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Moments of Startling Clarity

Moments of Startling Clarity

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Published by: BlazingCat on Dec 01, 2011
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07/10/2013

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Every teacher has moments of startlingclarity. Sometimes these are momentsof light—epiphanies—when some truth“shines through” to us in an unforeseen way and changes our perspective. Atother times, though, such clarity comesin a flash of disillusionment, when a sadrealization takes from us forever a com-forting delusion.I recently had one of these moments while I was teaching my senior Philoso-phy class. We had just finished a unit onMetaphysics and were about to get intoEthics, the philosophy of how we makemoral judgments. Te school had also just had several social-justice-type assem-blies—multiculturalism, women’s rights,anti-violence and gay acceptance. Sothere was no shortage of reference pointsfrom which to begin.I needed an attention-getter: some-thing to really spark interest, somethingto shock the students awake and makethem commit to an ethical judgment.Tis would form a baseline from whichthey could begin to ask questions aboutthe legitimacy of moral judgments of all kinds, and then pursue various the-ories—Utilitarianism, Neo-Kantianism,Virtue Ethics, Nihilism, Moral Pragma-tism and so on.I decided to open by simply display-ing, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a aliban fighter, who abused herand kept her with his animals. Whenshe attempted to flee, her family caughther, hacked off her nose and ears, andleft her for dead in the mountains. Aftercrawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital.I felt quite sure that my students, seeingthe suffering of this poor girl of their ownage, would have a clear ethical reaction,from which we could build toward morediffi cult cases.Te picture is horrific. Aisha’s beauti-ful eyes stare hauntingly back at you abovethe mangled hole that was once her nose.Some of my students could not even raisetheir eyes to look at it. I could see thatmany were experiencing deep emotions.But I was not prepared for their re-action. I had expected strong aversion;but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. Tey seemed not toknow 
what 
to think. Tey spoke timo-rously, afraid to make
any 
moral judg-ment at all. Tey were unwilling tocriticize any situation originating in adifferent culture. Tey said, “Well, wemight not like it, but maybe over thereit’s okay.One student said, “I don’t feelanything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no conscious-ness of self-contradiction), “It’s just
wrong 
 to judge other cultures.” As a teacher, I had to do something.Like most teachers, I felt uncomfortable with becoming too directive in moral mat-ters; but in this case, I could not see how I could avoid it. I wondered, “How cankids who have been so thoroughly bastedin the language of minority rights be sonumb to a clear moral offense?Whereare all those “character traits” we inculcateto address their moral formation? Youknow them—empathy, caring, respect,courage—the wording may vary amongboards, but we all know the script.My class was “character developed”and had all the “traits” in place. Tey  were
honest 
—very frank in their views.Tey had
empathy 
—extending it inequal measure to Aisha and to the de-mented subculture that sliced her up.Tey were
accepting 
—even of child mu-tilation. And they 
 persevered 
—no mat-ter how I prodded they did not leavetheir nonjudgmental position. I left thatclass shaking my head. It seemed clear tome that for some students—clearly notall—the lesson of character educationinitiatives is acceptance of all things at allcosts. While we may hope some are ca-pable of bridging the gap between princi-pled morality and this ethically vacuousrelativism, it is evident that a good many 
Moments of startling clarity
oral education programming in Ontario today 
y Dr. Stephen L. Anderson
   P   H   O   T   O  :   J   O   D   I   B   I   E   B   E   R
EDUCATION FORUM
 
