What sort of world do we want for our children?
- An introduction to a New Framework
“Strange that the qualities we value in friends--thoughtfulness, sympathy, intelligence, a sense of humor, fair-mindedness, civility - seem hardly to matter in contemporary politics. & children are supposed not to cheat, steal, plagiarize. How to explain such profound dissonance?” Joyce Carol Oates
‘And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.’ – Margaret Thatcher Interview 23 September 1987
Recently a story that has been doing the rounds in social media of three men who left a restaurant without paying. A few days later the restaurant owners received a letter containing the money due and a little extra with an explanation that they had left to find an ATM machine and then realised the last train was about to leave so were unable to do so.
What is remarkable about this story is that it is ‘remarkable,’ as if such behaviours, such actions, don’t fit with what we now perceive to be normal. As such it highlights the place where society is at, that when ethical behaviour occurs, it is seen as extraordinary.
When looking at writing a new framework for education, it is evident that this is a good place to start, not with content, but with values and behaviours. Change, when it happens, needs to start with the foundations rather than merely adding to or reconfiguring an already bloated curriculum which has been ravaged by educational change for a decade or more. We need, instead, to start from a new vantage point altogether, to establish a philosophy which includes and embeds different attitudes and behaviours, one that puts ethics at the core of our learning and teaching. Some of this process will be in making schools and the curriculum more relevant, accessible and open-ended; the greater challenge, however, is persuading society of the importance of seeing education as a part of the whole, a continuum that involves everyone for their life-times, and grounded in the very ethics and behaviours we want our children to grow up with and our society to reflect.
The absence of any ethical framework, and the dearth of societal values, is evident in every walk of life. We can pick any profession: law, accountancy, the pharmaceutical industry, industrial farming, property development, sport, the Church - the list is almost as long as is the list of jobs. Stripped down, we don’t take long to find examples of worker exploitation, cost fixing, drug taking, sexual abuse or putting profit above people by ‘using’ tax loopholes. There is no moral imperative at work. We saw it when the boil was exposed (if not properly lanced), with the behaviour of politicians, bankers, fund managers and venture capitalists, whose criminal actions and self-interest were exposed through the expenses scandal and the banking crisis. The fact that so few were held to account merely reinforces the impression that we are living in an ethical wild west, a view that hasn’t changed since. Recently, the founder of the SLC group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, Nigel Oakes called for more regulation admitting that he operated for years ‘without much of an ethical radar’, before going on to defend his decision by saying ‘It’s above my pay scale to decide the ethics of this.’ Not so. Ethics are beyond the weight of the purse and should apply to all of us at every level of society.
But the faultlines go much deeper than this. The behaviour of the big four accountancy firms who earlier this year were accused by MPs of “feasting on what was soon to become a carcass” as it emerged they banked £72m for work linked to collapsed government contractor Carillion in the years leading up to its financial failure highlight the rotten underbelly in which everything was alright as long as it turned a profit. One time-tested way of doing so is to strip and ravage the environment and natural resources, preferably off-shore, by over-fishing, by the ruthless destruction of forests for palm oil industry to shore up UK pension funds, by dumping of waste, the proliferation of off-shore tax havens and an unelected House, many of whose members pocket their daily expenses and contribute nothing. When Artemis, (self-titled as The Profit Hunters) boasted that their ‘global hunters’ spend their lives carving through the atlas for opportunities for profit, we need to understand that such companies are the product of our economic model and that any subsiduary interests or concerns, environmental or moral, are subsumed by the goal to maximize profits.
Self-interest rules and it can come as no surprise then if you ask children what they want to be when they grow up that the most popular answer is rich and famous for that is the model they see every day. And where are ethics in all of this? Worse, where is it leading us?
We need, somehow, to move the Titanic. The obsession of governments with GDP as a measure of economic well-being is deeply flawed as is well-known, measuring both good and bad economic activity, from farming to drugs and gun running, but taking no account of voluntary work or raising a family, implicitly favouring quantity over quality and having no truck with such green-tinged schemes as recycling. Having a philosophy that relies on endless growth with no ethical boundaries continue to undo us unless we educate the next generation about sustainability and the ethical use of our planet and each other. Simon Kuznets, Nobel Prize winner who developed the measure before the war, had quite different aspirations, intending GDP to measure economic welfare and well-being, (but being ignored in the post-war US-UK plans), mitigating against the unequal distribution of gains and ensuring we were not growing at the expense of our environment.
With the spread of fake news, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, ethics takes on more importance than ever before.
