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Over Christmas, the other site where I blog — Orphans of Liberty — featured a post entitled ‘What Political Correctness Is Leading To …’

In it, JuliaM wonders if the British could soon begin reacting in the same relativistic way as Canadian students do to honour maimings.

The post refers to an article by Dr Stephen L Anderson, ‘Moments of Startling Clarity: Moral Education Programming in Ontario Today’ (p. 26 of PDF and here on Scribd).  It appeared in the Fall 2011 edition of the OSSTF/FEESO Education Forum magazine.

Anderson teaches in a secondary school in Ontario. In 2010, he completed his thesis on the Character Education movement. He describes his class’s reaction to a photo of a young Afghani bride, Bibi Aisha, whose family cut off her nose and ears. The distressing photo is on page 26. Before going into this in more detail, readers will be relieved to know that a Jewish surgeon has since reconstructed Aisha’s nose.

I recall reading the horrifying story whilst on the way home from work one evening several years ago.   Anderson takes it up in more detail (emphases mine):

Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

However, such was not to be the case in Anderson’s ‘Character Development’ class. Students’ reactions included the following:

Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.

It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.

And this one, which is the worst of all:

I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.

Really? In Ontario? In magazines? Shocking.

Anderson adds:

My class was “character developed” and had all the “traits” in place. They were honest — very frank in their views. They had empathy — extending it in equal measure to Aisha and to the demented subculture that sliced her up. They were accepting — even of child mutilation. And they persevered — no matter how I prodded they did not leave their nonjudgmental position. I left that class shaking my head. It seemed clear to me that for some students — clearly not all — the lesson of character education initiatives is acceptance of all things at all costs. While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”

That’s a frightening reality. Would those students care if that occurred next door to them? Or would they say, ‘Well, it’s their culture. That’s what they do’?

On the other hand, as Anderson acknowledges, the same students would be pushing for various rights of Western groups of people. Yet, this girl’s mutilation, which happened half a world away, is merely excused.

Anderson writes:

The problem with “Character Development” programs is that they are really lists of verbs masquerading as nouns. For example, “tolerance” only looks like a noun: but really has no meaning until we add an object to it — we have to ask, “Tolerate what?” Likewise, “courage” can take various referents: one can be a courageous rescuer or a courageous liar — but nothing substantive is taught by the general directive to be “courageous.” Again, “honesty” looks universally good: but only until you consider how hurtful a direct answer can sometimes be, or how excessive forthrightness can expose innocent others to danger or foment rumours, when indirectness or silence might not.

Nothing in the package passed down to the schools by the Ministry, Finding Common Ground: Character Development in Ontario Schools, K-12, addresses these sorts of worries. It comes with no means for assessing the real results it claims to produce. Consider your own school: has there been any attempt at all to measure the outcomes? How many “bad” kids have been made “good?” How much violence has been curbed? How many incidents of prejudice have been prevented? Do we know for certain that the activities promoted by our character clubs have any verifiable impact on their fellow students, or are we just hoping some good is being done?

From what I read in the papers, it seems that our youth are more violent than ever before. Unthinkable things occur every day in primary and secondary schools in Western countries: stabbings, shootings and martial arts kicks which are often fatal.  Yet, hardly anyone — including teachers — condemns it. Often we read in a newspaper report statements such as, ‘He’s a good kid, really’ or ‘He was a victim of his environment’.  That old canard: ‘Society’s to blame’. Clergy also participate in this, as we have seen in the Church of England’s justification of the London Riots.

Having taught and studied the Character Development movement, Anderson concludes:

I don’t believe that character education is the panacea that they claim it is. The more you know about the history of the program, and the more you understand how irrational its sponsoring theories are, the more reason you have to be skeptical. It is simply a bizarre mix of Neo-Aristotelian virtue language, Kolbergian developmentalism and American-style Character Education ideology. It has no internal logic.

I’m not saying that character education is itself destructive, just blandly ineffective. Yet there are some situations in which something benign becomes malignant through the expectations that are placed on it

The danger appears when we expect it to be some sort of remedy to real-world social dysfunction and we begin to think that schools are addressing that. In truth, we might not be strengthening the moral integrity of our students; in fact, we could be weakening it— particularly in respect to their ability to form and hold moral convictions ...

Today, character education is the darling of moral educators in Ontario; but tomorrow we will see if this “emperor” has any clothes. At present, we are trying to create character without reference to moral substance. If our current programs ultimately leave students incapable of sustaining principled ethical commitments, then we will have prepared a new public with greater empathy with moral relativism, an instinctive respect for unjust cultures and regimes, and perhaps even a high tolerance for cruelty. But then we will have to add “moral education” to our list of oxymorons.

I took an ethics class in secondary school. Had this happened then, the teacher would have asked if there was ever any moral justification for such an act. I expect we would have replied that it was barbaric and horrifying.  It would be hard to imagine anyone saying that it was all right given the culture.

But then, that was Catholic school in the 1970s and not a secular one of the 21st century where, as Anderson states, a moral code is lacking.

We can come up with any number of excuses for actions which deprive people of their imago Dei and personal freedom.  If the State passes a health law such as the smoking ban or minimum-priced drink, we rationalise it as being ‘for our protection’.  If we go through intensive body scans at airports, it’s ‘for everyone’s security’. If a husband or father maims or kills his wife or offspring, it’s because the ‘honour of the family is at stake’. And so it goes.

The salami slicer and boiling frog metaphors come to mind. Whatever next?

Tomorrow: Cultural relativism in the UK


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