27
 
 
are not. For them, the overriding mes-sage is “never judge, never criticize, nevertake a position.”Can we be sure that our current mor-al education strategies are not producingethical paralytics? Are we really teaching
attitudes 
or just
 platitudes 
? Te questionsare unsettling, but cannot be avoided.How can we claim to be formingcharacter in our students when we refuseto commit to any moral position our-selves? If character education is to haveany substantive value, it ought also tospecify with what or whom we shouldempathize (or conversely, not empathize)and to explain why or why not.Tat said, there are areas in which we
have 
been quite directive. In anti-bullying campaigns, homosexual rightsassemblies, multicultural fairs, social justice drives and women’s rights initia-tives, we do not hesitate to preach, ad-monish or dictate because we feel so fer-vently committed to our ground. Butit is clear that the message of women’srights had been, in the case of Bibi Aisha,outshouted by the metamessage too of-ten embedded in these programs—thatthere are
no
real standards,
no
certainmoral truths, and
no
final ground tostand on; and that anyone who thinksthere is, is simply naïve or a bigot. Inthis case, even the strong rhetoric of  women’s rights could not survive theacid bath of universal tolerance. We want kids to be tolerant—but do we want them to be so tolerant that they do not raise a finger to stop a bully? We want them to be compassionate—but do we want them to expend their compas-sion on women-abusers and despots? We want them to have integrity—but do we want that expressed as insularity, indif-ference or egocentricity? We want themto be open-minded—but do we wantthem to be so open-minded they cannever close on a solid truth? If so, we arenot acting as educators, for we are tellingthem that there really is nothing worthknowing after all.Te problem with “Character Devel-opment” programs is that they are really lists of verbs masquerading as nouns. Forexample, “tolerance” only 
looks 
like anoun: but really has no meaning until weadd an object to it—we have to ask, “ol-erate
what 
?” Likewise, “courage” can takevarious referents: one can be a courageous
rescuer 
or a courageous
liar 
—but nothingsubstantive is taught by the general direc-tive to be “courageous.Again, “honesty”looks universally good: but only until youconsider how hurtful a direct answer cansometimes be, or how excessive forthright-ness can expose innocent others to dangeror foment rumours, when indirectness orsilence might not.Nothing in the package passed downto the schools by the Ministry,
Finding Common Ground: Character Develop-ment in Ontario Schools, K-12 
, addressesthese sorts of worries. It comes with nomeans for assessing the real results itclaims to produce. Consider your ownschool: has there been any attempt at allto measure the outcomes? How many “bad” kids have been made “good?”How much violence has been curbed?How many incidents of prejudice havebeen prevented? Do we know for certainthat the activities promoted by our char-acter clubs have any verifiable impacton their fellow students, or are we just
hoping 
some good is being done? How many of these clubs are populated by students who would already have been“good” anyway? And how would weever know if we did any good? Tere’s alot of cheerleading going on, but there’sa distinct shortage of evidence that any “game” is being won here.Let me say very clearly that I donot hold teachers responsible for thissituation—at least, not entirely. We do what we can with what we are given and,sometimes, that’s not much. In the caseof character education, the governmenthanded teachers a confusing package of moral platitudes. No wonder, then, thatthe evidence for any results has been fee-ble, despite the government’s loud claimsto the contrary. eachers weren’t givenmuch to work with. Yet I’m also not out to criticize theGovernment of Ontario or the Ministry of Education. But I don’t believe thatcharacter education is the panacea thatthey claim it is. Te more you know about the history of the program, andthe more you understand how irrationalits sponsoring theories are, the more rea-son you have to be skeptical. It is simply a bizarre mix of Neo-Aristotelian virtuelanguage, Kolbergian developmentalismand American-style Character Educa-tion ideology. It has no internal logic.I’m not saying that character educa-tion is itself destructive, just blandly in-effective. Yet there are some situationsin which something benign becomesmalignant through the expectationsthat are placed on it. ake, for exam-ple, when a person with cancer is given aplacebo. Or suppose a person trusts her weight to a hiking staff that has becomedamp-rotted inside. o rest too muchon the performance of such things in-vites disaster.In much the same way, so long as wedo not expect much of character educa-tion, we are likely to be safe. Te dangerappears when we expect it to be some sort
but it is not more important than the goal of instilling moral fibre in our students.And if the cost of the peace is denying any basis for social justice,then the price is just too high.The goal of keeping public peace is important;
28
 
FALL 2011

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