Archive for October, 2008

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The Blameless. Part 3: The Afflicted

October 25, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they have a medical or psychological condition.

There are two versions of this argument. The first version suggests that if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work, and that the most likely reason a child might be unable to keep up with their peers is some form of disability or illness. There are two main flaws in this argument, both incredibly obvious. Firstly, there is no clear reason why a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it. At the very least it assumes that the penalty for admitting to personal academic failure is greater than that for disrupting the learning of others, which would itself be a disordered situation, where personal responsibility needs increasing, not denying. The second flaw is that it assumes that assessing a child’s inability to complete work is a difficult task, probably requiring expertise beyond that of the classroom teacher. In actual fact, this form of assessment is an integral part of teaching and while doctors and psychologists might be required to find a root cause of an inability to complete work, nobody is likely to be more effective than a teacher at identifying a failure to be able to do work. These two flaws mean that the argument is dependent on the circumstances of both the child being unreasonable and the teacher being incompetent, which, while this may sometimes be the case, is a ludicrous assumption to make when dealing with poor behaviour in general.

The second version of this argument claims that medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour. Obviously children shouldn’t be punished for actions influenced by Tourette’s or having a coughing fit. However, such situations are incredibly rare. In order to allow for more wide use of this excuse medical and psychological “conditions” have multiplied to cover virtually every human inclination. Such conditions are usually impossible to explain, let alone identify, without using a comparison with some view of what is normal for a child (often this is tied in to the concept of “developmental levels”). If a child is more energetic or inattentive than normal they have ADHD. If they won’t follow instructions as much as expected then they have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If they are anti-social or even annoyingly pedantic then some form of autism will be suggested. (The latest condition I have encountered, admittedly online rather than in real life, is a parent who claims her children have “impaired proprioception” a physiological condition, symptoms of which include such supposed anomalies as “crashing into things, throwing themselves onto the floor, swinging as high as they possibly can”). In the event that no specific behaviour disorder can be identified then, conveniently, almost every failing can be covered by “low self-esteem”.

Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires. Different people have different desires. The worst behaved kids will, of course, have a desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted, than that of the better behaved kids including the average (or “normal”) child. If this is grounds for seeing the behaviour as abnormal and in turn diagnosing a “condition” then the obvious result of this is that what are clearly just character traits, that should be as susceptible to human judgement as any other, will become seen as uncontrollable quirks of fate. Worse, the more extreme a moral failing, the more it is claimed to be beyond conscious control. In the case of those who argue that children are naturally good we gain a particularly spectacular piece of circular reasoning: All bad behaviour (unless covered by the previous explanations) must be abnormal; therefore it has a psychological or medical cause; therefore it is not under the child’s conscious control; therefore the child is naturally good; therefore the child’s bad behaviour is abnormal.

The confusion over what counts as a disability, and what is simply a matter of character or ability, has created the Special Needs racket, a system where help intended for students with genuine disabilities is lost in a swamp of claimants and the disgraceful efforts to “include” badly behaved students at the expense of those who do behave. Baroness Warnock, who was responsible for the creation of so much of the Special Needs system, is reported to now be in the position of disowning it:

“Mary Warnock, architect of England’s special needs education system, is to publish a damning report on how it has turned out in practice. Baroness Warnock says pressure to include pupils with problems in mainstream schools causes “confusion of which children are the casualties”. She also says the way the most severe needs are assessed is “wasteful and bureaucratic” and “must be abolished”. .. Lady Warnock says that it was expected that 2% of pupils with special needs would receive statements. That statements were actually given to 20%, she says, reflects the lack of clarity over their application.”

From http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4071122.stm

A final note: once again the word “need” has appeared when discussing a way of absolving children of moral responsibility. In the next few days I will look at this more closely.

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The Blameless. Part 2: The Poor

October 20, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because their behaviour is determined by their background.

