Moral Education Between Hope and Hopelessness: The Legacy of Janusz Korczak

Jan. 20, 2008

Source: Curriculum Inquiry ,Volume 38 Issue 1,  Page 39-62, January 2008.

The responsibility for addressing morality and moral education in the current moral climate is a daunting task for conscientious educators. What educational response can extricate us from the debilitating feelings of hopelessness and helplessness as we are confronted by horrific terrorist actions, controversial use of military might, displays of corruption and greed and a growing general tension and anxiety?

At this demoralizing juncture of uncertainty and doubt, the figure of Janusz Korczak (1878–1942), a Jewish-Polish educator, looms large. For more than 30 years, Korczak devoted his life to educating orphaned Jewish and non-Jewish children. He stayed with the Jewish children to the end as they all perished in a concentration camp.

At a time when the surrounding society surrendered to fascism, anti-Semitism, and self-destruction, Korczak encouraged individual autonomy and caring relationships within the context of a community where a vision of justice and trust was an integral part of life. The orphanages he directed were democratic, self-ruled communities, where the children had their own parliament, court, and newspaper.

This article describes the principles and the actualization of Korczak's moral education and explores how Korczak reconciled the differences between the ethical world he created in his institutions and the surrounding immoral society. The example set by Korczak's educational praxis serves as an inspiring model of school life across the boundaries of time and place and touches our need to believe in education's responsibility to strive and struggle for a better world, even when it seems an unattainable goal.

And the hour shall come when a man will know himself, respect, and love. And the hour shall come in history's clock when man shall know the place of good, the place of evil, the place of pleasure, and the place of pain. (Korczak, 1978, p. 237).

Updated: Mar. 02, 2008