Ten Commitments: Guiding Principles for Teaching Values in America’s Public Schools

Nov 25, 2014

By American Humanist Association

Many students spend as much or more time in school than they do at home. Therefore, the school must be a place that supports family and community efforts to build strong values. Consistent with our constitution and our ever-changing diverse society, such values can and ought to be taught free of ideology and theology. In that spirit, we offer the following values for public school teachers, administrators, and students. To be sure, schools are responsible for developing literate and skilled human beings. But they also must be committed to helping their students develop good personal, social, and citizenship values. This ethical mission is an essential part of all education, public and private, elementary through high school and university. In a democratic and pluralist society, we believe that the values presented should be the moral foundation of education.

-The Advisory Council of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center

1. Altruism

Altruism is the unselfish concern for the welfare of others without expectation of reward, recognition, or return. Opportunities for acts of altruism are everywhere in the family, the classroom, the school, and the wider community. Think of examples of altruistic acts in your experience. What person-to-person and group projects, classroom and school-wide activities, and community service projects might you and your students undertake?

2. Caring for the World Around Us

Everyone can and ought to play a role in caring for the Earth and its inhabitants. We can directly experience the living things in our homes and neighborhoods like trees, flowers, birds, insects, and pets. Gradually we expand our neighborhood. We learn about deserts and oceans, rivers and forests, the wild life around us and the wild life elsewhere. We learn that we are dependent on each other, on the natural world, and all that lives in it for food and shelter, space and beauty.

3. Critical Thinking

We gain reliable knowledge because we are able to observe, report, experiment, and analyze what goes on around us. We also learn to raise questions that are clear and precise, to gather information, and to reason about the information we receive in a way that tests it for truthfulness, accuracy, and utility. From our earliest years we learn how to think and to share and challenge our ideas and the ideas of others, and consider their consequences. Practice asking “what next?” and “why?” and “how do I/you/we know that?”

4. Empathy

We human beings are capable of empathy, the ability to understand and enter imaginatively into another living being’s feelings, the sad ones and the happy ones as well. Many of the personal relationships we have (in the family, among friends, between diverse individuals, and amid other living things) are made positive through empathy. With discussion and role-playing, we can learn how other people feel when they are sad or hurt or ignored, as well as when they experience great joys. We can use stories, anecdotes, and classroom events to help us nurture sensitivity to how our actions impact others.

5. Ethical Development

Questions of fairness, cooperation, and sharing are among the first moral issues we encounter in our ethical development as human beings. Ethical education is ongoing implicitly and explicitly in what is called the “hidden curriculum” that we experience through the media, the family, and the community. Ethics can be taught through discussion, role-playing, story telling, and other activities that improve analysis and decision-making regarding what’s good and bad, right and wrong.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

33 comments on “Ten Commitments: Guiding Principles for Teaching Values in America’s Public Schools

  • What an improvement over that ten commandment rewrite that we had here a while back. Remember that thread where we were given the assignment of gilding a turd?

    These ten commitments are really something that I can get excited about.



    Report abuse

  • “Ten Commitments” is obviously a reaction to “Ten Commandments” and thus creates a comparison between the two which waters down any good intention. I think the title should be changed to something like 10 Values or Guiding Principles.

    I’m tired of “anti” this and that.
    Why can’t atheists and humanist make a positive stand for something without reacting to religion?



    Report abuse

  • Hi QuestioningKat

    You make a very good point, however I fear we a decades away from that in terms of having the majority of our population believing, voting, discriminating on the bases of a book most haven’t read.

    I’ll bet you if you asked ten Christians – one for each commandment you wouldn’t get more than 5 who could list more than 5 commandments and yet a large percentage of them will tell you it is the foundation of human morality. I think unfortunately atheists need to publicity question this dominant mindset. If and when Christians loose their hold over our societies then we can back down and live and let live.

    But I agree it would be nice to just be seen as offering positive things and not be reacting all the time, I just feel until religion is out of our classrooms, courts, marriages, hospitals and politics we have a fight on our hands.



    Report abuse

  • 8
    Outrider says:

    Whilst, in principle, I can agree with most of these, and certainly with the sentiments behind them, one of them does pose the potential for misinterpretation as I see it:

    We human beings are capable of empathy, the ability to understand and
    enter imaginatively into another living being’s feelings, the sad ones
    and the happy ones as well.