When children’s bad behaviour is excused as being a response to circumstances (or to their environment), then this is usually circumstances that result from them being underprivileged. It is easy to observe that the claim is often made that children (or even adults) are badly behaved because they are poor. There is some evidence to support the idea. Even if we eliminate as unhelpful examples related to being unable to afford school equipment or uniform, we can still see that there is a lot of bad behaviour in schools where there is a lot of poverty and deprivation. It is easy for me to think of badly behaved children I have taught who were suffering from incredible deprivation. There is a link of some kind between poverty and bad behaviour and so it does appear plausible that poverty itself causes children to misbehave. Or at least it does until you stop looking at whether badly behaved kids are poor, and start looking at whether poor kids are badly behaved.

If poverty caused bad behaviour in itself we would expect recent immigrants from poor countries, particularly the children of asylum seekers, who often arrive with very little, to be the worst behaved kids. This is exactly the opposite of what is the case in my personal experience. Although there are exceptions, recent immigrants, even those who have arrived in the worst possible circumstances, are often the most eager to learn and work hard. Of course, my experience could be unrepresentative, so let’s have a look at the statistics.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation “Rates of poverty were highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans, reaching nearly two-thirds for Bangladeshis. Rates of poverty were also higher than average for Indian, Chinese and other minority group households.” So if poverty itself caused bad behaviour we would expect Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans to be the worst behaved children in school.

Does this hold up? Here are the figures for permanent exclusions by ethnic group (From http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000793/SFR14_2008TablesAdditional10Julya.xls):

PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS: NUMBER OF PERMANENT EXCLUSIONS BY ETHNIC GROUP AND GENDER England, 2006/07 (ESTIMATES*)

Boys

(Percentage of school population)

Girls

(Percentage of school population)

Total

(Percentage of school population)

White

0.19

0.05

0.12

White British

0.19

0.05

0.12

Irish

0.23

0.04

0.14

Traveller of Irish heritage

0.54

#

0.35

Gypsy/Roma

0.78

0.28

0.54

Any other White background

0.14

0.03

0.09

Mixed

0.35

0.11

0.23

White and Black Caribbean

0.56

0.16

0.36

White and Black African

0.31

0.10

0.20

White and Asian

0.18

0.04

0.11

Any other Mixed background

0.27

0.09

0.18

Asian

0.12

0.01

0.07

Indian

0.06

0.01

0.04

Pakistani

0.16

0.02

0.09

Bangladeshi

0.15

0.02

0.08

Any other Asian background

0.07

0.02

0.05

Black

0.35

0.10

0.23

Black Caribbean

0.57

0.19

0.38

Black African

0.22

0.04

0.13

Any other Black background

0.39

0.11

0.26

Chinese

#

0.00

#

Any other ethnic group

0.10

0.03

0.07

Unclassified (8)

..

..

..

Minority Ethnic Pupils

0.21

0.05

0.13

All pupils (4)

0.20

0.05

0.13

* Figures relating to permanent exclusions are estimates based on incomplete pupil-level data. See Notes to Editors 5.

# less than 5, or a rate based on less than 5 exclusions.

Totals may not appear to equal the sum of component parts because numbers have been rounded to the nearest 10.

Figures for fixed period exclusions show:

PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS:

NUMBER OF FIXED PERIOD EXCLUSIONS BY ETHNIC GROUP AND GENDER England, 2006/07

Boys (Percentage of school population)

Girls (Percentage of school population)

Total (Percentage of school population)

White

9.32

3.22

6.33

White British

9.39

3.24

6.38

Irish

9.88

3.91

6.92

Traveller of Irish heritage

24.87

7.00

16.24

Gypsy/Roma

25.90

12.44

19.33

Any other White background

6.21

2.13

4.22

Mixed

13.03

4.96

9.04

White and Black Caribbean

19.76

7.79

13.77

White and Black African

11.45

4.71

8.08

White and Asian

6.96

2.01

4.54

Any other Mixed background

10.54

3.89

7.27

Asian

5.08

0.96

3.08

Indian

2.90

0.59

1.78

Pakistani

7.09

1.23

4.25

Bangladeshi

5.35

1.17

3.26

Any other Asian background

3.81

0.77

2.34

Black

13.28

4.68

8.99

Black Caribbean

18.57

6.81

12.67

Black African

9.76

3.26

6.51

Any other Black background

15.36

5.55

10.61

Chinese

1.27

0.38

0.83

Any other ethnic group

6.10

1.67

3.98

Unclassified (6)

..

