George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching Integrity in an Age of Cynicism

July 2, 2013
Photo credit: ucumari via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recent major news stories have been pretty depressing. To mention just a few: the National Security Agency leaks scandal, concerns about the use of drones, self-serving congressional obstructionists, a mayor in Philadelphia supporting the building of a prison and then closing over twenty public schools to save money.

In the midst of this, it's difficult for most adults, particularly those of us who have a commitment to improving our society, to maintain faith in our leaders and institutions. It's even more challenging to help keep our children from becoming cynics when they see so little evidence of a moral compass in prominent adults and so many major institutions operating amorally at best. How can we expect them to maintain integrity or have faith in their own ability to effect change when so few adults appear to be having success in doing that?

It is said that a major challenge of adolescence is surviving disillusionment without becoming cynical. I want to look at how educators and parents can help children make sense out of all of this without becoming cynics, and how we can teach positive ways of responding.

Classroom Approaches

I think we have a responsibility as educators to teach about the complexity underlying major events. As one example, the NSA leaks extravaganza provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the complexity of decision-making in the modern world, and about how the media often obscures rather than enlightens. Explore with them the impact and implications of the new digital age, issues surrounding privacy and how they interface with issues of security, and the related challenges with which our leaders must deal. There is ample material here for social studies teachers to create a unit. As just one example, the book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, provides material that could be used to help shape such a unit.

Take a look at my earlier post on how media representation of major events often distorts what is happening, and use the Snowden case as an example. Importantly, students should learn that the media almost always focuses on what goes wrong, not on less sensational aspects of the news.

There are also many resources available to help teachers who want to focus on the broader topic of whistleblowers. The Garcetti vs. Ceballos case is one of many possibilities, and there is both a DVD and full teacher's guide available to study this.

Finally, the topic of integrity is worth directly exploring. Again, there is a wealth of available resources for teachers. Although this site focuses on academic integrity at a university level, it is filled with excellent ideas that are equally applicable to high schools. Academic integrity is a subject that your students will find very relevant.

The desired outcome is increased knowledge and understanding, rather than blaming, finger-pointing and perceiving our leaders as immoral manipulators.

The Importance of Modeling

I think the most important way we can combat cynicism and help our children develop both integrity and a sense of empowerment is through modeling. We can provide schools and classrooms that demonstrate responsiveness, integrity and opportunities for students to effect change. We should focus on what we do have control over, and we should make sure that our schools and homes are providing an antidote to cynicism rather than reinforcing it. We have powerful cards to play because of our roles and our continual interaction with our children.

Kids are much smarter than many people give them credit for being. They are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy. They can see the double standards that exist in the world. Some schools also send messages that students perceive as hypocritical. While they're told about the importance of integrity and standing up for what they believe, they sometimes watch fellow students or teachers who speak up being penalized for doing so. Moreover, they are taught the values of democracy and shared governance yet have no voice in significant decision-making.

This is, of course, about teaching values through example. Values are always implicitly being taught in the schools. They are transmitted by what schools reward and punish and by how teachers and administrators act. If we want our children to live their lives with integrity, to be congruent in their words and actions, and to be active participants in helping improve our society, we must model that. And respect for adolescents provides an educational message that no words can match.

I think it's fine to have our children know that we have specific political and social commitments, but to truly model integrity, we need to make it clear that our role is to help them make their own choices, not manipulate or convince them to adopt ours. This means respecting and supporting our children and students when they choose to actively support a different candidate and/or different social movement.

And, of course, through giving them a voice in classroom decisions and increasing their voice in school-wide decisions, making school governments more than dance organizers, we can give them a real sense of empowerment.

Among the many resources to help us in this process, one comes from the renowned educator Parker Palmer in a short piece available online. Another is a report written for colleges and universities but equally valuable for high schools.

As parents and teachers, we can exemplify how our political and business leaders should conduct themselves, and by our actions help our children become adults who live their lives with integrity and engagement, rather than cynicism and apathy.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Professional Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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