    People on the autistic spectrum are characterised by, amonst other things, a limitation or inability to empathise, and this phrasing runs the risk of being selectively interpreted to dehumanise autistics. I appreciate that’s almost certainly not the intent, but it does run the risk of being the effect – it’s difficult to phrase things in such a way that they are never going to alienate someone, so I’m not sure that it’s viable to rephrase without losing something, but I felt it best to air this early.



    Report abuse

  • @ OP – link:-

    6, Global Awareness

    I think “Fair Trade Schemes” to help food growers and compete with the exploiters of third-world producers, are an excellent example where greater awareness is needed.

    http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/en/farmers-and-workers

    7, Human Rights

    On this one, care is needed to guard against spurious claims, and the irrational “political correctness”, promoted by some campaign groups. “Rights” should not be confused with demands for “privileges” or a claimed “right” to dictate to others!

    “Faith-blinker interpretations” of texts, is likely to be a problem in “rights” discussions – especially with faiths whose followers think they are “above” compliance with civil law!



    Report abuse

  • I think Jesus got there first.
    1.Altruism -Love God and love thy neighbour
    2.Caring for the world around us – Love God and love thy neighbour
    3.Critical thinking – Love God and love thy neighbour
    4, 5,…………etc etc Love God and love thy neighbour



    Report abuse

  • Lancshoop Nov 26, 2014 at 8:15 am

    I think Jesus got there first.

    1.Altruism -Love God and love thy neighbour
    2.Caring for the world around us – Love God and love thy neighbour
    3.Critical thinking – Love God and love thy neighbour
    4, 5,…………etc etc Love God and love thy neighbour

    ▬▬▬▬▬ ▬▬▬▬▬ ▬▬▬▬▬

    Removing the god-viewer “faith reinterpretation spectacles” and sorting out the priorities – {delusions now in the brackets}:-

    1.Altruism – love thy neighbour {bin the God-delusion}
    2.Caring for the world around us – Love thy neighbour and thy planet. {bin the god-delusions}
    3.Critical thinking – Is using evidenced reasoning, and NOT circular “faith-thinking”. {Love God-delusion – has nothing to do with critical thinking, and neither does “love thy neighbour” (dealt with in 1+2)} (Back reference to core indoctrinated dogma is NOT critical thinking!)
    4, 5,………… Most OP values are missing in the theist version here, with delusions substituted in their place!!!!! {etc etc – Love God -Delusions does not come before considerations of real people and the real world}

    4. Empathy @OP We human beings are capable of empathy, the ability to understand and enter imaginatively into another living being’s feelings,

    4. Empathy @OP – Understanding other people’s feelings and viewpoints, has NOTHING to do with consulting a person’s own god-delusions.

    “Faith-Thinking”, has prioritised god-delusions intruding ahead of altruistic human welfare, on moral issues, all over the place.



    Report abuse

  • FYI, “love thy neighbor” in the bible doesn’t mean love all your fellow humans. It means love the members of your tribe (other Jews). That’s why it’s love “thy neighbor” rather than love all men (the bible is so sexist women tend to rank down with children and non-humans).



    Report abuse

  • this phrasing runs the risk of being selectively interpreted to dehumanise autistics

    Ugh. Groan, Gack. It’s this kind of PC nonsense that makes the academic left such a laughing stock. Let’s dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator just to make sure we couldn’t possibly in any situation even seem like we might be offending someone else. Anyone that takes this simple praise of empathy to be saying autistic people are lesser people is just an idiot and idiots will always do idiotic things, it’s a mistake for rational people to tailor what they say based on how idiots might misinterpret them.



    Report abuse

  • So what are we doing-piggy backing off religion because we don’t think we have a voice that can be heard? Are we like China copying the world’s creative leaders because they don’t value their own history in the world market?

    We can start now. There are plenty of creative secular voices that exist and contribute to society. Also, the US can look to the Netherlands to see what they are doing or just start creating – eventually something hits. If we have to “react” to religion, perhaps a more “personal” stamp or a step of removal which takes it out of religious origins should be considered.



    Report abuse

  • Your idea is a bit simplistic. Most people cannot make the jump from “love” to more concrete specific behaviors which is probably why Hammurabi made a Code on a stone tablet and why we have rules regarding our driving. They may “love” their neighbors, but they run red lights because they are in a hurry because of poor planning on their part.

    Regarding #3 critical thinking may or may not involve people. It could be observing nature and recognizing changes and understanding the implications. It may be weighing one view against another. It’s looking at things objectively – even your neighbor. Let’s not conflate fairness with critical thinking.



