I am concerned by the reluctance of governments and schools to encourage talk about morality in the classroom. They are happy to talk to business ethics, but not personal values. It seems that we are too afraid that by engaging in such discussions we might accidentally offend somebody. The result is that we are raising a generation of young people who are too afraid to take a stand for anything. We – quite rightly – set out to teach them that people with different perspectives have the right to those perspectives and should be regarded as equals in society. What many heard was that they have no right to criticise the moral choices of others, or to adopt a firm position on ethical issues. And a society where people are either too apathetic or afraid challenge norms is in a dangerous space. We are unintentionally laying the groundwork for oppression to exist.
I have frequently heard pupils defend, for example, the Nkandla scandal, saying that we have no right to judge the president. I have often been told by pupils that we cannot condemn serial killers because they were simply following their own truths. And once you go down that road, you can justify Apartheid, the Holocaust, any number of crimes against humanity. And I don’t blame children for these distorted views. I blame the education system for failing in its responsibility to shape moral character. At best, our children are being trained to sit by quietly and watch atrocities happen. At worst, they are being trained to justify those atrocities.
And I think at the heart of the problem is the question of moral relativism. A colleague of mine recently asked me whether or not I believe in a universal morality. I don’t think that the answer to that question is simple. While I do think that the fact that cultures and individuals differ in moral practices would indicate that moral practice is not an absolute thing (I think there is room for this in the Bible too. For example, Jesus’ claim that by loving God and other people one would be fulfilling the requirements of the law shifts the focus from moral practice to moral principle. Paul does a similar thing in Romans 14), I do believe that the aims behind those cultures and individuals adopting ethical codes in the first place would suggest a certain degree of universality. Ethics and morals do not exist in a vacuum, rather they are developed to serve a function. And I think there is a commonality in purpose, if not practice. Generally, it would seem that codes of ethics exist so that societies can function effectively while trying to balance the disparate needs and wants of the individuals who comprise that society. Morality, I would contend, is a personal code of conduct with the aim of creating a framework within which to live meaningfully – however one might interpret that.
Now because there is a common purpose, it would stand to reason that while there may be a number of viable ways to achieve that purpose, there will also be less viable ways. Thus although individuals and social groups may be equal in their right to develop and practice their own codes of ethics, differing ethical constructs will not necessarily be qualitatively equal in terms of being suitable for meeting that end. A code of ethics that endorses respect and love, for example, will always meet the end of creating a stable society and the framework for a fulfilling co-existence with other human beings better than one that oppresses and brutalises certain sectors of society. Simply put, my argument is this: a consequence of the fact that ethical and moral codes serve a designated purpose is that not all ethical and moral practices are equally capable of achieving that purpose successfully.
The education system needs to help young people become functional members of the societies to which they belong. If schools really want young people to thrive, they need to give them access to the power structures in their societies and cultures by ensuring that they can function within the ethical constraints of those societies, while simultaneously developing them to be thinkers, who can critically evaluate prevailing moral practices and have the courage to challenge them where necessary. This means teaching them to have carefully considered, internalised value systems, which can be respectfully and logically defended. It does not mean teaching them to have no value system at all.
We should not be teaching them that virtue and vice are synonymous, that they have no right to criticise another’s choice, that tolerance means that all choices are equally valid. If that is the path that we, as educationalists, want to tread, we need to be aware that in so doing we are also teaching children that nobody has the right to judge their actions and that they themselves should be granted immunity from the consequences of bad choices. We would be endorsing the silencing of Martin Luther King Jr, William Wilberforce, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Jesus, a whole host of courageous men and women whose voices raised against intolerable value systems brought necessary social change.
Personally, I believe that any attempt to remove values from education is a lie. People will always have values. They need to be taught how to handle them responsibly. Don’t mistake me: I think it noble to attempt to generate a learning environment where no child feels belittled because they happen to come from a particular cultural background, be of a particular gender, or subscribe to a particular creed. But I do not think that we achieve that by pretending that personal value systems do not exist, or worse – should not exist. Education most effectively achieves its goals when young people have been taught how to choose their own value systems, to have the courage to express what they believe and the maturity to listen respectfully to those with whom they differ. By robbing them of the right to a value system, we rob them of a fundamental sense of self. The results can only be catastrophic.
Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said: “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation, is the philosophy of government in the next.” Now the origin of the quote is questionable, but regardless, I think the idea is sound. Individuals will always adopt a value system, if not by choice then by default. If we remove the discussion around values from the classroom, we take it out of the one domain where that discussion can potentially happen the most effectively. It seems tragic to me that while we are aware that the world’s future leaders are sitting in our classrooms, we are content to abdicate the responsibility of helping them develop their own principles, leaving it instead to the vagaries of chance, the possible prejudices of their upbringings, and the agendas of the media and other powerful forces. Yes, people will become offended in such discussions, but at least in the classroom children can be taught how to disagree respectfully, how to respond to criticism with dignity, how to operate in a world where people are different. How can anyone who values learning not see the merits of that?