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Parents like Iesha Wooten are hunkered down in makeshift classrooms at home to ensure children complete their online schoolwork as classrooms remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Sept. 11)

AP Domestic

If educating our youth is a moral imperative, we must decide what values we want them to learn and how to teach those effectively.

Disruptive and traumatic events like the COVID-19 pandemic give us an opportunity to take stock in ourselves, our institutions and our values. But that reflection does not make change inevitable or productive — only possible.

With most of the nation’s 70 million school children kept out of the classroom, the public discussion has centered on where and how are our children learning — not what, why and to what end?

This reflection point is an opportunity to reassess and renew the mission of our pre-K to 12th grade system to prepare young people to lead us through future crises with civility and grace.

 (Photo: Getty Images)

As Americans, we take universal schooling in broad and diverse subject matters for granted. For most of human history, such an education was a privilege of the elite, and any available schooling was rudimentary and immediately practicable.

Our system needs to look forward to what its current design and function will bestow on future generations.

Think about it.

By September 2032, a girl enrolled in the first grade today will graduate from high school— be it in public school, a private school, or from a home, virtual, or parent pod learning model. What kind of America will she inherit? Will our founding ideas about civic and moral ecology still support her curiosity to learn? Will our economy be strong enough to support her ambition to become a professor or entrepreneur? Will our government and the Constitution remain intact for her to freely exercise her rights and liberties? Will the education she received prepare her to keep pace with our world’s rapid growth in technology and knowledge?

These questions must animate our debate about education more than its delivery method. And parents and high schoolers have strong views on what values schools should instill.

In a first of its kind, national survey by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, 3,000 parents and 3,000 high school students from diverse learning environments throughout the United States weighed in. The soon-to-be published National Survey of Moral Formation Report (by Drs. James Hunter, Carl Bowman and Kyle Puetz) polls respondents’ views on topics such as peers, family, racial and ethnic diversity, national politics and religious beliefs.

Overall, the results are interesting and sobering. For example, when parents were asked what responsibilities Americans should have toward others, 92% said “being civil to others with whom you disagree” was an essential or very important responsibility, and 90% said the same for voting in a national election. At the same time, 67% held participating in activities to help the poor at the same level of importance.

Teens are not far behind parents on what they deem as essential and very important for some issues. For instance, only 36% of teens believe it is essential and very important to be patriotic, 56% place similar importance on being knowledgeable about their county and the world, and 59% hold similar beliefs about being an active citizen.

Financial success and achievement are important also. When parents were asked to rank the importance of providing every financial advantage and educational opportunity to their children to be successful and to achieve their goals, only 11% ranked it as the most important to them; 25% ranked it as the least important. When teens were asked the same question, there is a difference: 48% listed it as the most important or second most important item.

Every citizen should ask: Do these responses hearten or concern me? If you’re worried that many teens don’t prioritize engaged citizenship or consider patriotism important, what public policies or private values must change to guide the next generation to take a larger role in their community?

If educating our youth is a moral imperative, we must decide what values we want them to learn and how to teach those effectively.

The back-and-forth debate over virtual learning and school re-openings misses the forest for the trees. Schoolchildren can adapt, if properly equipped, but their educational journey needs a route and a map if we want them to reach a given destination.

In a recent conversation I moderated with three nationally known educators about “Education and the Good” some of the opportunities and challenges our society must address if we will teach our young learners to know, believe and value were brought to the forefront – but first we must know what we want those to be.

Gerard Robinson is the vice president for education at the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation in Charlottesville, Va.

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