Ethics ManOctober 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.
[he] was probably fired for assaulting a student years ago and blogs to relive its “glory” days.”
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.
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
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:
Midgley, Mary, Utopias, Dolpins and Computers, 1996, Routledge
MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, 1981, University of Notre Dame Press