The current climate in so-called mainstream education, both private and government controlled, indicates that it has reached a kind of impasse. It would require a good deal of time and space to make a thorough and accurate diagnosis of the situation and its contributing factors. One thing that seems to stand out is the gap existing between, on the one hand, the educational aim of providing people with the necessary knowledge and skills to earn a livelihood and, on the other, the purpose of bringing about essentially ethical human beings. It is as though the more technically sophisticated we become, the more our barbarian impulses come to the fore! The violence currently rampant among the young is a clear instance of this phenomenal danger. As the gap widens, such a social structure becomes untenable and must eventually collapse. If we take culture to mean the shared meanings that glue together the functional organism of society, then the current situation implies that education is no longer able to provide such a cultural foundation. And this is precisely what most worries and frustrates educators everywhere. In this article I would like to reflect on some of the meanings and implications of the ethical or moral dimension in education.
Ethics has been one of the central concerns of both philosophy and religion, two areas of human endeavour that are increasingly displaced by the preoccupation with seemingly more‘practical’ aspects of existence. Nonetheless, the need for ethics at all levels is generally recognised and it is still present in the educational context, both as a general aim as well as an academic subject. The latter is often presented in the form of a choice between the study of religion, usually the prevalent one in the given country, and ethics, which is taken as its secular counterpart. However, the impact of this academic approach seems to be minimal, as the collective impetus of peoples and governments are leading in quite a different direction, both conceptually as well as in the actuality of daily life.
The meanings of words often throw light on their significance and on the values that tacitly or explicitly inform our lives and guide our actions. The word ‘ethics’ is defined as the science of morals. Its root meaning is ‘character’ or‘manners’. ‘Moral’ is the Latin word corresponding to the Greek‘ethic’ and it means ‘custom’. The English language retains thissense in the word ‘mores’, which is also manners and character. So these words point to the quality of a person’s character, and more particularly to where human actions fall in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and so on. So an ethical education has come to mean an education aimed at building the right quality of character. ‘Character’, in turn, means a ‘mark made by engraving’, a ‘sign’. And this is what education has long tried to do in order to bring about ethical human beings, namely to engrave into people a set of values and attitudes, customs and dispositions, that are considered consistent with and conducive to right action. Though this may have brought about improvement of a kind, from what we see of human life around us, it would appear that generally it hasn’t been able to address the root of our problems.
One thing to be examined here is whether the moral systems being taught are themselves riddled with contradictions. One may even question whether morality can ever be a matter of just following a system, however enlightened. And therefore one must also ask whether morality can be taught in the same way as science and literature, whether it can be treated as just a matter of creating good habits? Can it be transmitted at all, or is it born of individual discovery?
It does not take much investigating to see that the morality being propounded by society, though seemingly sound in principle, is often self-contradictory. On the one hand one is taught to be generous, kind and considerate and on the other social norms seem to justify the pursuit (and defence) of selfinterest, with its aims of satisfaction, security and success. The inevitable result is to breed greed, acquisitiveness and aggressive action. Every religion preaches the gospel of love and peace, while it finds it strangely consistent with blessing the ideals of nationalism. The spirit of solidarity and cooperation that is much encouraged, is constantly at odds with the forces of rivalry and exploitation. Competition, whose validity goes unquestioned in the market place, yet causes havoc in human relationships. Imitation and conformity, seen as the foundations of collective social behaviour, yet prove to be at the root of the most intractable social evils. So one of the first things to inquire into is this very structure of contrary motivations that has become the play of human existence and which is the basis of the prevalent systems of morality.
‘Where there is division there must be conflict. Where there is fragmentation, there is inevitably the absence of the good.’ Krishnamurti never tired of drawing our attention to these fundamental truths, which reveal the essential hollowness of traditional morality. He represented the fragmentation and conflict implied in this morality by the division between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’, between the fact and its opposite, for example, the fact of violence in everyday life and the ideal of non-violence that we project for ourselves. Such a projected ideal has no significance in deeply changing our day to day behaviour, and only serves to sustain a sense of duality, of conflict. So in the kind of holisticeducation he proposed, ethics begins with the perception thatthe ideal, the ‘what should be’, is irrelevant. This goes counter toevery accepted system, which is based on precept and example, on matching up to certain standards. True morality then does notmean adopting a collective standard for the sake of security andintegration with the social group, but rather it is a question ofbringing about true individuality. Fundamental to this is stayingwith the facts about oneself, in giving undivided attention to theactual, both inwardly and outwardly. In this sense, ethics isprimarily an individual matter, for it is the individual (which reallymeans the ‘undivided’) who alone can be the source of morality. Then, in any relationship, this can perhaps become the ground ofculture.
Ethical conduct is also synonymous with responsibility. This has been codified into religious and legal systems of dos and don’ts. This would seem to presuppose that all challenges could be knownand the right responses learnt, which then could be organisedlike a treatise on geometry, i.e. deducing the specific propositionsfrom self-evident postulates and principles. In this way ethics, like any other science, could be a matter of the proper applicationof empirically verified or internally consistent knowledge. Everyreligion in the world, and all philosophies worthy of the name, have tried to do exactly this. In spite of its seemingly logical andwell-intentioned nature, this attempt to lay down the necessaryguidelines for right action has not brought about the expectedresults. It is as though, for the most part, what the moral education ofhumanity has succeeded in creating is a veneer of respectability over anenduring selfish background. The knowledge of moral law has itselfbecome incorporated into the structure of fragmentation, withits private, tribal, nationalistic and economic wars. So, althoughknowledge is important at all levels of action, its relevance isvery doubtful when it comes to transforming the barbaric instinctsof humankind. Knowledge is not only intrinsically limited, andtherefore fragmentary, but more importantly, it lacks selfawareness, i.e. knowledge knows not its own nature. In generalthe question of right action has largely been concerned with theapplication of thought and will based on the right content ofknowledge, but it has seldom examined their very structure andmovement. This area of self-knowledge has not been exploredvery deeply and it may be here that the key to ethical action is tobe found.
One wonders to what extent the importance of selfknowledge as the foundation of ethical behaviour is understood in educational institutions. Once I asked the principal of a school what she thought was more important in the education of the students, that they learn mathematics or that they understand the workings of fear. She answered that mathematics was more important because it would have a greater impact on their lives. It seemed to me that this was consistent with the general valuation of the ‘useful’ in terms of ‘making it in life’. The psychological realm, which is considered secondary, is expected to look after itself. It can hardly be a matter of mathematics being more tangible than fear, since mathematics is one of the most abstract of sciences and fear can be readily experienced and felt. Yet it seems that in our overall educational perspective we have come to appreciate the functional benefits of something as subtle as mathematics far more than the tremendous implications of fear. We see, for example, the obvious advantages of engineering but not the violent ends to which it can be put in the service of fear. Anyone who listens to the news has ample evidence of the price we pay daily worldwide for this universal blindness.
So any educational institution that means to educate for an ethical existence has to reverse its values and give due importance to our inner human nature, which is the controlling factor of outer actions and deeds. And this cannot be left to chance or as and when the need arises, because the need has been there since the beginning of time and continues to be the enduring failing of human history. This reversal of emphasis—towards selfknowledge and the discovery of moral action by each individual—may not be all that is needed, but it is certainly a necessary beginning towards a responsible education, an education that is in itself ethical.