Challenges ahead

In our changing world, ethics education is more important than ever

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Ethics/character education is a complex issue in Canada, the United States, and around the world, connecting with many aspects of society. It helps shape the views and opinions of students in areas such as citizenship, political activism, career choices, global awareness, social justice and peace education. As those young people move into new stages of their lives, ethics education will come to affect their business practices, social relationships and political relations.

Fareed Zakaria (2003), for example, argues that the only way we might transform Iraq is by reaching their youth so that they may embrace a new set of values and ethics. He goes on to say that this is crucial with respect to their new democratic understanding and success, as this is the age group that may still be reached to change the face of terrorism and religious tensions throughout the world. In other words, if we reach groups of "young people" with an educational practice that teaches ethics, values and morals, doing so will expose them to a new way of relating to their community neighbour as well as their global neighbour.


Schools must partner with families to instill a system of ethics character in young people that will produce responsible, character-filled and active citizens of the local and global communities in our ever-shrinking world. Significant attention must be focused on high school students, who are working through complex bombardments of varying value systems through media, peers, families and cultural differences.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, our young people are contending with new issues as they seek to piece their views together, given their assumptions and contextual formations of the world. High schools in Canada and the United States are becoming much more than places of academic instruction or casual socialization, often replacing the "home" when it relates to character development (Evans, 2004). Competition for university entrance placements and limited job options are adding increased pressures to students' psyches. How will this generation deal with decisions that have ethical and moral implications?

It seems as though teaching values in schools has traditionally occurred when national unity has been threatened by increasing diversity and urbanization, when the primary socializing agencies (such as parents) have been perceived as ineffective and when there have been times of domestic and/or international turbulence (Lemming, 2001). Regardless of the origins, ethics and education is a crucial area and should be a priority for scholars, school administration and teachers around the world.

Our schools are dealing with issues of intensified immoral student behaviour and a lack of integrity in many different forms. These unethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes but they are, in fact, a problem that both the public and independent school sectors are battling.

One major tension dispersed throughout our schools, which has intensified in our technology-driven world, is academic integrity. It has always been of interest to schools, but when students in elementary schools are "copying and pasting" entire documents for their geography projects, it is evident we are dealing with a more sophisticated set of problems.

Due to the increasing evidence of ethical problems in schools, we need to rethink and enhance our ethics and character education programs to strengthen moral philosophy, moral standards on conduct and/or personal codes of conduct.

According to several different binational studies conducted in the last number of years, academic integrity in North American high schools is declining rapidly.

A recent University of Manitoba-supported study reported 61 per cent of high school students admitted to cheating on tests and 74 per cent admitted to cheating on written projects (essays and reports). When asked to explain, Canadian high school students responded that: Cheating was "no big deal," it saved time, it provided for better marks, it relieved parental pressure, "everyone else was doing it" and the power of peer pressure was too strong to resist (University of Manitoba Ethics Study Presentation, 2004).

Dart and Lowry (2004) also reported that a cross-national study co-ordinated by Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity suggested that 73 per cent of Canadian university students admitted to cheating on tests and papers. This spurred Brock University to strike an academic ethics task force to address the disturbing findings in the study.

According to the Canadian Policy Research Network (2001), the status of Canada's youth as citizens of character is precarious at best.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted a recent study of 25,000 high school students in the United States and the results were somewhat contradictory, although not surprising. According to this national study, 62 per cent cheated on exams, 27 per cent had shoplifted within the past 12 months and 40 per cent admitted to lying for financial gain. Despite these admissions, 98 per cent of students reported that honesty, ethics and good character were very important to them. According to this and other similar studies, a dichotomy of thought lingers among young people in the United States.

Dr. Rushworth Kidder states that a recent Gallup poll of university graduates suggested that 50 per cent of teaching students, 76 percent of business students and 68 per cent of medical students cheated to get their degrees and certifications.

These statistics, while staggering, show a distinct pattern that will contribute to problems in our homes, communities, schools, businesses and hospitals.

The Internet has brought a new level of possibilities relating to plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Throughout both the United States and Canada, an attempt to deal with ethics and character development in high schools relating to academic integrity is on the agenda of state legislatures and universities studying these issues. Non-profit and university ethics institutes throughout our nations are also dealing with the issue of technology and academic integrity. Due to the causes of information technology misuse in the forms of the infringement of copyright laws, Internet plagiarism and "hacking," educating young people about information ethics is of paramount importance (Chuang & Chen, 1999).

The topic of ethics education is fraught with tensions and discourse that seem to have intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist actions against the United States. Unless we make these programs a priority and address the problems that exist, the future of our nations is at risk. The future lies in the hands of the present generation of students in our schools. Strong math,science, psychology, biology and physics programs must continue to be a priority, but without the teaching of sound judgement and ethical standards, the scope of learning and application is unbalanced.

The "show me" and/or "prove it" generation that fills our school hallways wants to find a purpose in life and success in careers, relationships and life choices . . . but at what price?

High schools need to become more responsible for teaching and modelling ethics so the future of business, economics, education, social institutions and social relationships is built on honesty and integrity. High schools are becoming the Wal-Mart Superstores of education. Because families are not always claiming responsibility for teaching ethical viewpoints to their children, the responsibility is inevitably transferred to schools.

Higher education institutes of ethics need to continue to work with the provincial ministries of education in Canada and with school districts in the United States toward awareness of ethical dilemmas, as well as possible solutions to combat this inter-related phenomenon. Educational policy development and investment in ethics/character education programs will be increasingly important for the future of North America and the world.

—Kent Warkentin
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