The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School: Why We Do This

By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

Dr. Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute, leads a discussion on Empathy

Some years ago, I heard Elie Wiesel speak at Drew University in Madison, NJ. I remember his heart-wrenching account of people being hauled off onto train cars and sent down the tracks to the Nazi concentration camps. He pleaded with his audience to tell him, “Why? Why didn’t anyone help? Anyone? Couldn’t someone have disrupted or destroyed the tracks…someone? Somewhere along the route from the station to the camp?” 

No one acted. Indifference. 

Over seventy years after Elie Wiesel boarded the train that took him and his family to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, his questions remain unanswered. Our inability to answer them reaffirms to me why the mission of The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School (EIKPS) is more relevant than ever. 

The “why” behind The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

Students need the space to learn how to think deeply about complex issues and dilemmas

When I first posited the idea of creating an ethics institute for primary and secondary school-aged children, most people said, “Why do we need an ethics institute? Do you think children in elementary school and teenagers in high school can understand ethics?”

As a career educator and administrator, I know that thinking deeply about complex issues and dilemmas that present a conflict in values is one of the skills that students need the most. Using one’s mind in an ethical way demands time, introspection, and a clear understanding of “what’s most important to me.” It requires an ability to listen, to appreciate the other’s values and opinions, to have empathy and, most importantly, to make a difficult decision.

Last January, as we celebrated the Tenth Anniversary of the founding of The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School, the resounding sentiment in our school community was, “This is the most important and meaningful thing that’s happening in schools today. We need to develop ethical leaders for tomorrow.” I am grateful the thinking about ethics as part of the K-12 curricula has come full circle, and while we strive to develop ethical leaders, we need to do much more than that.

We also need to empower our students to think!  

The importance of teaching ethics to primary and secondary school communities 

Ethics better equips students to think through challenges in their lives

The complexity and pace of the world are such that there are many skills that seem to be absent in today’s society. Thinking deeply, taking the time to be introspective, knowing the values that are most important to us, listening and respecting others, making a hard decision–these are just some reasons why we must teach ethics to our primary and secondary school communities. Moreover, there is a “muscle memory” to ethics; by putting our ethical decision-making model in front of students when they are young, they are better equipped to think through more important ethical challenges when they become adults. 

Long ago, I realized that to be successful in that task requires the adults who are involved in the lives of the children also be immersed in an ethical decision-making model–a model that is easily woven into all aspects of life. Notably, the mission of The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School is to “promote the process and practice of ethical decision-making in primary and secondary school communities.” Communities are defined not only as students, but also the parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, and church leaders, in other words, everyone who is involved in raising children to be the ethical leaders of tomorrow.

Education is about more than statistical outcomes

In Elie Wiesel’s speech at Drew University, he spoke eloquently and passionately about “indifference” as the real danger in society, the real enemy to all of humanity.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference…. And, the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” 

-Elie Wiesel

Finally, he said, “Think higher, feel deeper.” How do we do that I wondered?

Over the past 20 years, I have watched schools follow the current societal trend of making decisions based on analytics. In academia, those metrics are often displayed in comparative dashboards of pertinent statistics and standardized test scores for students. Parents have become desperate for some semblance of control over their children’s lives as they watch them succumb to the influences of social media.  Students define their self-worth by their accomplishments: the grade on a test, the part in the play, or the college acceptance.

Think higher? Feel deeper? Academia is far from it. Metrics are important, for sure, but not at the expense of guiding, teaching, and influencing our children to be thinkers, not just high-achieving students. It takes time to think. It takes even more time to feel. As a society, we don’t offer the necessary time for people to do that when we are primarily interested in measurable, statistical outcomes. 

Ethics will help define a student’s personhood

Ethics helps student figure out what they value and their purpose in life

Schools are people institutions. We need to help students discover what “personhood” means and develop a purpose in life–to find it and to live it. Albert Camus, the French existentialist, wrote, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” From this comment, we are left to wonder about the meaning and purpose of life and whether or not our efforts in this life are futile.

Questioning one’s utility is an attitude that I find prevalent among young people today, and it’s an alarming one. Though I don’t agree that philosophy’s main purpose is to answer the fundamental question as to “why” life is worth living, I do agree that involving students in the practice of ethics and ethical decision-making is the avenue through which they can find the meaning of life.   

Life is not futile; life is full of purpose, promise, and potential. 

The study of ethics is a powerful vehicle that can be used to encourage students to embrace life’s purpose by discovering their own system of values and beliefs, applying those values to their conduct, and in so doing, exploring their unique purpose in life.

The study of ethics and “thinking higher and feeling deeper” 

Ethics helps us to think higher and feel deeper

Returning to Elie Wiesel’s haunting question, “Why didn’t someone act to disrupt the tracks,” I sometimes wonder what the “metaphorical tracks” are today that are being ignored. I often contemplate whether we are succeeding in empowering students to think beyond themselves–their feelings of apprehension or fear–and to consider solutions that impact society for the greater good. 

The students who have learned through ethics to think higher and feel deeper, to create a belief system based on values, and to live those values in a way that demonstrates a willingness to make difficult decisions are the ones who will make a difference in the world. 

With that confidence and hope, The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School will forge ahead with its vision to empower communities to live ethically and open up the world of ethics to K-12 students everywhere. 

Having survived the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and shortly thereafter established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization whose mission:

“…rooted in the memory of the Holocaust, is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.” 

-Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity

In perhaps the ultimate ethical irony, Elie and his wife Marion lost their savings, and the Foundation lost 15 million dollars in a Ponzi scheme, a fraud that uses money from new investors to pay returns to current investors, perpetrated by Bernie Madoff. Madoff was convicted in 2008 in what remains the largest known Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. Nevertheless, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity continues to fulfill its profound mission today.