    Report abuse

  • Is empathy learned? Do autistic persons have the capacity to learn some form of empathy? Are persons who entirely lack empathy dangerous? If the term “autistic spectrum” implies a great variability among the individuals so characterized, is this concept so broad as to be useless? Can we empathize with the autistic? For me, more questions than answers!



    Report abuse

  • I think these are very fruitful to discuss, but the moment they are enshrined somehow or made sacred, I’m outta here.

    It’s presumptious attitude of coincident feelings and cognitions that most make this a risk of repeating old ” we’re one big group” mistakes. We are all like this aren’t we? Well no. We’re not and it goes both ways.

    Picking empathy, because we’ve started. Its not just that low emotional empathy types work and think differently its that high empathy types might be a major problem in perceiving social problems with enough dispassion.

    The hyper pro social are a personal niggle of mine, along with the idea that the more empathy the better has no upper limit.

    Inuitive empathy, that viceral first response of emotional synchrony, may be nothing of the sort. Indeed, in its extreme manifestation it is very unlikely to be accurate. Intellectual empathy, that slow gathering of evidence filtered by reason may well do a better job. Time and again I find others over eager concern for yet others harms overblown or unwarranted. Time and again I find empathic grouping together or soliciting such grouping against supposedly harmful others distasteful and as ugly as what it opposes.

    etc. etc. etc.

    Like Anthony Grayling’s “Good Book” I think it a stimulating idea. But that prodigious tome should have been published in ring-binder form.



    Report abuse

  • Why can’t atheists and humanist make a positive stand for something
    without reacting to religion?

    Maybe because nobody listens to atheists and humanists unless they’re reacting to religion? Or because religion NEEDS reacting to if the AHA is ever to make a serious dent in its power.

    I do see you’re point but flowery sentiments issued by the AHA would get zero attention and therefore achieve nothing unless cast as a counter to religious arguments on some level. Indeed, one could argue that it’s impossible for AHA statements NOT to be cast in such a way – at least as a kind of “Look, atheists and humanists can be nice people too” way.

    In any event, any list of principles to live by, whatever the number, would inevitably be compared to the Ten Commandments. Might as well take them head on.



    Report abuse

  • I like this list. It illustrates how easy it is to surpass the 10 commandments. It is appropriate too that humanists should be involved in defining morality. I don’t see this as pandering to religion. I think George Carlin would like this list.



    Report abuse

  • Hi QuestioningKat,

    I agree with your sentiment that creative secular voices need to be heard and that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just reacting to the religious. And I genuinely feel that we can get trapped into an angry destructive mindset attacking all those around us every chance we get (believe me I’ve been there).

    However at the moment if I were gay I would not be able to be married in a modern western country because of the religious, If I had a terminal disease I would not be able to check out painlessly in my own time because of the religious and a number of other factors that exist now because of the religious. What backing do the religious give when asked why they believe and therefore vote this way? The morality based upon the bible, and specifically they will bring up the ten commandments. Of course they never read them or know what more than one or two are but that is the trope they pull out.

    In these cases and in my opinion until the religious agree to go along with us in being secular, I believe we need to challenge them directly in public life. Basically I’m not suggesting we go out and bug our neighbours with this stuff but when we live in a society where large percentages of people are being discriminated against because of the unquestioned beliefs of many I feel we need to point this out. Writing an alternative ten commandments is extremely mild criticism compared to say forcing a person with a terminal disease to endure an additional month of pain due to a tumour the size of a grapefruit pushing against a bundle of nerves continuously because they believe in fairy tales.

    On a personal level I feel very secure in my knowledge that there is almost no likelihood that there is a god, I am happy to let others around me have their beliefs and just try to be the best me I can be. But the religious in my culture are effecting others in my society right now by inflicting their beliefs on them. I can no longer hold my tongue and try to just be a positive example I’m allowed to marry, it’s about high time gays are too, I had the right to a good education it’s about time the children of the religious had the same right too. As I see it I can only make progress in these areas if bad ideas are publicly criticised. The ten commandments are almost entirely bad ideas.

    None of this stops us from being creative and engaging and attempting to demonstrate a better way of being the rest of the time. Both things need to be happening.



    Report abuse

  • Get what you are saying Outrider, my son is Aspergers, and we work very hard on getting him to see other perspectives. He may have more difficulty with this than others, all the more reason to be aware how it will hurt him latter if we don’t help him adapt. From my reading it’s not so much that they can’t its that they are flooded with stimuli and emotion and can’t decide which one they should pin on the other person instinctively. In that sense they have too much empathy, are open to too many variables and can’t work out which is which. Result – confusion.