..

..

Minority Ethnic Pupils

8.50

2.75

5.68

All pupils (5)

9.34

3.19

6.32

Totals may not appear to equal the sum of component parts because numbers have been rounded to the nearest 10.

A quick glance reveals that the poorest ethnic groups actually have rates of exclusion that are either about average (for black African students), or below average (for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Indian students).

As an additional point, if you know anybody who has taught in the developing world they are likely to tell you that (other than occasional problems with paying attention when hungry) children in some of the poorest countries in the world behave well in school despite appalling conditions of poverty. It simply isn’t poverty itself that causes children to behave badly. Communities can suffer poverty without suffering exceptionally bad behaviour in schools.

What we see in schools is not poverty making children behave badly, but many of the worst behaved children coming from poor homes. Given the retreat from discipline within schools it is hardly a surprise that students learn to behave, if at all, in their own homes. This provides us with a more plausible explanation of the connection between poverty and bad behaviour. Homes where children are not taught to behave or encouraged to learn are often poverty-stricken homes because a culture of poor behaviour and a culture of low aspirations go well together, but poverty itself does not cause low aspirations or poor home discipline.

I won’t explore how poor home discipline develops and it’s precise connection to poverty (but if you are interested Thernstrom et al (2003) would be a great place to start), but for now we can simply observe that when we identify the connection between poverty and bad behaviour to be one based on poor discipline in the home, then we cease to have any reason to excuse poor discipline in school. It is not that the badly behaved children from deprived homes are not responsible for their actions; it is that they are not held responsible for their actions at home and the case for holding them responsible for their actions at school is strengthened, rather than weakened.

Whereas most of the reasons for claiming that children aren’t responsible for their actions are usually justified with “psychological theories”, the claim that poverty removes responsibility is often justified in far more wide ranging social theories. There is a part of the British middle class socialist tradition that suggests the poverty is the cause of all of the moral weakness of the poor. (Often expressed in ways that make me think of this chap). If such an argument were to be taken seriously, it would, as Chesterton (1908) argues, give us grounds, not so much to improve the condition of the poor, but to exclude and disempower them:

I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: “It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance.” It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, “Very well, then, we won’t trust them,” and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. [Robert] Blatchford’s view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.

When psychological theories are resorted to in this case then it is often with reference to theories about human needs such as those of Maslow. The use of ill-defined “needs” in education is a big enough topic to require another post at a later date.

References

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908

Thernstrom, Stephan and Thernstrom, Abigail, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap In Education, Simon & Schuster, 2003

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The Blameless. Part 1: The Young

October 19, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they are too young to understand how to behave.

I’m sure that plenty of behaviour in primary schools is down to the extent to which very young children are not always able to do things that adults take for granted or are ignorant of the significance of their actions. I’m also sure that children cannot be held responsible for breaking complex rules that they had no reason to know about or think existed. What is more incredible is the extent to which it is claimed that secondary school students, who have been in formal education for the better part of a decade, are ignorant of the basics of how to conduct one’s self. Nobody gets to the age of eleven without knowing that you are expected to obey your teachers; that it is wrong to hurt people, and that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. It’s not as if the students who continually misbehave aren’t also continually told to stop. “He doesn’t know any better” is an obvious falsehood. Only those behaviours which a child will never have seen or tried before should ever be considered in this light. This is not to say that children are always to be considered to be as responsible as adults for their actions, but there is no reason to consider the action of being told to “fuck off” by a fifteen year-old as involuntary, like the crying of a baby, or simply a result of a lack of awareness of the fact that it wasn’t polite.

