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Imagining Moral Worlds: Ethics in Teaching and Learning

My heart keeps open house

My doors are widely swung.
—Theodore Roethke, “Open House”


One of my lifelong commitments as a teacher and scholar has been that of exploring the role of imagination and narrative in the course of moral and ethical development. I have long viewed teaching and learning as acts of discovery, portraiture, and inquiry: discovery of new ways of seeing and thinking;portraiture of persons, time, and place across many contexts and cultures; and open and fearless inquiry into problems and possibilities that might take a different turn than others have tried.

In my class Moral Development, Ethics, and Imagination, which I offer to both graduate and undergraduate students, we take on large and gnarly questions: How ought I to live? What does it mean to be a moral person? What is a moral society? What do we do when we disagree? What can we learn from diverse ethical traditions? How might different disciplines and life experiences help us address these questions?

Such questions call for an ever-widening imagination as we consider how we might live in harmony with each other, finding our common ground as well as our differences across regions, cultures, religions, nations, species, and generations. 

In ethics we have no single voice, but a multitude of voices. By seeking a diversity of viewpoints—a view from elsewhere—we become partners in an ever-widening community—an ethical commons that recognizes the paradox of diversity within unity.

In a world that is at times deeply divided, such a quest is a project of hope and reconciliation, one that can grow in small and large steps, from classrooms to communities to civic and international arenas. From such a perspective there is no place for arrogance on any scale—individual, cultural, religious, societal. It calls rather for humility and courage as we deepen our listening and attention to others in ever-widening circles. With advances in technology, communication, and travel in today’s world, we have unique opportunities to live our lives, as Rainer Maria Rilke imagined, “in widening circles that reach out across the world.”

The moral and ethical questions my students and many youth raise today remind me of the last line of William Stafford’s poem “Vocation,” in which the poet’s father says to him: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” As educators, students, parents, and citizens of the world, our job is to find out who we are trying to be, what we wonder about and hope for, and what the world we must share and steward is trying to be. What do we yearn for? What kind of school? What kind of community? What kind of society? What kind of world?


Drawing upon what I’ve learned from my students, colleagues, authors, artists, poets, and from six decades of living within a tumultuous century, I see the challenge we face in the centuries ahead as a daunting but hopeful one: cultivating together the best of what we know, imagine, and can discover together in the moral and ethical worlds in which we live. We are all teachers and learners, “sojourners together into the future,” as writer Leslie Crawford has offered. Ours is not a world without hope. It seems all too often, though, to be a world that has forgotten how to live from a sense of moral possibility grounded in an ethic of justice, compassion, and a sense of the common good. sustaining democracy, public education, and a viable global community is not for spectator citizens but for informed, civic-minded, ethically wide-awake individuals to imagine, transform, and steward.

Children, young people, and adults will become ethical persons able to sustain a democratic society if they develop a sense of moral imagination as well as agile ethical reasoning and moral sensibility. Educators, parents, and mentors can all contribute to young people’s moral and ethical development by engaging in imaginative dialogue as they seek to understand their mutual connection with others in the world. While there are time-honored ideals and principles in the moral, ethical, and theological realms, we have lifelong opportunities, as teachers and learners all, to test, transform, and enact these ideals with courage in our vocations, our civic actions, and our personal lives.

My hope? It is that by entering this moral quest in an inquiring and imaginative way we might unleash a sense of wonder and moral imagination in our many circles of dialogue. There are worlds to imagine, worlds to design, and worlds to preserve. In this quest we are all architects, poets, philosophers, and ethicists.

Carol S. Witherell, professor of education in Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education, will retire this May after a 36-year career in education that has included teaching in the elementary grades and in teacher education and interdisciplinary studies at Santa Clara University, Colgate University, the College of William & Mary, Wesleyan University, and Lewis & Clark College (1987-2005).

by Carol S. Witherell
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