Should the life of a severely handicapped newborn be preserved at all cost? Or should nature be allowed to claim the infant's life, sparing both child and parents the pain and anguish that might follow?
On a recent sunny afternoon, Barbara Chase, headmistress of Bryn Mawr, and eight seniors at Baltimore's all-girls school sat around a conference table, discussing the perplexing issue.
On another part of the campus, Marlisa Parker, lower school director, led a similar seminar for six fifth-graders over lunch. The 10-year-olds roamed over a wide variety of topics, from the consequences of leaving a loaded gun where a child can easily find it, to the question, When is "taking" simply borrowing and when is it stealing?
The common thread running through the dialogue between the students and teachers is values. Values, or character education taught outside of any religious context, is an important part of the curriculum at Bryn Mawr.
"For many years I made the assumption students had these discussions at home," says Ms. Parker, an educator with 20 years experience. "I think that certainly does occur, but I also think it's an assumption we can't make as much as we used to."
Dr. Judith Kalish, director of education services for the Washington-based Ethics Resource Center, notes that Bryn Mawr "has a long history of being outstanding in the area of character education." She finds a number of schools are requesting information on the subject. Other area schools that emphasize values education are the Key School in Annapolis and the Baltimore County school system.
It was 11 years ago, during her second year as headmistress, that Mrs. Chase inaugurated the seniors ethics seminar at Bryn Mawr. She had wanted to get to know the girls better before they graduated and the program grew from there.
Today, values education goes on in all the grades, from kindergarten pupils suggesting values to add to a portrait of the "person of the week," to Little Schoolers creating artwork that teaches a special lesson, and Middle Schoolers wrestling with the problems of decision-making.
All this is tacked onto a busy school day, so homework on the subject is kept to a minimum and there are no tests or grades.
"I try to work with the girls to be confident about what they say and not be apologetic about not having made up their minds," Mrs. Chase says. "We sometimes become rather adversarial by taking one position or another too strongly, and I think we miss a lot of the shadings and ambiguities."
Classroom discussions often become heated, and in those moments Mrs. Chase and the other teachers play the role of traffic cop.
"One ground rule I lay down at the beginning is that they can be as vociferous as they need to be in stating their views, but they have to be respectful of others," she says. "And they are. These are passionate questions and they feel very emotional about them."
New this year in the Lower School is a fifth-grade ethics program team taught by Ms. Parker and Dr. Kalish. Bryn Mawr is one of seven Maryland schools working with the nonprofit Ethics Resource Center. The two educators meet once a month for an hour with all 47 fifth-graders for open discussion on a theme usually introduced by a film, video or book.
The class began the school year with a session on defining ethics. At first, students were uncertain of the meaning, but felt it had something to do with American politics. Eventually they came up with their own working definition: how we treat one another.
To deal with the subject in greater depth, Ms. Parker has divided the class into groups of six to eight girls and meets with each group for five consecutive days. Homework includes discussing specific ethical questions with their parents and bringing in newspaper clippings illustrating moral dilemmas for class consideration. Discussions are anything but nonjudgmental.
"The question of right and wrong does comes up," Ms. Parker says. "When we talk about lies and white lies, they know very well how strongly I feel about that."
Dr. Kalish, whose work covers schools up and down the East Coast, finds young people are "thirsting" for information on ethical matters.
Bryn Mawr students who have gone through the program agree.
"It gives us a chance to discuss issues that are not ordinarily brought up in class," recalls 17-year-old Kia Williams. "I want to be a doctor, but I didn't think about the ethics behind almost every profession. A lot of the issues we talked about are issues professionals such as doctors have to face."
Sarah Jencks, also 17, vividly recalls a class discussion on living wills because it was so intense.
"No one was really sure how she felt and everyone wanted to learn more," she says. "We were able to find out some really interesting things about each other's opinions--and even how we felt ourselves."
For Mrs. Chase, the results have been encouraging. "The girls are constantly bombarded with news that makes you worry about the values of our society. They welcome being able to talk about such things, and they never fail to impress me with their thoughtfulness."