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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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21 comments

  1. Those people are the ones who are responsible for our kids’ demise. I don’t know how they live with themselves. They might as well take a gun and put it to the heads of our kids. Or better yet, just put them in prison before they ever get to secondary school. These people do the damage and run. You however work against them, as do I. And all we can do is continue in the fight.


  2. I guess they just pull their halos down over their eyes so they can’t see the damage they are doing.


  3. Presumably once these blameless and put upon children become adults and act irresponsibly the same people will never think their views had anything to do with their behaviour. Sigh.


  4. Some of those I criticised make the same excuses about adults, even about violent criminals.

    None of them seem to make excuses for teachers, mind you.


  5. Mrs Gordy manages a very well thought of pre-school playgroup in a very deprived part of town and was making a booklet to help parents/carers with behaviour management. She was taken to task for even using phrases such as ‘good behaviour’ because it implied that ‘there are two types of behaviour’. I blame AJ Ayer.


  6. I have, thankfully, never come across anybody in education who believes that students are absolutely and entirely not to blame for their behaviour, and if I did I would disagree with them vehemently. I teach in a 6th form college, and students are taken to be responsible for their actions unless there is good reason to accept external circumstances as playing a part.
    While it is certainly true that students are to blame for misbehaviour, that does not mean that there are not sometimes external circumstances which can in part explain that misbehaviours and thus reduce the personal responsibility of the child.

    The only ‘no blame’ approach I can think of is the ‘no blame’ approach to bullying.


  7. You appear to have added the words “absolutely and entirely” to what I was describing, presumably so you can invent some kind of nonsensical middle ground position between “considering children responsible and culpable for their choices” and “not considering children responsible and culpable for their choices”.


  8. Your post: “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.”

    I replied with: “I have, thankfully, never come across anybody in education who believes that students are absolutely and entirely not to blame for their behaviour, and if I did I would disagree with them vehemently.”
    Did I add in that ‘absolutely and entirely’ by mistake, or does it not reflect what you said? In short: doesn’t “children are beyond blame” not mean something very similar to “believes that students are absolutely and entirely not to blame”?

    Regarding a middle ground: how about “students are often responsible and culpable for their choices, but there can be extenuating factors in some cases” as a middle ground? Is that ‘nonsensical’?


  9. I haven’t been around these internet things much, but i believe that I’ve discovered what a sock is…. I’m so happy. Though do they normally out themsleves…..

    Slightly more on topic but i think this may help newsisinope. We have a very succesful idea at my school that certain factors explain a childs behaviour they never excuse the behaviour. The punishment is the same but the follow upa nd support may differ.

    fat-tony


  10. how about “students are often responsible and culpable for their choices, but there can be extenuating factors in some cases” as a middle ground? Is that ‘nonsensical’?

    Yes.

    An extenuating factor can influence a choice to offend, make it more understandable, even make it more forgivable. It cannot make it cease to be a choice, or make it no longer the responsibility of the person who made the choice.

    My objection to using “absolutely and entirely not to blame” to mean “beyond blame” is that the first is a statement about whether they are to blame, the second is a statement about whether they can be blamed. If somebody says “I’m not saying Jimmy isn’t to blame, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t bother blaming him” then it is still putting Jimmy “beyond blame” even if it isn’t saying he is “absolutely and entirely not to blame”.


  11. [If somebody says “I’m not saying Jimmy isn’t to blame, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t bother blaming him” then it is still putting Jimmy “beyond blame” even if it isn’t saying he is “absolutely and entirely not to blame”.]

    What is wrong with putting Jimmy beyond blame?


  12. If Jimmy is to blame then putting him beyond blame is a lie, a fraud. It is also dehumanising, because “blame”, justly attributed, is one of those things that all human beings deserve.


  13. “If Jimmy is to blame then putting him beyond blame is a lie, a fraud.”

    Jimmy is a hungry child who stole some food. This is because his parents are not feeding him. While he certainly made a choice to steal, and he transgressed a moral boundary, I would not blame him for this.


