Book Review

The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract

Reviewed by Art Stellar, Superintendent,
Kingston, N.Y., City School District

When we peel back the veneer of daily school life to expose the subtexts seen by students, co-authors Theodore and Nancy Sizer argue persuasively in The Students Are Watching that the moral education public school students receive by proxy should be examined.

In powerful, often poetic language, the Sizers open a philosophical discussion with the reader about moral education and provide an apt reminder of the power of incidental observation in teaching and learning. The Sizers point out that students learn from adults far more than we realize. Students learn moral lessons from lazy, distracted teachers who bluff their way through the day and from courageous dedicated professionals. Students learn from discrepancies such as giving rich children more expensive programs than poor children, inconsistent policies and expedient routines formed to herd and sort students.

The good news, the Sizers argue, is that hypocrisy and deceit can be restrained by caring grownups who acknowledge that moral education of young people begins with adults.

A problem with much of the practice of moral education is that it can be little more than a collection of impressive nouns--honesty, respect, etc. Thus, these particular authors prefer verbs--morality becomes to moralize because, they write, "There is superiority and condescension in the verb, and yet it still turns on the usefully rigid meaning of its parent noun."

This concept manifests itself throughout this extended essay starting with the preface entitled "Watching," continuing with chapters labeled "Modeling," "Grappling," "Bluffing," "Sorting," "Shoving" and "Fearing" and concluding with the afterword "Thinking." These gerunds are attention grabbing.

To illustrate the ideas, Ted and Nancy Sizer focus on secondary schools where there is more intensity than among most elementary schools. Some will readily dismiss this discourse as impractical or too liberal. Some will abuse this work by trying to exploit segments to support a pet theory. Most will appreciate the luxury of the journey. A few will grasp the essence: "The students watch us all the time. We must honestly ponder what we want them to learn from it."

(The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract, by Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer, Beacon Press, Boston, Mass. 1999, 133 pages, $20 softcover)