This post contains my thoughts on morality in education, based on Zygmunt Bauman's book Postmodern Ethics and a few other sources.
‘The duty of us all’ which I know, does not seem to be the same thing as my responsibility which I feel.
In Postmodern Ethics, Bauman places morality as primal, before being; as humans, we are already responsible. As such, morality is before rationality, before calculation and measurement.
In modern society - and I will argue, also in schools - there is a tendency towards that which can be calculated and classified over the messiness and ambivalence of morality. The turn to ‘calculative thinking’ was described by Heidegger, in his Discourse on Thinking:
...man today is in flight from thinking... whenever we plan, research, and organize, we always reckon with conditions that are given. We take them into account with the calculated intention of their serving specific purposes. Thus we can count on definite results. This calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates... Calculative thinking computes. It computes ever new, ever more promising and at the same time more economical possibilities. Calculative thinking races from one prospect to the next. Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself. Calculative thinking is not meditative thinking, not thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is… will everything now fall into the clutches of planning and calculation, of organization and automation?
The triumph of calculative thinking is clearly evident in education.
We see it in the curriculum: the prominence of the sciences over the humanities and arts (as a maths teacher I find the rhetoric around maths education bewildering), and the subsequent reduction in the moral: the erosion of the PSHE and Citizenship curricula.
We see it in how schools, teachers and students are assessed; that which is measurable - examination results - matters most, whilst other educational purposes become marginalised.
The (political) message is clear: knowledge is power, but only that knowledge which has economic value. Decisions about the most 'efficient' transmission/acquisition of such knowledge must be backed by ever larger-scale quantitative evidence, measured of course via examination results.
In the drive towards calculative thinking and so-called progress, have we lost sight of what really matters? If we agree with Bauman that moral responsibility is fundamental to humanity, should we aim to ‘re-moralise’ education? If so, how can this be done?
What does morality entail? Bauman, following Emmanuel Levinas, suggests the essence of morality is in being-for others:
Morality is the encounter with the other as Face. Moral stance begets an essentially unequal relationship; this inequality, non-equity, this not-asking-for-reciprocation; this disinterest in mutuality, this indifference to the balancing-up of gains or rewards - in short, this organically unbalanced and hence non-reversible character of ‘I versus the Other’ relationship is what makes the encounter a moral event.
Morality is found in ‘the face-to-face of humans’. This brings to mind the caring relation (what Bauman calls the ‘command to care’), which I have written about here.
Few would argue against an education that develops the moral capacity of children. If morality is as described above, then in order to bring morality back to the centre of education, we as teachers must meet students face-to-face, as individuals, and allow them the opportunity to meet each other as such, and move away from the (over-)emphasis on qualification.
How can we encourage moral encounters in our classrooms? First and foremost, we must talk and listen to our students through holding open conversations - not just structured discussion - and we must develop their ability to hold conversations with each other. We must seek to create a culture of attentiveness and waiting, as described by Maurice Blanchot:
Attention is waiting: not an effort, tension, nor mobilisation of knowledge around a certain thing with which one is preoccupied. Attention waits. It waits without haste, leaving empty what is empty and avoiding but the haste, the impatient desire...
Heidegger also talks of the importance of waiting and openness: 'In waiting we leave open what we are waiting for… waiting releases itself into openness.' I have written in a similar vein about ‘taking the wanting out of the waiting’ here.
Bauman elaborates on the connection between attention and responsibility:
Responsibility entails keeping attention in place as long as the Face may need it. In other words, responsibility is the lasting sediment, the consequence of attention...
In order to meet the other in a moral encounter, we must be attentive, to wait for the other to reveal themselves to us; being responsible is being-for the other. Do we allow the space for such encounters in our classrooms?
It is only through being-for the other that we (both) become irreplaceable, through which we gain a sense of our unique self. To quote Emmanuel Levinas:
It is I who support the Other and am responsible for him… My responsibility is un-transferable, no one could replace me. In fact, it is a matter of saying the very identity of the human I starts from responsibility.