  14. transgressing a moral boundary

    ?

    Speak English, please.

    The issue in your example is not that we wouldn’t blame Jimmy because he is not responsible for his action, but that we would seriously doubt that a starving child was doing anything wrong by attempting to preserve their own life or health (assuming that it wasn’t at the expense of somebody else’s life or health).


  15. You have written a string of essays on this theme now. The theme is “students are not seen as responsible for their actions, and therefore no-one blames them, and therefore no one punishes them”.

    I have first-hand knowledge that there are still forms of management and discipline for behaviour in schools. These necessarily involve believing a child to be responsible for their actions, and blaming them. What I am not sure of is that these approaches are working all that well. Students keep on acting badly regardless of the consequences.

    While you have published a list of internet comments that have shown that people disagree with you, this is not the same thing as showing that there are many in education who think that children are beyond blame or responsibility for their actions. They could be disagreeing with you on the harshness of your punishments, or on your single-mindedness to do anything but blame children for their actions. The very fact that you deny that there are external factors that affect behaviour and in some way mitigate blame could be what exorcises so much wrath against you.


  16. I have encounteres a number of people in education who like to put children beyond blame. My first year head was one. I left that job.


  17. ["I have encounteres a number of people in education who like to put children beyond blame. My first year head was one. I left that job."]

    What do you mean by ‘beyond blame’? Were the students allowed to do whatever they wanted?


  18. I mean that excuses were made for the pupils behaviour and those from poor deprived often in care backgrounds were allowed to come and go as they pleased, tell teachers to f**k off, hit other pupils and the school would do nothing. thankfully the police woud.


  19. “I have first-hand knowledge that there are still forms of management and discipline for behaviour in schools. These necessarily involve believing a child to be responsible for their actions, and blaming them.”

    If you had been paying attention you’d know that it was common-place for children not to be held responsible and there are those who would claim that to hold a child responsible for their own actions is to “displace the blame”.

    “What I am not sure of is that these approaches are working all that well. Students keep on acting badly regardless of the consequences.”

    Here we go again. First you assume that punishment is taking place. Secondly you assume that it has the purpose of ensuring that nobody behaves badly.

    By this kind of logic, nothing would “work well”.

    “While you have published a list of internet comments that have shown that people disagree with you, this is not the same thing as showing that there are many in education who think that children are beyond blame or responsibility for their actions. They could be disagreeing with you on the harshness of your punishments,”

    My punishments?

    “or on your single-mindedness to do anything but blame children for their actions. The very fact that you deny that there are external factors that affect behaviour and in some way mitigate blame could be what exorcises so much wrath against you.”

    They wouldn’t invent this strawman if they didn’t object to what I was saying in the first place. The fact that they attack me for opinions I don’t hold, doesn’t show that actually I am not saying anything contentious. It simply shows that a lot of the people who attack me lack honesty as well as manners.

    Do you genuinely think that there is no movement to pamper rather than punish the badly behaved?

    For pity’s sake, look at the insanity that’s being suggested here:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7707019.stm


  20. Do you genuinely think that there is no movement to pamper rather than punish the badly behaved?

    I wouldn’t be a teacher if my job was to pamper the students who need to find out that their actions have negative consequences. If you really wish me to believe that we are pampering the badly behaved, please notify me when prisons become theme parks.

    Your reflexology example is, indeed, insane – but only because of its link to reflexology. Let us look at a more scientifically acceptable example.
    It is known that lack of breakfast leads to biological effects. These effects might explain lethargicness or even a lower threshold for becoming annoyed/stressed. This is not good in class. If we identified students without breakfast, many of whom happened to be troublemakers, would giving them breakfast be pampering? Or would it be addressing one of the many factors that can affect their behaviour?


  21. You now appear to be making points that I have already answered at length (in posts that you have already replied to). I explained here:

    http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/needs/

    why even something as seemingly enlightened, kind and uncontroversial as feeding the hungry would be a bad idea if used as a method of behaviour management.



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