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Should Schools Teach Etiquette or Ethics?

Updated on April 30, 2013

What is etiquette?

Etiquette is following the prescribed codes of social behavior. Although some people only think of etiquette as good manners— such s saying “please” and not putting one’s elbows on the table— etiquette more aptly means being polite and nice.

Teach beyond the content; install values in the classroom.


What is ethics?

Ethics is described as a motive behind one’s behavior, a system of rules used to determine why someone behaves the way they do.

Teaching Etiquette and Teaching Ethics

According to Steve Johnson from Santa Clara University, educational systems have typically been concerned with three educational outcomes: skills, knowledge and character. Character, as described by Johnson, essentially describes what the kind of people a child will become. In other words, schools teach students to become good citizens. Some schools describe citizenship as teaching values and virtues, whereas other schools describe citizenship as developing “pro-social thoughts” (SCU).

Generally speaking, being a good citizen includes being someone who follows codes of etiquette as well.

Alam’s article “Education Should Promote Etiquette” (2011) from the Pakistan & Gulf Economist journal seemed to promote traditional Judeo-Christian values, however the article focuses more on teaching etiquette than on teaching ethics. Alam notes “education is important as it teaches the right behavior, the good manners, and the etiquette” (paragraph 2). I agree with this to an extent, however more than stressing etiquette, education should stress ethical values as described by God’s laws. Essentially, teachers ought to instruct students how to determine right from wrong, and learn how to be people of character.

At Santa Clara University, Johnson notes that ethics side of the curriculum promotes “respect and responsibility as the two hinges of a public, teachable morality”. They do this by emphasizing what “might make a difference in the thoughts, values and behaviors” of students who don’t succeed academically. Essentially, SCU helps mold the student to learn to think clearly for themselves, which in turn makes more moral and ethical people who want to contribute positively to society.

Etiquette vs. Ethics

The difference between etiquette and ethics is not tolerance, however. Modern society deems tolerance is ethical, however this writer suggests that not all tolerance is good.

While this writer realizes the audience of Alam’s article, likely those in the Middle East, may not have the same Judeo-Christian worldview, I still think it is important to point out the philosophical error in promoting etiquette over ethics. For example, Alam purports that “Education enables us to take the right decisions and prevent any loss in life” (paragraph 3), however Blackaby & Blackaby (2001) note that God should be the One guiding our decisions (p. 190). While educational leaders should make decisions based on their past successes, they should also look to God for specific guidance and leading. Holtrop states that “Students can act most responsibly when they have not only intimate knowledge of many facets of God’s world, but also specific training in thinking responsibility about it” (as cited in Van Brummelen, 2002, p. 38).


Alam, S.M. (20011, June 26). Education should promote etiquette. Pakistan & Gulf Economist. 30(25). Retrieved from Cengage Learning.

Blackaby, H. & Blackaby, R. (2001). Spiritual leadership. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing.

Santa Clara University: Teaching Values in School- An Interview with Steve Johnson

Van Brummelen, H. (2002). Steppingstones to curriculum. Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications.


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