I have only really felt this irreplaceability since the birth of my daughter, and it has had a huge impact on the way I am with others. I must be clear here: I am not suggesting that having a child is a requirement to become responsible, but only that this was the case for me. Knud Logstrup describes the effect of this ‘ethical demand’:
The demand has the effect of making the person to whom the demand is directed an individual in the precise sense of the word.
I would argue that the primary aim of education is to provide opportunities for children to be responsible, and thus to come into presence as unique selves, to become irreplaceable.
I am concerned that the current overemphasis on qualification, coupled with an overemphasis on the technical aspects of teaching, has reduced the sense of being-for others in the classroom, resulting in a culture of replaceability and facelessness, for both teachers and students.
Bauman describes the term 'flotation' (in the context of loving relationships) as a freedom from moral compulsion, evident in the ease with which we ‘cut our losses’, with little consequence:
The postmodern form of [love] is possible only on the condition that consequentiality is denied… [these] relations are episodic, however long they may prove to last in the end. Being lived as episodic means that they are at every moment of their duration but ‘until further notice’. Being episodic means being of no consequence - at least of no lasting consequence.
I would argue that there is a growing sense of flotation, of the episodic, in the teaching profession. Teachers are encouraged to maintain a professional persona, to remain distant from the children they teach, alongside an increasing tendency for teachers to change roles and schools more often. Relationships are not given the chance to form, further adding to the sense of replaceability, and a loss of moral significance.
Proximity, as described by Levinas, is not about physical distance; it is the realm of intimacy, of moral significance. But with intimacy comes vulnerability. It is felt that to be ‘effective’, teachers must not be seen to be vulnerable, resulting in increased social and moral distance between themselves and their students.
There is, of course, a balance; it is easy to see why teachers might not wish to become vulnerable. But what are the consequences of taking a too-amoral position, of being physically proximate but ‘spiritually remote’?
This inattention to others results in what Martin Buber terms a ‘mis-meeting’ (as opposed to meeting the other in a caring relation). We see it in public spaces, where eye contact is avoided, where people move from A to B without stopping, where there is civil indifference. We do not stop to get to know others as people. As Bauman states:
That which we call the others is what we know of them... the strangeness of strangers is, at bottom, our ignorance.
Public spaces are places people wish to pass through, preferably without stopping. Is this the same of classrooms?
The passing-through in the classroom happens in time, with teachers and students focussing too heavily on content in order to meet curriculum objectives. What might be gained in making classrooms a place in which we ‘dwell’, where meetings occur, where teachers and students get to know each other?
But we cannot dwell forever; students must learn that which they are in the classroom to learn. Structure and rules are necessary; the moral space cannot reasonably be allowed to ‘lie fallow’ as ‘it will not lie fallow for long’. But with rules comes a denial of capability, followed by a denial of rights. How can we ensure discipline, whilst promoting moral autonomy?
Balance is again required. At the end of this scale are zero-tolerance policies, which ensure discipline at the expense of moral autonomy, positioning children as incapable of moral decisions. But how are children to gain moral autonomy without the space to act morally?
The argument for such policies is that they result in children ‘learning more’. This is debatable. But even if we agreed that this were true, if we believe it is important that children receive opportunities to develop their moral capacity, it is difficult to argue against a more balanced approach.
Such an approach might include conversations with students about their actions - not necessarily at the time of the event - using judgement when applying sanctions, instead of applying punishments before considering the specific situation. Something might also be gained by looking for the best possible motives in a child’s actions (what Martin Buber calls ‘confirmation’).
Care and power
There may be instances when it might be necessary for a teacher to judge what they consider to be ‘in the best interests’ of the children they teach, but this has the danger of turning from care into power. Foucault describes this ‘pastoral power’ as the care of the shepherd for his/her flock, which can result in domination, obedience and cruelty.
As Bauman states, ‘There is but a thin line between care and oppression…’ This thin line suggests that more judgement is required than applying a rigid policy without regard for the situation.
