Moral Education and Character Building

If we don’t wake up now we will perhaps lose a God-sent opportunity to pull back our young from the brink of a civic catastrophe – a scenario of living in a dysfunctional society at odds with itself and nature

By Arvind Saxena

“To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society”
— Theodore Roosevelt

The world is struggling with a once-in-a-century health crisis which has shown up the many weaknesses in the economic, social, health and education models we have adopted over the last half a century.  Economic disparity, environmental degradation, crumbling health, education and social security systems all point to the failure of our socio-economic development models.  Even the choice of democratic forms of governance is in question with democratic societies coming to realise that the institutions which were meant to act as conduits, as well as a bulwark, between them and their elected representatives have been gradually subverted.  The masses have lost their voice and global neoliberal; social Darwinist interests have commandeered all power and control.  Crony capitalism has replaced laissez faire and free market transparency.  As they knowingly, or unknowingly, subscribe to the pull of global capital, people in power fail to realise that nature abhors disequilibrium and the massive disparities in the lives of the few and the masses can not last forever.  Unprecedented crisis loom if corrective steps are not taken and power is restored to the masses.

Let us remember, however, that massive crisis which challenge the status quo also offer opportunities for taking tough decisions to undo the damage and find new solutions for a better tomorrow.  Just like New York built its underground infrastructure of power and transit following the massive blizzard in 1888, visionary city leaders in London invested in an extensive public health engineering framework following the massive outbreak of Cholera in 1832, and the 1871 great fire in Chicago saw the construction of many skyscrapers, the COVID pandemic should be seen as an opportunity to accept our failures and set our models right.  As mentioned earlier, this crisis has exposed and highlighted the many problems in practically all sectors of human existence.

In this series of three articles I will talk about the falling standards of education and why we should review our policies on moral education in this critical field.        

Many studies have established that moral education and character building are not only necessary for a stable and constructive social order; they are also positively co-related to scholastic achievements.  During the last quarter of the twentieth century, as schools neglected the moral dimension of schooling three things happened: achievement levels started coming down, discipline declined and behavioural problems increased.  Students started shying away from the rigours of studying science and mathematics.  We saw a decline in the quality of the study of fine arts and social sciences.  Students started taking the easy option of studying management, software development, computer coding and developing Apps; which further disrupted traditional work models, which had social security and basic human rights considerations built into them.  

Inculcation of discipline, telling the truth, being sensitive to the feelings of classmates, respect for teachers, engaging in debates without grudging the contrary view, developing team spirit, graciously conceding defeat on the sports field, respecting the rules and code of conduct, cheering for the success of others have been an integral part of school life.  Hard work, a sense of purpose, giving back to society, caring for the underprivileged and a scientific spirit of enquiry, which are part of moral education, build character and lay the foundation for a strong society. 

Unfortunately, in our quest to keep school curriculum free from religious beliefs and mores, moral education got relegated to an ancillary status.   Yet, all schools do provide a modicum of moral guidelines. Teachers do insist on honesty and school sports teachers still emphasise that athletics should be seen through the lens of sportsmanship and team spirit, rather than winning and losing.  Students learn that their efforts and difficulties, their successes and disappointments are all part of a larger process of growing up.  Schools can provide the uplifting experience of extending an ‘undocumented’ helping hand to a needy person.  I have seen teachers apologize to a child – saying “I’m sorry”.  For a child who has never seen this at home, the purifying experience of seeking forgiveness and recognizing that we all make mistakes soon becomes apparent.  Interacting with teachers and peers teaches them compassion, sharing, choosing kind words when it would be easier to shout, and speaking up for the marginalized populations.  Is anyone teaching them all this?

School experience, in one form or another, also includes study of narrative tales and epic stories which carry moral lessons.  They convey to the young minds vivid images of the kind of people our culture admires and wants them to emulate.  They also show them how lives can be wasted or worse, how people can betray themselves and their communities.  Lives of leading activists and legends , who showed strength of character to fight against wrong and champion the right causes to bring revolutionary changes, serve as role models that the youth can follow and look up to. A school’s rituals, traditions, rules and procedures have an impact on the students’ sense of what is right and wrong and what is desired and undesired behaviour.  Community service in some schools gives their students opportunities, guidance and practice at being useful citizens.  From keeping their class rooms clean, to devoting time at blind schools, hospitals or day care centres, or even walking for a cause,  students do not just develop empathy with different types of people; they learn skills of problem solving, conflict resolution and innovation – which could eventually help in their professional placements.  

The point is, are schools playing this role with the conviction and determination required to mould young minds who can build a stable society?  Can we use the Corona crisis to look afresh at the significance of moral education and character building in our schools and colleges?  Our actions and investment in the moral and ethical education of students will pay rich dividends for the world because we will create much more than knowledge; we will arm our young with the power of goodness and kindness.  Frankly, if we don’t wake up now we will perhaps lose a God-sent opportunity to pull back our young from the brink of a civic catastrophe – a scenario of living in a dysfunctional society at odds with itself and nature.  

This is the first 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 25 June 2021

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