Social climate of the 1960s and 1970s

Kohlberg's rise to a kind of academic stardom in the early 1970s had much to do with the political and social upheavals in the United States toward the end of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the political scandal of the Watergate hearings brought moral issues to the forefront of public attention; these conflicts gave the question of moral education in the schools a new urgency. In addition, Kohlberg's emphasis on the importance of bridging academic theory and educational practice led a number of psychologists and educators to become political activists. Most of the just communities and cluster schools studied by Kohlberg's graduate students were founded during this period.

Some historians of American education have suggested that the general atmosphere of social unrest and disruption in the 1970s favored widespread acceptance of Kohlberg's ideas because he was regarded as a protestor against the academic status quo. His notion of conventional morality as a lower stage of moral development also attracted those who wished to see themselves as morally justified as well as intellectually sophisticated opponents of the current social and political system. Kohlberg's popularity was in part a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Many of his critics complained that his tendency to ascribe higher ratings on his scale of moral maturity to student protestors amounted to implicit endorsement of their left-wing political views. An example of the political bias that these critics perceived in Kohlberg's ratings occurs in a book chapter that he coauthored in 1971. Discussing the 1964 free speech sit-ins at Berkeley, Kohlberg maintained that

. . . willingness to violate authority for civil rights required Stage-6 principled thinking. ... a Stage-5 social-contract interpretation of justice (which was held by the university administration) did not lead to a clear decision [on the part of students at that level]. . . . about half of the Stage-5 subjects sat in, while eighty percent of the Stage-6 subjects sat in. For students at the conventional levels—Stages 3 and 4—such civil disobedience was viewed as a violation of authority and only ten percent of them sat in.

It should be added that some graduates of Kohlberg's high school programs did not perceive him as a neutral figure. The phrase "moral intimidation" was used by a graduate of the Scarsdale Alternative School described below, who published an article in 1980 regarding Kohlberg's work as a consultant at the school. The student argued that Kohlberg's emphasis on the form rather than the content of moral reasoning did not exclude the potential for teachers to pressure students in their applications of moral education theory.

The feeling of being pushed toward "higher stages" was very intimidating to many students. They perceived that every issue was presented with a "right" side and a "wrong" side and that there was tremendous pressure to choose the "right" side, despite what they really thought. . . . This I saw happening in our school especially with a big shot Harvard professor in addition to the entire staff supporting certain ideas which they called better. With the notion that there exists a hierarchy of reasoning and values in the air . . . discussions [turn] into battles of who's right and who is wrong based on stages.

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