The sort of behaviour that most concerns teachers (disobedience, bullying, verbal abuse, violence) is, of course, the sort of behaviour that children learn is wrong at a very young age. This does not stop appeals to theories of moral development such as those of Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1958) who both claimed that children developed their moral reasoning in stages. Many criticisms have been made of their ideas, but whether there is truth in their theories or not, no amount of research into the moral reasoning of children tells us about the moral acts of children. It does not take a sophisticated standard of ethical thought to do what you are told while you are at school or to refrain from telling your teacher to “fuck off”. Any teacher can tell you that children’s behaviour does not tend to continually progress in a positive way as they grow. Where behaviour improves over time it is more likely to be related to social factors (like going into the sixth form, a change in peer group, or an increase in responsibilities) than some kind of natural development. If there are developmental milestones in behaviour they would actually be points, such as adolescence, where behaviour is prone to getting worse.

Of course, even if we accept that children do follow a natural process of behaving better as they mature (or more plausibly they are socialised into at least some good habits over time) then it would still make no sense to see them as beyond blame. Even if the young were more inclined to do wrong than the old, then that would still not absolve them of responsibility. Being more strongly tempted to do something than another person does not mean you are no longer obliged to resist that temptation. “But I wanted to …” is no excuse at any age. Society can show mercy to wayward children, punish them less strictly than it would adults. It cannot, however, justify declaring them to be either free from sin or without free will. Children are not to be worshipped as saints or dehumanised into animals. They are people, and that, rather than any inherent deficiency in the young, is why they do bad things.

References

Kohlberg, Lawrence, The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Chicago 1958

Piaget, J., The Moral Judgment of the Child, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co, 1932

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Blamelessness

October 18, 2008

Human wickedness, if accepted by society, is changed from an act of will into an inherent, psychological quality which man cannot choose or reject but which is imposed upon him from without and which rules him as compulsively as the drug rules the addict.

Arendt (1951)

In my last entry I talked about how, in the absence of more traditional views of human nature in which people are generally disposed to do wrong, it was necessary to come up with imaginative explanations of why children are not responsible for their behaviour, thereby allowing them to be innocent victims even when they are observed to be behaving like complete bastards.

The explanations were:

It is possible to imagine situations where this is true, but a moment’s thought would tell you that these sorts of situations are obviously rare exceptions to what is usual. But if you were a believer in the inherent innocence or goodness of children then it is impossible for a child to do wrong without some kind of explaining factor, an explaining factor usually picked from this list. Invariably what happens is that normal moral judgement is suspended and the discipline of psychology is bastardised to provide morality-free explanations of children’s behaviour to replace the obvious explanation. As if this way of thinking wasn’t damaging enough it also requires that teachers must be assumed to be oblivious of the “science” of human behaviour and require endless training in pop psychology. Then, having been thrown out the front door, moral judgement is sneaked in the back door in order to condemn the ignorance or intolerance of those who have not accepted the pseudo-scientific, psychological explanation of children’s sins.

The truth is that we don’t need a scientific model of the human mind to understand why we do wrong. We all have minds of our own (complete with weaknesses and a general susceptibility to temptation). A quick study of one’s own mind, and the minds of those one knows, suggests that people think, feel and do bad things. Trying to suggest a complex personal motivation for an individual’s history of sinning is like trying to suggest personal reasons why an individual might inhale oxygen or bleed red.

In the next few posts I will cover each of these “explanations” in turn and explain why they do not constitute grounds for ignoring the more obvious forms of moral reasoning. The likely complaint is that by identifying the human condition as an unavoidable cause of bad behaviour I’m not addressing how to “fix the problem”. My point, of course, is that I’m not saying it to “fix the problem”, I am saying it because it is true. People do bad things for no good reason. And this isn’t a frustrated statement about naughty kids; it’s a fact about human beings generally. This is a problem that we are not going to solve. We can’t change ourselves into saints through the application of rational principles, so why do we think that we can have that effect on future generations?

