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Schools can teach morality outside faith, educator says

Published Oct. 7, 2005

Professor James Kinneavy has been teaching English, at all academic levels, for more than 50 years. He has watched the American educational system evolve and has reached a conclusion.

"There is a serious moral problem in the 20th century," he said.

Kinneavy, past director of the undergraduate writing program at the University of Texas at Austin, presented his solution Thursday at the West Campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey.

His talk, titled "Ethics and Writing in Society," focused not on his years of experience at teaching others to write clearly but on his conviction that only a moral component to education can cure what ails us.

"I hope that this country and others would find a way to train teachers to teach from a standpoint of a standard moral code," he said. "We need something. That's all that I'm saying."

Kinneavy advanced the idea that public teachers can promote morality without running into the controversy of church versus state. Four major moral principles _ respect for life, respect for family, respect for property and respect for truth _ can be taught without reference to a specific religion.

"The use by the teacher of the four major principles and the use by the students in their own papers of their own individual religious or moral positions thus effectively avoids the . . . major legal problems posed by the First Amendment," he said.

The educator said he has been thinking along these lines since a 1987 speech at La Salle University in Philadelphia. A more recent event, however, actually served to develop the philosophy, he said.

Three years ago, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred at a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, about 50 miles north of Kinneavy's campus at UT-Austin. A man named George Hennard killed 22 people and wounded several others before killing himself.

In 1992, Kinneavy was asked to speak about the educational implications of the tragedy. He began to look closely at news and media coverage of the event. "What was interesting," he said, "was that the same pattern of reactions occurred throughout.

"I would say that there were four major recurring features: shock at the loss of life, dismay for the victims' families, surprise at the destruction of property and concern for truth and accuracy (in the media)."

"(The Killeen incident) kind of crystallized what the conventions might be" for his moral philosophy, Kinneavy said afterward.