    Report abuse

  • Yes, I agree both need to happen simultaneously. I don’t think any atheist here would disagree with your views on gay marriage and right to death. Yet, if something is good enough to stand on its own, there is no reason to peg it against theism.



    Report abuse

  • Empathy

    We human beings are capable of empathy, the ability to understand and
    enter imaginatively into another living being’s feelings

    Like you Phil, I see problems with these received valuations of empathy. There’s another word ‘sympathy’ which is more useful to a rational analysis.

    To define ’empathy’ as ‘feeling with’, which many do, one must clarify how this is achieved, if at all. Imaginative projection of feelings onto another is not ‘feeling the same’ but shaping a model, conceptualising an hypothesis about that person’s emotional state. The assumptions of the process are therefore subject to revision and will depend upon the resources (mirror neurons, knowledge, intelligence…) of the operant.

    When we enter our own emotional responses into a supposition about an individual or group they are given force and can acquire some of the strengths of cognitive bias unless first they can be subject to suspension of belief at an appropriate level. The greater the hypothesised generality (groups, ideologies, nations, religions..) the more stringent is that need.

    Failed understanding is symptomatic of many current political ideologies (economics of growth, multi-culturalism, ‘faith’ as a virtue..), with Dunning-Kruger confidence sealing off any real researched sympathy for those who suffer from them. Most of the UK Cabinet might think the bread line is where one queues to buy bread and empathise with others; it is irksome when the staff take holidays.

    In short, by empathy we can mean no more than sympathy and that relies upon understanding.



    Report abuse

  • You make a nice point, Geoff.

    Sympathy is a word I should use far more often. Empathy is taken by the general public to mean something like souped up sympathy, which in turn has been degraded to an obligation discharged by the sending of a card.

    By “intellectual empathy” I intended to evoke an intellectually achieved emotional congruence of hurt or loss, however faintly echoed, with the other. In other words, an affecting understanding, one more likely to to lead me to action than mere understanding. I get to this state slowly as I think about the individuals in turn, and the affected aspects of their lives. What repeatedly shocks me is how those who get to an affecting understanding quickly end up some way ahead of me. There seems to be a scaling error somehow and the totality of losses and hurts are not accounted for once the leading loser is identified an empathised with.



    Report abuse

  • Pondering this further, one might assert situations where understanding is undeniable, such as the recognition of another’s physical pain where there is an obvious cause. Here again, sympathy depends upon understanding but with clear evidence about the conditions for belief could be said to be rational, justified and more likely.

    …until one considers how this sympathy has been lacking on a universal scale until the recent past. The denial by Anglican bishops that black people were ‘truly human’ licenced the slave trade; animals did not feel pain (in the same way as we do) in those days; they were there for our pleasure, like women…; the list goes on…

    Sympathy is, of course, learnt. Preventing that appears to be the objective of, for instance, outlawing co-ed schooling or vilifying the unemployed as ‘scroungers’ (a calumny used since Thatcher). Sympathy does not extend to the children and adults affected and its lack often reflects the interfaces between ideologies.



    Report abuse

  • Empathy is taken by the general public to mean something like souped
    up sympathy

    I think it can go further than that, though there’s not much clarity involved. Popular new superstitions usually involving energy, auras, essences (some of them “essential”, apparently), spirituality etc., seem to be comfortable with the notion of telepathic empathy – actual experience of another’s feelings as one’s own (and transparently impossible). The opportunity for an emotional wallow and conferring high ‘sensitivity’ status on practitioners; a seance with the living. This can certainly feel real to people, as it often is, on a neurological level and it’s supported by other biases of group identity.

    What repeatedly shocks me is how those who get to an affecting
    understanding quickly end up some way ahead of me.

    Is this about levels of self-delusion? The urge and licence to judge perceived wrongdoers is heightened by ’empathy’ with those hurt whilst a delicious righteousness stirs into the soup?

    ‘energies bombinating in a vacuum beget chimeras’ – Sir Thomas Browne – and he’s right. I suspect what you will not do but they do, is reach conclusions beyond their data.

    There seems to be a scaling error somehow and the totality of losses
    and hurts are not accounted for once the leading loser is identified
    and empathised with.

    I’m with you there, in both directions. Token redeemed sufferers relieve our feelings of responsibility while the harm continues, rather like weekly absolution but by the media. And, I’d say, there is no balanced sympathy achievable on a personal level which it seems cannot be subverted at group and societal levels.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.