References

Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Schoken, 1951

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Human Nature

October 14, 2008

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

Chesterton (1908)

… some American literati have professed their naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing, that nobody could be asked to resist temptation. (If somebody puts a pistol to your heart and orders you to shoot your best friend, then you simply must shoot him. Or, as it was argued – some years ago in connection with a quiz show scandal in which a university professor had hoaxed the public – when so much money is at stake, who could possibly resist?) The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible. In contrast to these confusions the reproach of self-righteousness raised against those who do judge is age-old; but that does not make it any the more valid. Even the judge who condemns a murderer can still say when he goes home: “and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Arendt (1963),

Those who wish to declare themselves to be either more compassionate or more enlightened than others are keen to appeal to the inherent goodness or innocence of a badly behaved child. Claiming that a fifteen year old who tells their teacher to “fuck off” has actually done something morally wrong, let alone saying that such a student deserves to be punished, is seen as unenlightened and unfair. Those who advocate blame and punishment are seen as either cruel tyrants who hate the adorable little kiddiewinks or superstitious primitives who have no understanding of the science of human behaviour.

There is, of course, a problem with the suggestion that children are inherently good or innocent: it is not true. Children do bad things all the time. This is not a surprise as, of course, we adults do bad things all the time too and for the same reason. It is in the nature of human beings to fall short of moral perfection. We do not achieve moral perfection even for a short time, the best we can hope to do is to seek to recognise our moral failings and consider them grounds for admitting our fault; resolve not to repeat the offence; attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way try to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong.

There are problems here because what I am describing are the religious concepts of Sin (literally “falling short”) and Repentance. In suggesting an existing inclination to moral failure I am echoing at least part of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is not to say these ideas rely on a religious perspective. What I have talked about here can be deduced from obvious observations of both the world around us and one’s own inner moral world, but that doesn’t stop them being seen as religious ideas. It may even be this that causes the difficulties and the claims to greater rationality of those who pretend that, morally, children are either blank slates or, worse, natural saints. We are in a culture where people don’t like to use religious concepts in moral reasoning and so there is an incentive to replace this view of morality with another more “modern” (or “progressive”) one. “Sin” in particular has become devalued, often in two opposite directions. One is to view it as simply a euphemism for sexual activity, as in “living in sin”. The other is to view it only as conspicuous, serious wrong-doing, leaving us without the terminology to discuss either our personal failings or the everyday failings of humanity.

Without the concepts of Sin and Repentance, whether they are expressed in religious or secular ways, we are at a loss to deal with moral issues, except by ignoring them. Ignoring our moral failings is something many are loathe to do explicitly – people usually stop short of announcing their own sainthood – but such a claim is implicit in any moral theory that ignores what it is actually like to do wrong. Sometimes they don’t stop short of virtual self-canonisation. Two teachers I know told me that they never sinned. (My response was to suggest it was about time they started.) But if we accept as genuine the universal human experience of doing, saying or thinking things that our best judgement tells us are wrong, then without an acceptance of our inclination to sin and the need to repent when we do so, we simply cannot explain our own moral universe. We cannot explain where we have been or where we should go. Without the concepts of imperfect human beings needing to confront their weaknesses, we end up with a contradiction: our convictions and beliefs are in opposition to our inclinations and actions. If we deny that this contradiction exists due to our own imperfect natures, then it can only be resolved by

1) abandoning our convictions

or

2) denying our responsibility for what we feel or do.

The first of these options (abandoning any principle in response to the inclination not to comply with it) is often disguised as a dislike for Puritanism or hypocrisy. “Why should anyone suggest I shouldn’t do what I want to do?” people ask, even in cases such as speeding or smoking where the harm (or potential harm) to one’s self or others is obvious. When applied to schools this takes the form of a mindless anti-authoritarianism. Teachers are portrayed as ogres, driving students to bad behaviour through their unreasonable requests and unpleasant personalities. Any teacher who has been told they were at fault for enforcing the school rules will be familiar with this form of disapproval.

