Morality, education and expectations

I’ve now been able to catch up with the content discussed at the first workshop (that I missed), which all prompts us to question what it is we are trying to achieve as educators. I was reminded of Padraig Hogan’s question what is the purpose of the educational enterprise?’, where he presents a range of possible answers – from the Platonic view of instilling positive, established values, to the Socratic communicative questioning of values; and the Marxist intention to disrupt institutions of power. 

Although much of the reading was specifically focused on compulsory schooling, there was nothing irrelevant about it. The Sommers chapter on moral education was fascinating; presenting the progressive education movement as a triumph of Rousseau’s romantic view (of children being born inherently good) over the dominant Aristotelian perspective of 2,300 years ago. Aristotle was of the view that humans are inately rebellious, sinful and capable of great cruelty. Hannah Arendt clearly felt the same; describing children as ‘tiny barbarians’ that need to be taught right from wrong.

This resonated on a personal level – it actually explained the breakdown of my first marriage(!). The perspective I had on my stepdaughters’ behaviour was distinctly Aristotelian, while their father (and their mother!) held a progressive viewpoint. They encouraged the girls to let their emotions ‘all hang out’, and did not share my preferences for rules, routine and discipline. After the break-up I tried to understand where they were coming from. I began to worry that I had been living out my own parents’ top-down, authoritarian approach, with disastrous consequences.

Not even Sommers – who clearly sides with Aristotle in respect of moral education – believes that this is a clear-cut case of Rousseau being two sandwiches short of a picnic. The progressive approach he advocated gave rise to student-centred learning. But – even if it is true that we have a natural, inate curiosity, why assume that we are inherently good?  While student autonomy and ownership can be fantastic for many aspects of learning, perhaps with moral education we need to take more of a lead. Looking back now, I realise my interventions with my stepdaughters were – as with my own parents – not focused on general moral issues but school achievement, physical fitness, and helping out around the house. Maybe if I’d chilled out about those things and simply worked with their father on providing a moral compass, we’d all have been a lot happier.

At this point, given that I teach working professionals of around 30-50 years of age, I feel a need to pause and think how all this is directly relevant to my own professional context. There are certainly moral elements to the PG Cert curriculum; the learning outcomes specifically highlight helping each other to explore and apply theory to practice, for example. For many, this is not something that comes naturally. The course participants are pressed for time; their lives were full before they started the PG Cert. Most of them – if not all – do want to learn, but the course is not the number one priority in their busy lives. Therefore if I want them to spend time collaborating and supporting each other in a meaningful way, I have to be specific about what this looks like, and it needs to be assessed. This means that participants often feel that the ‘supportive communication’ feels forced and unnatural – at least at first.

However, reflecting on the notion that we need to be taught – trained, even – to be nice (and a quick Google search reveals that many parenting experts agree), I don’t feel so concerned about having to manipulate my students’ behaviour in this way. I am curious about how certain aspects of our morality – our ‘niceness’ – remain in flux throughout our lives, and what influences this. For example, many of us are more generous with our time – and our money – when we have more of it to spare. But perhaps once we experience the rewards of generosity we may be more likely to continue those habits even when resources are squeezed? This is, I guess, what I am hoping for with the PG Cert programme; that in being trained to be supportive of each other my students will see the benefits, and choose to work in a more connected way in the future.

I certainly find the Aristotelian view the more helpful one. We all like to think of ourselves as naturally good; this quote from Nelson Mandela has been doing the rounds on social media recently. But – imagine how horrible it must be if you believe your beautiful toddler is sweet and kind to the core and then it transmogrifies into grabby selfishness on its first play-date; you would be devastated, and wouldn’t know what on earth to do about it. The Aristotelian perspective allows us to expect this, to plan for it and to respond appropriately. To an extent I can apply this to my own teaching practice; communicating high expectations to my students is important for their learning (Chickering & Gamson – hello again). But for myself, I need to be more realistic in my expectations so that I can scaffold and model the learning behaviours I want to see, and respond appropriately when they don’t quite reach the mark.

Sommers, C H (2002) ‘How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back Into America’s Schools’ in Damon, W (ed) Bringing in a New Era in Character Education, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 23 – 41

Rousseau, J J (2009) Émile, or On Education. Project Gutenberg

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One Response to Morality, education and expectations

  1. This is great thanks Lindsay. I’m never sure what to make of the Arendt quote there. You can find an interesting paper by Sharon Jessop about Arendt and education here, and of course ‘The Crisis in Education’ is worth a read. I did have a link to an online version but I’ve lost it – do let me know if you find one!
    Have a look at the paper on Rousseau I posted on the Moodle page. I also think there is a problem with Sommers’ ‘either/or’.
    I do think, in relation to your own students, that there is a moral dimension to ‘graduate attributes’ that universities tend to miss. Our own John Henry Brookes wanted to equip students to lead ‘worthwhile lives’. It seems that there is an inevitable moral component here, although I’m not sure it is to do with ‘niceness’…
    On the naturally good thing. Yes, maybe there is a sort of innate goodness in Rousseau’s thinking (there certainly isn’t original sin, which Sommers seems to have an unhealthy appreciation for). But by the time anyone gets near anything like schooling, in Rousseau’s view, they have already been made wicked by social influences. So all of the examples of wicked children people like to offer as a counter to Rousseau do not, in my view, undermine his thinking at all. This is why Rousseau wants to cut off his Emile from a very young age, even from his parents…

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