The need to be able to make decisions that are not rooted in economic or personal self-interest are compelling. Waste, such as the amount of foodstuffs thrown out by supermarkets (over 200 000 tonnes each year) is simply unacceptable on a planet with so much poverty. Recently, the big food chains have made an effort to reduce waste, increase donations of food to foodbanks and cooperatives by building up partnerships with local charities, but it is the tip of an iceberg that is founded on waste and obsolescence. Nor should we excuse the fashion label, Burberry who destroyed more than £28m worth of its fashion and cosmetic products over the past year to guard against counterfeiting. No waste is acceptable and even planned obsolesence, deemed good for economic activity, is short-sighted and harmful. We simply cannot afford to treat our planet and our society in this way any longer or allow government, acting in our name, to behave unethically (selling our waste to Thailand, investing in dodgy enrionmental areas, importing teachers, doctors, nurses and selling arms to Saudi Arabia which are then used to bomb civilians in the Yemen are current examples).
We need to keep asking the question: what are our ethics and are we, and those who represent us, acting in accordance with the principles we believe in?
Nor is education ‘clean.’ Sharp practice in school recruitment, using overseas students as cash cows, setting up campuses abroad, to bring money back to the UK (neo-colonialism at work?), stopping students moving into the 6th form or from sitting exams for fear that they will negatively affect league tables results, (more than 20% of teachers were aware of ‘off-rolling’ in schools they had taught in), are all unethical practices that are not uncommon in schools. Plagarism is at a level where schools routinely now feel compelled to purchase software to identify it; while cheating, by students and teachers, has risen fuelled by the drip-down pressure of league tables. Essay mills, a business reputed to earn billions of pounds worldwide has resulted in some 50,000 students being caught cheating in the last three years alone while in the last year, exclusions have increased by about 15% and now number around 40 per day. The recent de-valuing of academic places even raises the question as to whether it is be ‘ethical’ to keep students on who will perform significantly below the level of their conditional offers, but will get places due to the rapacity of universities fighting for survival (and who themselves may be acting unethically?) For that matter, we should ask just how ethical is selection which takes so little account of readiness and produces winners and losers with all the consequent baggage and dulled expectations? It should concern us, all of it. For when schools lose their moral compass and their understanding of what schools are for, then we are in a moral mire.
But the problem is even deeper than that. It is embedded in selfies, in the narcissism and insecurity they engender, in selfishness and loneliness, in the closing down of communities, the loss of collegiality, the disintegration of a society that prizes acquisition above welfare, of the yawning gap between haves and have-nots and gaping social and educational inequality. The reasons are manifold, and any list of reasons would offer the breakup of the traditional nuclear family and the void left by the disappearing systems of social cohesion that included the church and the extended family. The gap is implicit in the debate between the self-esteem and self-respect, between self-awareness and empathy, between self and community. Too often we are left with a society that is focused on looking after yourself and taking what you can get away with, with self-interest and avarice its drivers.
A wee bit colourful? Perhaps. But if we are to change society, and to equip the next generation to make the ethical decisions that will be required of us on technology and environmental issues and to counter the atomisation of society through social media, rising incidences of loneliness and an epidemic of mental health, we need to act. And where better than at the very start of our education system?
So how to change? How do we try to instil the importance of making good ethical decisions from a young age. How do we make children think of themselves as part of a whole? How do we embed kindness and empathy, appropiate behaviours, manners and attitudes conducive to making good citizens?
How do we move away from measurement to the immeasurable? We could start by delaying collecting the data to put children into boxes, respect readiness and hold back formal learning until they have an appetite for it and see it as a joy and a privilege rather than an entitlement and an unwelcome one at that. The answers start with early education and developing the right attitudes to learning, about placing children in a larger community and by encouraging them to look outwards, not inwards and by teaching them to understand and look after their environment and those who inhabit it, human, animal and plant.
Later, we should re-visit subjects such as history to stop navel gazing and get our children to look outwards as a nation that has had a large footprint in the world and needs to live up to it. Or economics where we should be making changes to incorporate the doughnut of planetary boundaries, to look at environmental impact, to address such pressing problems like the 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated from our leading supermarkets each year by putting environmental considerations and sustainability to the fore – no easy task when big business and government is determined to marginalise green issues as just an impediment to economic growth and the endless pursuit of an ever higher GDP. It is teaching children to think ethically, to make decisions based on values and to change behaviours and attitudes – that is the challenge.
We need to teach the ethics of career choices that are not predicated on power and money and give reward to those who perform the more difficult, mundane and useful jobs in our society such as nurses and carers. We need a paradigm shift to understand that society and communities and countries only work well if there is some common ethos. At present, we are bitterly divided and rootless; the time is to take heed of the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in.
All of which is a long winded way of saying that we need to change our schools and our curriculum at their foundations, to engage with children in a way that is going to make them think and act more responsibly. After all, if we don’t teach children to think differently and act ethically, heaven help us - because the earth will no longer be able to sustain us.
‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all .....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ – John Donne Meditation XVII