The second option (denying responsibility for feelings and actions) is one that people are sometimes cautious about applying to themselves as it does have implications of insanity, although people increasingly do seem willing to express even obviously selfish feelings as if they can’t be judged for having them. It is, however, seen as tolerant and broadminded to deny the responsibility of others for their actions. Where once being non-judgemental meant refraining from the casting of stones, it now seems to require looking at the obviously guilty and saying “well they couldn’t help themselves”. Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition. Examples of this are easy to identify, just by flicking through a newspaper. I’m sure it was with a great deal of sympathy and good intentions that those who were inclined to drink excessively were told they were suffering from the “disease” of alcoholism, but I wonder if they would have accepted such a diagnosis if they knew it would lead to the promiscuous being diagnosed with the laughable condition of “sex addiction”. Where psychological and medical explanations don’t explain our mistakes, then the alternative is simply to separate actions from consequences. The results of our actions are simply quirks of fate beyond our control. It is presumably for this reason that newspapers now report women “falling pregnant” in the same way somebody might “fall ill” or “fall over”.

With regards to education, the belief that children are not responsible for their actions is the default position for those attempting to reconcile their denial of human nature with the rather obvious fact that all children do bad things. The usual explanations of why children are not to be held responsible for their actions are:

For those of you reading this who are teachers, is this sounding familiar?

References

Arendt, Hannah,Eichmann in Jerusalem, Revised Edition,Penguin, 1963

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908

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Ethics Man

October 11, 2008

I am planning to write a few posts on the ethics of education. I have already entered this territory before, (for instance in these posts: Values and Professionalism) but I have become more and more convinced that the problems in our schools are philosophical and ethical. The values and the beliefs that shape large parts of our education system, and public discourse about education, are not simply misapplied, they are wrong. Improving our education system does not simply require a change in techniques or organisation; it requires that we re-evaluate some of the concepts currently used to justify how our education system is, and some of the concepts that have been unwisely discarded.

In particular, (and this will be familiar to anybody who reads this blog regularly) we no longer seem expected to believe that students are responsible for their actions, or that they might deserve punishments (as well as rewards) for those actions. It is controversial to even challenge this. The received wisdom – that children are beyond blame – is seen by its adherents as axiomatically correct to an extent where it is morally wrong to question it. These are all comments (and I could have found dozens of others) that have been aimed at me where I have argued merely that children are morally responsible for their actions and are deserving of punishment when they do something bad:

A basic antagonism to student [sic] underlies everything that you say and recommend.

http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2007/11/14/in-praise-of-harshness/#comment-672

[he] was probably fired for assaulting a student years ago and blogs to relive its “glory” days.”

http://forum.ship-of-fools.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=3;t=004257;p=1

I really hope you are not teaching anymore and am thankful that more enlightened teachers are around (and perhaps trained in more uptodate [sic] methods and ideas). I have no intention of continuing with this thread as I find your comments offensive.

http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/p/147936/281940.aspx#281940

If you are still caught in the pessimistic cycle of believing in inate [sic] misbehaviour then maybe a career change.  Apologies for sounding rude but i [sic] believe the old saying “if you’re not part of the solution then your part of the problem

http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/p/244410/3800204.aspx#3800204

The outrage that is felt at the suggestion that children are both responsible and culpable is astounding to me. It seems to be based on a belief that failing to accept certain doctrines about children, amounts to an actual hostility to children. Those who make these arguments believe that you must agree with them in order to have genuine concern about, or knowledge of, children. This is held so strongly, and so blatantly in defiance of reason, that it is plausible that they adopt these stances entirely so that they can consider themselves to be more compassionate and enlightened than others.

