‘Honesty is the Best Policy’ – But What about Success?

Moral Education and Character Building

 What moral values can we teach if the definition of success itself has gone horribly wrong?

By Arvind Saxena

  “Be the change that you want to see in the world”
— Mahatma Gandhi

Having discussed the need for moral education, we must deal with the most difficult question parents have to contend with. There are genuine concerns that their children, reared on idealistic lines, will be misfits in the real world. There are also misgivings that moral value systems are pushed by the rich and powerful to restrain the masses, even while they themselves unabashedly flout the same and flaunt their ‘successful’ lifestyles.

Why shouldn’t all parents want their children to be successful? How long can we expect our young to ignore the audacious, ‘in your face’, amoral value system of the most prosperous people around us? Why should we give a value system to our children which run contrary to the prevailing ‘aspirational’ moral framework of our most celebrated ‘achievers’?

If the billionaire former President of the most powerful nation on earth could boast that he paid no taxes because he is ‘smart’ or people get rich by stealing data, spreading fake news and creating artificial needs, then telling our children this is wrong is bound to be difficult. How can we ignore what we see around us: that you can get ahead of others by lying and cheating; by flagrantly subverting the system and destroying institutions; rise to the top by undermining competition, cornering resources and unashamedly corrupting institutions; become rich by selling foods that cause malnutrition and organ damage, by pushing drugs whose efficacy and fatal consequences are wilfully concealed, by setting up industry which causes ecological damage and destruction of biodiversity, by fudging accounts and reports to distort reality and rob the people; or creating fake intelligence to divide people, provoke hatred and wage wars? What moral values can we teach if the definition of success itself has gone horribly wrong?

These questions will have to be addressed for otherwise we will be building a moral edifice which stands on wishful thinking. Success can be redefined but if the levers of education and information are in the hands of the same people, who have climbed up the ladder of success through cheating and lying, it is going to be difficult.

This is where the sensibility of the educated middle class comes in. They will have to reassert their role as conscience keepers – as a group they are least covetous and having been shielded from deprivation and dispossession bear less grudge against others. Though this group is struggling with a growing number of their brethren aspiring for the lifestyles of the nouveau riche, there are still a large number of clear-headed people around.

The values drawn from thousands of years of human existence, as brought out in folklore and written in epics across the world cannot be wrong. It is the false value systems propagated over the last couple of hundred years, more so the last fifty years, which are wrong. Look around to see the poverty, deprivation, devastation of nature, war and strife and there should be no doubt that a false narrative of success is destroying humanity.

One way to challenge this false definition of success is for all of us to realise that howsoever powerful the rich and mighty be, ultimately it is nature and its power which determines the course of history. The human race can survive and prosper only as long as it works in sync with nature. The nature of nature is quite clear. It seeks harmony and equilibrium. Everything moves according to laws and a human life span is an insignificant blip. The megalomania of a few powerful people may appear disastrous – indeed it will cause suffering and pain, but nature will reassert its huge power by causing corrective and constructive destruction.

The old cliché is true – “nature has enough for everyone’s needs but not for their greed”. Nature does not discriminate between people. In our quest for more, as we disturb the ecological balance and interfere with the habitats of the flora and fauna, we will be visited by floods, storms, climate change, famine, pestilence and pandemics. Gandhi said: “We must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty”.

True we have come a long way from the time Gandhi walked this earth; the few drops do seem to look like a sluice valve turned full on. Yet, history is witness that the mightiest of kings, colonisers, rulers, capitalists and power brokers will eventually perish. The power of nature and the cycle of life and death are the only undeniable forces which sustain man. The ocean will destroy the dirt!

The second way is to inculcate a scientific temper in our young. This does not mean that all children have to be taught physics, chemistry or maths. Scientific temper would mean developing a systematic approach to looking at things, asking questions, understanding the concepts of ecology, demanding evidence for fantastic claims, insisting on finding the cause and effect of phenomenon and having the strength and courage to take questions from others.

Let there be no doubt, everyone has the capacity for understanding nature as a whole. There is no right side or left side limit of the mind for science and arts, nor is science more difficult than arts. With good teachers it is easy to explain the basic concepts to every child. Remember, some of the most famous scientists and innovators like Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei and Samuel Morse were also famous for their works of art and music. On the other hand, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is often described as ‘mathematical’ due to its organised symmetry.

I could intuitively even say that worthwhile inventions are not forthcoming in the last sixty to seventy years because our educators created a divide between science education and education in the fine arts. Children should be taught that everything in nature connects to everything else. A global, scientific, innovative and imaginative mind alone can think of solutions for sustainable development and prosperity, not people living in silos.

The correct moral compass has to point in this direction. Let the educated men and women of fine arts, our doctors, scientists, engineers, industrial workers, agriculturists, teachers, academicians, and of course our young students assert their responsibility to take back control over our value systems. We must redefine success. Only those who are inquisitive, respect nature, seek truth and create harmony are successful in nurturing life. Call it a universal faith if you like. It can provide the vision and direction to steer back our country to a more egalitarian and functional social system, which will draw tremendous strength by learning to survive within the laws of nature.

While it may not be easy to change the false narratives immediately, each one of us can create small islands of scientific inquiry, respect for nature and moral excellence, wherever we are – at home or at the workplace. The goodness and wholesomeness will surely radiate from these moral havens, and as the value system and scientific temper permeates our schooling, we can look forward to a new kind of human existence; a ‘civilisational’ change, which the whole world will celebrate and rejoice in – perhaps even replicate!

Can Mauritius take the lead?

This is the third and final part 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 2 July 2021

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