The role of authentic communication in moral development and transformative education: reflections on a case study.

Author:Cotten, Glen
Position:Case study


In 2005, this author undertook a case study of a moral education/community development program in a public high school in North Carolina. Given a long-standing interest in transformative education, (1) and reports received of the program's remarkable success in promoting moral motivation and a profound sense of community among high school students from normally estranged racial and socioeconomic groups, I sought to understand the transformative experiences program participants reported having and how the program's curriculum and pedagogy might be promoting such transformation. The resulting case study became my dissertation, to which the reader interested in more of the study's details than are included in this article may refer (Cotten, 2009).

Data collection for this study began in the fall of 2005 when the program's founder invited this author to observe a number of workshops (i.e., the core of the educational experience the program provided). At approximately the same time, I also became acquainted with and increasingly interested in psychologist Mustakova-Possardt's (1998; 2003; 2004) research on the development of "critical moral consciousness" (CMC). I was especially interested in the unusually holistic characterization her theory provides of how moral motivation and critical consciousness develop in people who dedicate themselves to social service. My study of the program thus came to focus on two research questions: (1) Could the transformations some of the program participants reported experiencing (in their senses of identity, responsibility and agency, and ways of relating to others) be usefully understood as instances of CMC development? and (2) If so, how might the program's curriculum and pedagogy have contributed to this development?

Analysis of data collected from field observations and interviews with selected participants revealed that a majority of those interviewed appeared to be developing CMC at the time of their interviews. Furthermore, by and large, these participants regarded their participation in the program as having either been the primary cause of, or as having significantly contributed to, the changes in moral consciousness they reported experiencing. Further consideration of these findings led to the conclusion that the participants' experiences in the program of what I term authentic communication, in this case regarding a moral problem directly concerning and affecting them, apparently stimulated their development of CMC.

This article's purpose is to explicate this finding and reflect on some of its implications. Before doing so, the two sections that follow introduce relevant aspects of Mustakova-Possardt's theory of CMC, describe some outstanding features of the program, and present a few noteworthy accounts of participants' experiences. Subsequent sections describe the case study's methodology and discuss its central finding, that experiencing authentic communication regarding an issue of moral concern amplified participants' moral motivation and stimulated their development of CMC. The remaining sections further explore the nature of authentic communication in light of insights from Martin Buber and Parker J. Palmer, examine features of the program's pedagogy that may have fostered such communication, and consider implications for promoting transformative education.

Mustakova-Possardt's Theory of Critical Moral Consciousness

For Mustakova-Possardt (2004), "critical moral consciousness" (CMC) refers to a kind of consciousness or mode of being characterized by "integration of moral motivation, agency and critical discernment" (p. 245) and a corresponding "deepening synergy between mind, heart and will" (p. 258). This kind of consciousness, Mustakova-Possardt (2003) argues, has likely always characterized that minority of people who stand out across diverse socio-historical contexts as unusually "independent and original thinkers" (p. xiv), individuals "spurred by a quest for truth and justice" (p. 3) who engage in "ongoing dialogue" with others and with "life" (p. xiv), who function as "creative agents in their communities, forces of attraction that seem to draw out the best in others," who exhibit a quality of "love" and "compassion for the human condition" noticeably "more all-embracing" than normal (p. 4), possess a highly-developed capacity to critically discern and respond to social injustice, and manifest " in service to humanity" (2004, p. 246). Mustakova-Possardt (2004) views such people as progressing along an "optimal path of human development" (p. 246).

The empirical basis of Mustakova-Possardt's (2003) cross-cultural research on CMC development consists of interviews she conducted in 1995 in the United States and Bulgaria with 28 adults exhibiting "different levels of CC" (p. 21). Her resulting theoretical model is the outcome of a grounded theory approach she used to analyze her interview data.

F or Mustakova-Possardt, the key to understanding CMC development lies in understanding the nature and origins of moral motivation. Contrary to Kohlberg's (1969; 1981; 1984) influential view that moral motivation derives from the development of moral reasoning, Mustakova-Possardt (2003) traces such motivation back to an innate "spiritual impulse," which, she observes, is evident in children's "spontaneous attraction to beauty, goodness and knowledge" (p. 6), and which, she asserts, "allows us to account for the fact that moral leaders consistently recollect a sense of core moral values or instincts having been with them from a very early age," and having, in some cases, led them to make "decisions which put them in conflict even with their early family environments.... at an age at which it is not reasonable to assume post-conventional principled reasoning" (p. 42).

Mustakova-Possardt (2003) contrasts a moral motivation, characterized by innate concern for "truth, beauty, and goodness" (however these might be construed or felt), with an equally innate "expediency motivation" characterized by self-concern and fear (p. 6). For her, CMC, as described earlier, begins developing in a person when his or her moral motivation comes to dominate his or her expediency motivation. She further notes that the dominance of one or the other of these two types of motivation can be detected in a person in connection with "four central themes or dimensions of existence," which she identifies as "(i) identity; (ii) relationships with external moral authority, and the emerging sense of internal moral authority, responsibility, and agency; (iii) empathic concerns with others, with justice and caring; and (iv) concerns with the meaning of life" (2004, p. 253; see Table 1)).

As for what causes one or the other motivation to dominate, Mustakova-Possardt (2004) observes that many people "negotiate" their "core yearning toward truth, beauty, and goodness.... sporadically and with many distractions, in the course of which the core yearning may become progressively overlaid by fear and the overall motivation of the person may become predominantly instrumental and expedient (i.e., avoiding discomfort)" (p. 253). However, some people negotiate this yearning "more consciously and purposefully ... in the context of morally/spiritually oriented formative environments," which "amplify" the yearning (p. 253). Such social environments, she clarifies, are "characterized by an explicit orientation to values greater than the self" and "foster the authentic quest of individuals" to "keep aligning themselves to horizons of greater significance through the combined exercise of knowledge, love and will" (pp. 255-256). Of particular relevance for interpreting my case study's findings, Mustakova-Possardt (2003) further observes that "a predominant expediency motivation can at any point in life be transformed into a predominantly moral motivation (often as a result of peak experiences, such as losses, disease, near-death experiences, and education)" [emphasis added] (p. 6).

It should be noted that defining moral motivation and CMC, as Mustakova-Possardt does, in terms of "attraction to truth, beauty, and goodness" does not require giving precise philosophical definitions for these three categories. Indeed, Mustakova-Possardt (2003) does not define these terms beyond briefly mentioning that she uses them "in a Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian sense" (p. 28). Rather, what her theory emphasizes is that being predominantly concerned with and attracted to truth, beauty, and goodness, however one may understand these, profoundly affects one's psychological development. Thus, the psychological development of one who is passionately committed to seeking truth can be seen to qualitatively differ in important ways from that of a person who is not as strongly motivated in this regard, irrespective of how these two individuals may define "truth" or what specific propositions they believe to be "true." Similarly, the degree of importance one gives to moral or aesthetic concerns/values is directly linked, according to Mustakova-Possardt, to whether or not one develops the characteristics of CMC, irrespective of what specific things the person counts beautiful or moral. Having said this, it is nevertheless worth noting that the accounts Mustakova-Possardt (2003) presents in her book reveal a significant overlap in the ways the people she interviewed construed truth, goodness and beauty. Given the central importance these three dimensions of human experience have in both Mustakova-Possardt's theory and this author's conceptualization of authentic communication, I should clarify that, for my purposes here, I take "attraction to truth" to mean a strong desire to...

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