Of course, there is a strong element of hypocrisy in the comments. They object to my willingness to apply moral judgements to student behaviour, but are enthusiastic to apply such judgements to me. I would argue that this sort of incoherence is inevitable. Like much modern moral debate they have thrown key moral concepts out through the front door (specifically: responsibility, judgement and desert) only for them to return through the back door. This is because the concepts they were rejecting were indispensable. If children are blameless then somebody else must be to blame, and inevitably the conclusion is reached that I must be to blame for everything I describe. It is simply impossible to start ethics from scratch without accounting for the concepts we already rely on to make sense of the world, and blame is one of these.

In fact, this is true of philosophy generally. As Midgley (1996) argued, philosophy is like plumbing:

Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs for those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole. There have been many ambitious attempts to reshape both of them. But, for both, existing complications are usually too widespread to allow a completely new start.

Another philosopher, Macintyre (1981), suggests that the plumbing of ethics has already been torn up:

What we possess … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, if not entirely— lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.

Whether this is accurate or not across the whole of ethics, my point is that it is most definitely true in education. Basic moral concepts, such as responsibility and desert, have been lost from our schools. We educate as if we don’t even know what human beings, let alone children, are actually like, and as if we can’t hope to make moral judgements about what we, or our students, are doing. We need to consider these ethical issues, as what is happening in our schools is not just inefficient or harmful, it is morally wrong.

My plan is to post in the next few weeks on the topics of:

References:

Midgley, Mary, Utopias, Dolpins and Computers, 1996, Routledge

MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, 1981, University of Notre Dame Press

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Higher Education?

October 1, 2008

For this entry I have turned my blog over to a friend so he can write about his experience of teaching, in the next level of the education system:

As a friend of Oldandrew for many years I agreed to write a guest entry for his blog. Unlike Oldandrew, I have not become a school teacher but have experience of teaching undergraduates at University. I have been teaching mathematics to students in a computer science department in a University whose computer science department is one of the top ten in the country. Here are a few of the important rules for teaching we were given in how we should handle students:

  1. Answers need to be marked for presence not correctness. These students are not mathematicians and are studying computer science so we can’t expect them to be interested and intelligent enough to be able to answer these questions correctly so as long as they attempt an answer it is fine.
  2. International students cannot fail. International students pay a lot of money for their tuition and if we fail them we may not get anymore and this will reduce our income.
  3. Teachers must teach at the speed of the slowest, one must never stretch the smartest students.

Sadly, the introduction of tuition fees has greatly influenced the attitude of students. It becomes increasingly common for students to demand good grades because they pay for their degree so they deserve to get a first. Similarly, students will refuse to hand in work at given times because they pay the wages of the lecturer.

International students also cause further problems for lecturers in that in some countries there is no concept of plagiarism. This means that even though students are made to sign an agreement not to commit plagiarism and the concept is explained to them in detail, international students regularly do. International students are nearly always caught because the quality of their English is below the standard of that used on Wikipedia and so whenever they cut and paste written extracts from Wikipedia it is stands out like blood in snow. If you point out to students that they are committing plagiarism then they will accuse you of racism because either you do not understand their culture (special sessions are now being put on for staff to help them understand the cultures where plagiarism is acceptable), or that you are expecting them to have too high a level of understanding of English.

A few words are in order about the ability of students from school. As a rule the only students who are actually capable of the work are Germans and Indians. The English students are often completely incapable of doing mathematics at a university level. When I went to university we did not cover anything we had done at A-level but instead starting doing new work but this is very rarely the case except at the very best universities, now the A-level syllabus is recovered in the first year so that all students are at the same level for their second year when they can be taught new material. In fact the ability of English students is so bad that at one point I was trying to prove, by induction, that something was divisible by three and I had shown that it was divisible by six. I then had to explain repeatedly that since six is three times two, anything divisible by six was also divisible by three. I even had a couple of students claiming that six was not three times two. It is at this point that I should point out that these students all have A grades in A-level mathematics.

Even when I was at university various courses were being moved from the second to the third year so the dumbing down of university of degrees has been going on for a number of years. Our education system is failing students and a lot of universities are doing their best to compensate, but this means that a lot of degrees have been dumbed down to the point where they are useless.

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