Too-rigid policies reduce the need to get to know the person behind the act and may also reduce the possibility of building trust, as described by Logstrup:
[Rigid rule-based systems] give precise definitions about what we shall do and what we shall refrain from doing. We are normally able to conform to these directives without ever having to consider the other person, much less take care of his life.
There is no perfect system, but if we believe that trust is fundamental to human relationships, should we think more carefully about policies that ignore the 'who' behind every 'what'?
No simple answers
In ethics, there are no simple answers, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep exploring the issues, or that we should just opt for simple broad-brush solutions that might seem best 'on average'. As Bauman points out:
Ethics looks for the ‘before’ of being not because it hopes that the sought-after foundations hide there, but because it knows that it is precisely in the act of looking there which founds the moral self, being as it were the only foundation morality can ever have and the only one it will ever afford.
I feel that the same is true of the important issues in education. There are often no simple answers; it is the 'act of looking there' that founds a moral education. Bauman goes on to say:
Following the official signposts is as doubtful a guarantee of being morally in the right as ignoring them and choosing one’s own path through the wilderness… No one-sided solution to any of these problems is foolproof. The moral person cannot beat ambivalence; s/he may only learn to live with it… No wonder new offers are made over and over again to release the subject from the burden of moral responsibility, and no wonder that many find the offers irresistibly seductive.
Perhaps the only hope for developing a moral education is through conversation, negotiation. Alan Wolfe describes such a a ‘civil society’ where:
...practice is negotiated between learning agents capable of growth on the one hand and a culture capable of change on the other.
Might this be a helpful way of viewing the classroom, and the children we teach? To become morally responsible is an ‘accomplishment’, and may not happen... but the fact remains that it does happen, and I would argue that it has the best chance of happening if we endeavour to provide opportunities for children to learn how.
Bauman warns of the power of modernity, in spite of obvious issues that have arisen:
The movement seems unstoppable - since however deep and widespread are the premonitions of reaching that point, every social institution and psychological effect of modernity, let alone the market-spawn economic interests, militate against all effective change of direction.
The issues of modernity are clearly evident in education. What I am advocating here is a change of direction, or rather a slowing down, a step back to look at what it is we are doing to the (moral) lives of the children we teach.
Is the ‘progress’ that we are told is happening in schools really progress? Or are we losing sight of what really matters in education?
Hans Jonas suggests we should consider first, ‘an ethics of preservation and prevention, not of progress and perfection’. We can see the negative effects of the drive for progress and perfection in the clamour to be judged ‘outstanding’, with the ends justifying any means, and the (hotly debated) mental health crisis in our children.
Perhaps what is needed to halt the drive towards modernity is what Heidegger terms a look towards the ‘heritage of marginal practices’, from the past or the present, towards ‘the saving power of the humble things’.
It seems unlikely that such a move will happen given the current (educational) climate, but I think it might be necessary to bring morality back to the centre of education, and I would agree with Bauman - this is what matters most:
If anything does matter, it is the redemption of moral capacity and, in the effect, re-moralisation of human space.
Given the lack of any ethical foundations, Ludwig Wittgenstein asked: 'How do we know how to go on?' Hannah Arendt suggests we need:
Human beings capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgement, which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all these around them…
This is problematic. How can we decide what is right? Bauman suggests that we can't, and that all we have is our conscience:
If in doubt - consult your conscience. Moral responsibility is the most personal and inalienable of human possessions, and the most precious of human rights. It cannot be taken away, shared, ceded, pawned, or deposited for safe-keeping. Moral responsibility is unconditional and infinite, and it manifests itself in the constant anguish of not manifesting itself enough. Moral responsibility does not look for reassurance for its right to be or for excuses for its right not to be. It is there before any reassurance or proof and after any excuse or absolution.
This is, at least, what one can find out looking back at the protracted modern struggle to prove - and make real - the opposite.
Given the struggle of modern education to 'make real the opposite', is it time we look carefully at where education is going, at the decline of the moral, and ask ourselves: Is this really progress?