Character Building – What Values Need To Be Taught

Musings

By Arvind Saxena

“Man becomes virtuous by doing virtuous deeds and becomes brave by doing brave deeds”.
— Aristotle

Founders of democracy like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John and Abigail Adams and Benjamin Franklin saw democracy as a moral compact between the people. They were aware that democracy contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction and could degenerate into ‘mobocracy’, with the many preying on the few. They advocated that education had to be given the highest priority for democracy to work. Literature and history were taught to provide examples of high ethical standards and morally uplifting thoughts.

CHARACTER COUNTS – Values are the building blocks of character. Pic – slideplayer.com

Moral values were, however, mostly rooted in religion and the spiritual dimension of human existence. With large scale migration to the US from different countries, with different religious persuasions, philosophers like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche advocated separation of the church from state doctrine. Some educators became proponents of “value free” schooling and moral education took a back seat. It was seen as the province of the family and the church.

The fact, however, is that informal lessons in morality do not compete with numeracy, literacy, career education or health education, and at the same time they are not ancillary to acquisition of knowledge and skills. Informal moral education can permeate all subjects, becoming a part of intellectual development and a wholesome school experience. Remember the ‘school honour code’ and quotes like ‘Honesty is the Best Policy’ inscribed on exercise books, irrespective of the subjects they were used for!

Excessive competition, parental expectations, commercialization of education, negative impact of media, misuse of information technology, globalization, consumerism, etc., are putting immense pressure on children, families and schools leading to distortion of values. Growing up in a consumerist milieu has led to a struggle for intangible goals like reputation, status, and pride; all of which are comparative in nature and therefore cause resentment and anger. In turn, such goals incite unhealthy competition and violence. Moral education, unobtrusively, shows the right and just way to lead our lives. Being honest, just, legitimate, accommodative, generous, to share love and care, show consideration and sensitivity are basic principles of moral education. It is important to educate children to be disciplined, not to cheat in examinations and be shown that there are no shortcuts in life. Life is an examination where there is no syllabus, the only thing that can get them through is a good character and speaking the truth at all times.

Discussion on moral issues should be dialogical, rather than didactic. There should be a degree of reciprocity between students and teachers, a sense of shared vulnerability in the pursuit of an ethical life. Students should be encouraged to make their arguments, offer evidence, show they are listening to others and reading the texts with care. Such dialogue should highlight the inevitability of an ethical life, firing up moral imagination by enabling the student and teacher alike to see the world from one another’s point of view. My views on justice, knowledge, and truth are not “shut up words”. We have to have the virtue of accepting that our truth could also be shown to be faulty.

So who gets to decide what moral values should be taught in our schools. In multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies, parents from different denominations are naturally concerned that moral values delinked from religion, might lead to their children being weaned away from their faith. Any attempt to enforce the majority population’s faith and beliefs would be resented by other sections. As mentioned in the beginning, moral values are qualities which are necessary for harmonious civic living. Enforcing ‘majoritarian’ views will do exactly the opposite. It will create and deepen fissures which can only weaken the social fabric and weaken the country.

The alternative to taking a call on what moral education should be imparted to our young would, however, be tantamount to ‘moral evasion’ – nobody wants that either. So is there a religion-neutral space, a space which can be the bedrock for moral education without shutting out the spirit of enquiry, exploration and challenging the status-quo? Keeping the doors of debate open, can we agree on some qualities of the heart and mind we would want in our children so that they can grow into confident youngsters who can build the nation, indeed the world, into a better place? How about traits like honesty, responsibility, respect for others, compassion, curiosity, self control, critical enquiry, and capacity to be self-critical and diligent, while eliminating habits of laziness and sloppiness. How about imbibing the courage to affirm moral commitments and stand up for them. Can anyone have a problem with these? Yet, howsoever obvious and natural these may seem, prioritising these qualities could carry elements of our own religious beliefs, unique socialisation and upbringing.

Can we try and find some common ground from the critical, even existential, problems facing our nation as a part of the global community? Can we broadly agree that these problems are: growing crime; poor education, health and employment opportunities; mounting disparities in incomes; gender, ethnic, communal and religious chasms; corruption; and degradation of the environment? We could certainly add some more, but these do appear to be our top most concerns. Since these problems have to be minimised, we need to create awareness about them and give our children a set of values which will give them the moral strength to fight these ills and create a more egalitarian and harmonious society – a society in harmony with all other citizens, the global community and nature.

A morally strong population with the strength of character to stand up for the ethical values picked up through a carefully charted school curriculum will be a strong bulwark against Machiavellianism, authoritarianism, human rights abuse and rapacious plunder of natural resources. Once we are agreed on this, the moral values we need to inculcate in our young, and even grownups, emerge – as if by magic!

The time to start building a new and morally strong nation is now.

(This is the second of a three-part series of articles.)

Arvind Saxena is an Indian civil servant and a former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in India.


* Published in print edition on 29 June 2021

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