Frazer Cairns is the Head of Dover Campus at UWCSEA and has 13 years experience in international school. He is currently studying for his doctorate in Education and is fascinated by the way language is used in multilingual educational settings.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk informally to parents who came in to the College. One of these parents, as his opening gambit, raised the question of ethics in education. This might be considered a little unfair given that I had just tucked into a biscuit and that the question addressed potentially the most challenging subject a person involved in education can address. However, it was a good question.
The purposes of education are fundamentally ethical and schools are, or at least should be, some of the most ethical places in society. The aim of a school is not just to develop young people’s knowledge, understanding and skills, and to help them get good examination results, important though these are. It is also, and above all, to help them develop their values, learn how to make moral judgments, distinguish right from wrong, and acquire a disposition to do good in this world.
An opinion poll a few years ago asked people what the most important moral influences on them had been. First came ‘what my parents told me about right and wrong.’ Second was ‘the way my own family behaved.’ Teachers came third. Both families and schools were felt to be much more important influences than friends, religion, public figures or the way people behaved in soap operas. I doubt that these results would be very different if we were to conduct such a poll in the school community today. They draw attention to the crucial role exercised by parents and teachers, acting together.
I recently spoke at a conference that addressed just this question of ethics. Among the many topics raised during the conference, three stood out for me in particular: first, there was agreement that, though we live increasingly in pluralist societies and in a world which brings us closer and closer to people in other societies that are very different from our own, there is a set of fundamental values that are universally shared. There is evidence to suggest that these values are innate. We differ radically in what we feel to be the source of these values; we describe and explain them in very different ways; and we apply them differently to many of the specific moral issues that face us (abortion, euthanasia or genetic manipulation, for example). We have common reference points and instincts, however, which make it possible for us to have moral discussions and to explore and sometimes even resolve our disagreements. This is a key message for a school community that is as diverse as ours. Our values are not like our tastes and preferences for food, clothes and types of music, where all we can do is agree to disagree.
Second, educators need to maintain a balance between encouraging young people’s autonomy and individuality and their sense of responsibility. We want young people to be creative and innovative, and to show spirit in ways that may involve challenging received opinions (and in particular the received opinions of the majority cultures, including the media-inspired and market-driven ‘youth culture,’ that surrounds them). At the same time, we want them to have a sense of responsibility for others, to be aware that individuals only exist in communities and to have a sense of their duty. At times, one should put the needs of the community before our individual needs, wishes and desires. Achieving this balance is not easy, but it is crucial if we are to avoid, as most of us probably want to do, both the type of society that is suffocatingly authoritarian and conformist and one where narrow individualism and materialism are rampant. Reconciling these potentially conflicting forces is in many ways not just a key aim of education but of modern society in general.
Third, there was much talk of ‘rights.’ As a school, we draw attention constantly to the importance of human rights and to the daily struggle around the world to ensure that civil and political rights are respected such that people have the necessary minimum of resources to enable them to have some kind of autonomous existence. The College’s philosophy places education about and for human rights at the centre of the school. There is, however, what was described at the conference as a ‘rights imperialism’ which has grown up in comfortable Western societies and summed up in the feeling ‘I want it therefore I have a right to have it.’ One speaker cited, from court cases in recent years, ‘the right to human intimacy,’ ‘the right to compensation for not having been sent to a school for gifted children,’ and ‘the right to compensation for suffering sunburn during practice for a school sports day.’ We do young people a disservice if we let them drift into debasing in these ways the crucially important, but limited, notion of a ‘right.’ There is a need to know about their own rights, of course, but there is a need to know about one’s duties too.
In some ways, all this is a long way from children kicking footballs around in the playground. In other ways, it is not. Education is a force for peace – or at least it should be – and I am delighted to have the opportunity to work in an institution in which these questions are thought about and questioned on a daily basis.