, in a way, teaching moral standards when they ask students to treat one another humanely and to do their schoolwork with academic integrity. But at the same time, the curriculum sets our children up for doublethink. They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.
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.
That would be wrong.
Justin P. McBrayer is an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He works in ethics and philosophy of religion.
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
A misleading distinction between fact and opinion is embedded in the Common Core.
Cheating in American high schools is widespread. A recent ABCNews poll of 12- to 17-year-olds provided these statistics:
- 70% of teens say at least some kids in their school cheat on tests.
- 60% have friends who have cheated.
- 30% say they themselves have cheated, rising to 43% of 16- and 17-year-olds.
- More than 50% say cheaters don’t get caught.
In our previous blog, Cheating in School, we provided several facts, consequences, and prevention tips for adolescent cheating. In today’s blog, we wanted to offer parents some specific ideas for talking to your teen about cheating.
You can print out these ten reasons to give to your teen and use them as a way to open a discussion.
Top Ten List for Why Cheating is Wrong
- Cheating is the same as lying and stealing. Each time you hand in schoolwork, you are basically telling the teacher that you completed that work on your own. That’s either true or, if you cheated on the work, it’s lying. Cheating is also stealing because you are taking someone else’s work and calling it your own.
- Cheating causes stress. When you cheat, you inevitably worry about getting caught. The stress of getting caught increases when you consider the possible consequences of your actions, such as getting in trouble at home or receiving disciplinary actions from the school. Even worse, you may have to develop a story to cover up your cheating, which can lead to getting trapped in a web of lies because it’s so difficult to keep your story straight when it never happened. It can be very stressful if you get caught in a lie, or if you thinks someone knows about your cheating and might tell someone else.
- Cheating is unfair to others. Have you ever played a game by the rules only to have a friend who was so intent on winning that they cheated? Cheating is very frustrating when you are playing by the rules. When you cheat in school to get better grades, it’s unfair to the kids who actually studied and did the work. You may also receive unfair recognition for the better grade, when it is not deserved.
- Cheating is unfair to you. Accomplishment feels good and helps build self-esteem and self-confidence. When you cheat, you are basically telling yourself that you do not believe in your own abilities. You might get an A on a test or an assignment, but you’ll know that you really didn’t earn it. Cheating just makes you feel bad about yourself.
- Cheating hampers progress. Learning tends to build on itself. You learn basics first so that you can use those basics in more complicated problems later. If you don’t know the basics, then you will have to continue to cheat, or start over learning the material from scratch. Every time you cheat, you’re not learning skills and lessons that could be important later on.
- Cheating is disrespectful. Teachers work hard to share knowledge to help you be successful in academics, career, and life. Cheating shows a lack of respect for the efforts of your teacher and your classmates who did the work.
- Cheating kills trust. It only takes getting caught cheating one time to ruin trust. Even if you never cheat again, those in authority will always have a hard time trusting you and will likely be suspicious of your work. When others hear about your cheating, their opinion of you will be compromised.
- Cheating can become a habit. People who cheat don’t usually do it one time. It becomes a habit that follows people throughout college and into their careers. Just like gambling or stealing, cheating can become a part of who you are and spread into other areas of your life. Cheaters tend to lose perspective as to what is acceptable behavior and demonstrate a disregard for others.
- Cheating eventually leads to failure. By skipping the hard work involved in learning, you will never develop the important traits of persistence, dedication, diligence, and sacrifice. Success takes hard work, and cheating is the easy way out. Eventually, you will find that it is difficult to achieve your goals without these important skills.
- Cheating is embarrassing. Your actions define who you are to those around you. When you cheat, you are expressing yourself to others as lazy, incompetent, untrustworthy, selfish, unintelligent, and disrespectful. In addition, many schools are developing tougher stances on cheating. Imagine your embarrassment when you are suspended for cheating or you discover that school personnel informed college admissions officers of your actions.
Schools and parents must both actively discourage cheating if we have any hope of stopping this epidemic. Studies show that America is lagging behind other countries in academics. Our nation will not be globally competitive if we raise a generation of undereducated cheaters. Parents and teachers should emphasize the importance of integrity.
Category: School | Tags: adolescent education statistics, consequences of cheating, prevention of teens cheating in school, reasons cheating is wrong