Tech experts and industry leaders are calling for reinventing education to focus more on ethics and character formation, attributes they believe will be critical for the future.
And some are already taking steps to make it happen.
Business Insider recently featured a school created by Elon Musk for his five kids, Ad Astra, an ultra-exclusive, invitation-only institution whose name means “to the stars” in Latin. Musk told a Beijing Television station in 2015 that “there aren’t any grades” at Ad Astra because “it makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.”
Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and the space company X Prize, has said little else about the school, which has no website or contact information, but X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis shared the school’s strong focus on ethics with the news site after a recent tour.
“One element that is persistent in that small school of 31 kids is the conversation about ethics and morals, a conversation manifested by debating real-world scenarios that our kids may one day face,” Diamandis wrote in a recent editorial for The Huffington Post titled “Reinventing our Kids Education.”
“Here’s an example of the sort of gameplay/roleplay that I heard about at Ad Astra, that might be implemented in a module on morals and ethics. Imagine a small town on a lake, in which the majority of the town is employed by a single factory. But that factory has been polluting the lake and killing all the life. What do you do?” Diamandis wrote.
“It’s posed that shutting down the factory would mean that everyone loses their jobs,” he explained. “On the other hand, keeping the factory open means the lake is destroyed and the lake dies. This kind of regular and routine conversation/gameplay allows the children to see the world in a critically important fashion.”
The focus on ethics and morals is one of numerous suggestions Diamandis offered to modernize and improve public education, but it ties in closely with other recommendations to develop strong character in students through a curriculum that bolsters their passions, feeds a mindset of persistence, and fosters empathy toward others.
Andrew Delbanco, a humanities professor at Columbia University, said in an interview that stories provide one of the best ways to teach ethics, which is fundamentally about understanding how to live with others.
Stories not only provoke reflection and self-criticism, but also expand students’ moral imagination, he said.
Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for example, “compels us to think about where our responsibilities for our fellow human beings begin and where they end,” Delbanco said. Literature in general, he said, pushes students to think about good character, and confront questions about right and wrong.
“I want to believe that by keeping such texts in the curriculum, and by pursuing the questions to which they lead, we’re provoking thought about matters that students might otherwise trivialize or evade,” Delbanco said.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues provides lessons for grade school through high school to help students relate literature to conversations about ethics, morals, and good character.
The lesson “Virtue, Vice and Verse,” for example, accomplishes exactly what Delbanco describes with a set of exercises “designed to challenge pupils to think about how the poems make them feel, and how virtues and vices are portrayed in each poem, or pair of poems.”
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