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There is currently another curriculum review underway in the UK. Emma Worley asks whether lessons in morality be considered within the review and if schools should 'build character and virtue', how should this be done?

"Over the last two decades, many would agree that our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship - 'civic excellence' as we might say. And a good educational system in a healthy society is one that builds character, that builds virtue.”

This was said in the House of Lords by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, following the recall to parliament last week.

The BBC ran a series of lectures by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel during its Justice season earlier this year. The programmes were recordings of his moral and political philosophy course, Justice: A Journey in Moral Reasoning. The course covers a range of political, ethical and moral issues from utilitarianism to surrogate motherhood and military service. Sandel’s classes are not lectures in the traditional sense. He does not stand in front of his packed audience (up to 1000 students at a time) and tell them about philosophers and arguments whilst they take notes. Instead, he facilitates philosophical enquiries, asks questions, and seeks reasons why students think what they think, he links ideas around the room, seeks tension in the dialogue and creates debate so that the participants are engaged in an interactive discussion.

These are lessons in moral reasoning, where the students think about decisions they might make, and then think further about why they might make them, the impact of their decisions on wider society and how this might affect everyone universally. This kind of enquiry can be fertile ground for re-thinking and re-evaluating students preconceived and sometimes knee-jerk reactions to moral dilemmas. It enables people to ‘practice’ moral decision making in a safe environment.

Why would lessons in moral reasoning be better than, for instance, learning about ethics, or considering different religions or lessons in citizenship? The answer perhaps lies in Dr Williams’ comment about the growing instrumenalism of our education system. Too much emphasis has been placed on passing exams, getting the right answer and moving up to the next level or shipping out as quickly as possible. Education is seen as a way to get a job, rather than a way to live in a community or for the sake of the flourishing individual. Utility has become king and as a result teaching seems to be focused on answers rather than on exploring questions; this is not down to teachers alone, but more on the pressure placed upon them to get children to recite the ‘facts’ in order to pass their exams.

Learning moral behaviour as a set of propositional facts to be churned out in exams, may have its role but there are limitations to this approach as stated by Aristotle, some two and a half thousand years ago. He noticed that people who are unrestrained in their actions (they act immorally or have a ‘weakness of the will’) resemble those asleep, drunk or mad. They may be able to reel off the moral verses of Empedocles yet they do not know what they mean, and therefore fail to act upon Empedocles' advice. They are like an actor speaking a part who does not have any understanding of the words spoken. Knowledge and moral behaviour takes time, Aristotle says, for it "to become part of the tissue of the mind".

In the classroom if you ask young children how they should behave they will generally respond with lists of moral behaviour taught to them by the school: ‘listen to each other, respect each other, don’t laugh at people’ and so on. But they do not necessarily act upon these well rehearsed lines. Though children tell teachers and parents what they want to hear they often act upon another set of principles. These principles are ‘operational beliefs’; the beliefs they implicitly hold and act upon, in contrast to ‘received beliefs’ which are those received from parents, teachers and society (and to be found on any classroom wall as ‘School Rules’).

It could be that moral education should begin in a received belief way, something Aristotle may assent to, but there is a point at which one must move beyond this so that the value of the good behaviour is recognised as such. The question then is how do we help children make the journey from received to operational beliefs? How do we make good, virtuous behaviour, part of what Aristotle called 'the tissue of the mind', so that good behaviour is internalised or naturalised? So that virtuous behaviour is part of what one is disposed to do rather than merely a list of principles on which one should act but doesn’t?

This is where moral reasoning as philosophical enquiry could help. By engaging students in a moral dialogue they have to think about why it is good to do one thing over another. They have to go beyond their immediate wants and consider other peoples opinions, beliefs and feelings, then take it further and apply these thoughts universally. Moral reasoning and enquiry are not just an exercise in rational thought, in premises and conclusions, but an engagement with the topic under debate, others in the room, and society at large; a way to listen to others and to creatively rethink and reflect upon our own thoughts and beliefs.

It is reflection that is perhaps crucial in moral development. It is by reflecting on our actions and thoughts and relating these to others and the wider world that we can consider whether what we do is right, or wrong.


Emma Worley is co-founder of educational charity The Philosophy Foundation. For more on philosophical enquiry see 'The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom' available from the Philosophy Foundation.

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