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Promoting Moral Growth

Posted by on November 25, 2014

It was the summer of 1985 and Cambridge, Mass., was muggy. I was living in an old Radcliffe dorm room, smaller than my first few cars. Single bed, small desk, and a giant fan which I pointed directly at the bed at night. I was there to work in a summer program under Lawrence Kohlberg, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, famous for his identification of stages in moral growth. My interest was in developing a disciplinary system for my school which would encourage moral thinking and the movement away from the traditional punishment-reward approach of most schools.
The days were filled with seminars with remarkable teachers. Howard Gardner spoke of his newly developed work in Multiple Intelligences. Nell Noddings, Carol Gilligan, and Ted Sizer spoke on School Climate. Elsa Wasserman presented on empowerment of students and teachers. Kohlberg continually echoed the importance of fairness. “A rule must not only BE fair, it must SEEM fair”. My mind raced, taking each seminar and applying it to my own small school, a school so small that it could be a laboratory, so fragile that everyone had to be accountable to each other, responsible for the whole. My friend, Tom Seibold, was with me and we carried the daily discussions into the night, into the local bars and restaurants, sharing our notes and insights from the day.
Each day would reach a level of humidity that would finally result in a warm rain. I would walk in the evening mist through Cambridge, listening to musicians in storefronts, hearing a leather clad Tracy Chapman singing just to me as she played in a doorway just out of the wet night, just months before the world would know her name.
I had first learned of Larry Kohlberg from my friend and HVS school trustee, Helen Bee, who had taken her PhD at Harvard. She knew that I was into the work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss Psychologist well known for his identification of the stages of conceptual growth. Delighted to learn of Kohlberg, who had taken the work of Piaget and moved it into the realm of moral thinking, I wrote to him and he replied with an invitation to join his program in the summer. His letter to me was warm and encouraging, as was his person when we met, but I was a bit shocked to meet a man who was much diminished from his pictures. His entire jaw was wired shut, the result of a disease which was slowly turning his bones into dust. While doing research years earlier in Belize, he had developed a rare parasitic infection that caused him daily pain. His body was slowly deteriorating though his mind was quite intact. It was Kohlberg who inspired me to create a student council, not one that planned dances and football rallies, but a circle of students representing each facet of the school who would meet with the Director each week to advise him on the well being of the school, on the efficacy of the program, and often on the disposition of a disciplinary matter. It was Kohlberg who suggested that I allow a student to bring a faculty advocate to disciplinary hearings, encouraged me to make the school safe for risk, and to remember the importance of tolerance, patience, and understanding. One graduate memorably remarked at commencement that she “had been a different person each of her four years at the school and the school simply made room for her changes”. This was Kohlberg in action. She was “trying on” her life. We all know that adolescence is a highly experimental time, but most associate that with drugs or sex. Larry Kohlberg taught me that all teenagers are constantly busy experimenting with who they really are, what they believe, and how to choose authentic lives. (I know this was true for me). It was around this time that we were also experimenting with the process of Council in the school, which more than served our needs, both individually and communally, for promoting broad ethical growth by listening to reach other.
It was a year or so later that Larry Kohlberg parked his car by the frozen Boston Harbor and walked into the sea, becoming an ethicist who chose to end his life in the face of what he knew to lie ahead for himself and his family. About that time, someone stole some money from a student in the dorm. I confronted the student body and suggested that the culprit not only stole from another student, he/she stole from us all by undermining our trust in each other. I took a $20 bill from my wallet and pinned it to the bulletin board in the Commons, suggesting if anyone really needed money that badly, they could take the twenty rather than steal from a friend. That bill remained on the board for months, right in the middle of the school. One morning I came in to a very quiet room. My eyes moved to the bulletin board which was now empty of free money. Many expected me to be upset. To the contrary, I explained that every person who walked past that money for the previous months had made an ethical choice. It might have been the best 20 bucks I ever spent. Thank you, Larry.

2 Responses to Promoting Moral Growth

  1. Richard Robinson

    A powerful story of the time just after I left, I guess it was the summer I left in fact.

    Yes, a well spent $20.

    I would be very interested in Tom’s insights from that summer. I just a few hours ago told a story of how he influenced me as well. He was also remarkable.

    • drice

      Tom was indeed a fascinating (and complex) man. I believe that he influenced many. Thanks for reading.

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