There is an expectation that school is the setting where young people can learn and practice ethics and values. The reality is that society sets the boundaries of what schools can do. Does society make teaching values and morality through school a fool's errand?
Education Watch, sponsored by the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), examined the question of ethics and values in schools for its 2017 report. It will be formally launched on May 9, in a public event with the presence of Minister of Primary and Mass Education Mostafizur Rahman and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC.
A survey was undertaken of 64 primary and secondary public system institutions in 8 divisions. Responses were also collected with a values survey instrument from 1,400 students, 576 teachers and 1,280 school committee members and parents.
The values survey comprising 47 items asked for agreement, disagreement or no response on nine “domains” of ethics and values. The nine domains are related to personal beliefs; inter-personal relationship; role as members of community, society and nation; role as a member of humanity and a global citizen; building a just and democratic society; protecting environment and the planet; gender values and norms; attitude towards children; and being active and engaged in upholding ethics and values.
Not unexpectedly, it was found that what happens in schools, especially in respect of students' opportunity to learn about and participate in ethics and values education (EVE) is influenced by society and state, often in a negative way.
A didactic and prescriptive approach in pedagogy prevails, telling students what is right or what should be done. The school experience does not create the opportunity in the lessons and in co-curricular activities to use reasoning and thinking about ethical issues and moral conduct. Memorising for tests instead of real learning is a part of this syndrome.
Religion, labelled as “religion and moral teaching” is a compulsory subject taught through separate textbooks for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity to followers of their respective religion.
The contents are essentially religious rituals and scriptures of each religion, which create a sense of separateness and highlights differences among young people. There is no place in the lessons for the universal spiritual and humanistic values, common ethics of all great religions and respect for all religious traditions.
The physical environment, buildings and classrooms, playgrounds and the premises, and co-curricular activities have been found not to meet requirements in two-thirds of schools for children to flourish in academic learning and moral and ethical development.
A recurring theme in the responses was the general degeneration of ethics and values in society, community and family that posed insurmountable obstacles to promoting ethics and values among young people. The larger society, what happens in most families, and what children see around them do not set good examples.
For instance, students, often with the support of their parents and teachers, are engaged in cheating in exams and chasing leaked question papers. Students are compelled to go to private tutors or coaching centres by their teachers.
When asked if teachers can be seen as role model for ethical and moral conduct, three quarters of students did not see this as realistic. Half of the teachers did not see themselves as the role model for their students.
Leon Festinger, the American social psychologist, had come up a half century ago with the theory of “cognitive dissonance”, to explain why people held simultaneously, knowingly or unconsciously, contradictory beliefs and attitudes. Festinger theorised that this was to seek a psychological comfort zone by rationalising opportunistic or immoral conduct.
Values survey revealed several categories of cognitive dissonance among respondents. Eighty-seven percent believed in a “greater purpose” of human existence, but 83 percent saw becoming wealthy and earning fame were the most important objectives in life.
Ninety-one percent agreed that people have multiple identities based on language, ethnicity, geography, religion and other characteristics; at the same time, three quarters believed that religion is the most important identity of a person.
Eighty-five percent respondents—students, teachers and parents—believed that resorting to unfair means to score high marks in examinations is not acceptable, but 49 percent thought “honesty is the best policy” is not practical in society today.
Close to 90 percent respondents believed that social barriers prevented equal performance of girls and boys in life and society, but about 40 percent, of both sexes, believed that “light beating of wives when they disobeyed their husband” was acceptable (primary school students were not asked this question).
Cognitive dissonance is evident on a grand scale in state policy and critical national issues. There is simultaneously the provision of secularism as a fundamental state principle and Islam as a state religion in the national constitution.
Ambivalence continues about the rights and dignity of ethnic and religious minorities. There are contradictions about gender equality, e.g., in the resistance of Bangladesh to withdraw reservations on clauses of the UN convention against all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW), though most Muslim countries have ratified it in full.
In the education sphere, Madrasa enrolment has grown to more than a quarter of students at the secondary level. There is a state supported madrasa stream as well as an independent qawmi system. But there is no clear strategy or national discourse on policy and consequences of the expansion of madrasa education. Cognitive dissonance as a moral and ethical issue is yet to be considered an educational challenge.
In the climate of pessimism, a positive message is the potential role of the teacher, individually and collectively. His/her professional competence, motivation and ethical position can determine what the school can do, even overcoming the barriers imposed by society and state.
The teaching profession today comprises a million members and the number should double in a decade. They touch the lives of millions of young people in the classroom and outside. Even if only one in five teachers is determined, motivated and guided by moral standards in interaction with students and tries to be a role model, it can be the beginning of a revolutionary change.
The implication is that the teacher's role, preparation, performance standards and status in society have to be thought about in a new way. The study makes specific recommendations for a 10-year plan, which may be the subject of another article.
Another message of hope is that young people themselves look upon the future positively and are willing to be engaged in action and stand up for ethics and values in school and in community. The teachers and parents have to find ways to take advantage of young people's idealism.
We cannot fail our young people. Promoting ethics and values through education must not be a fool's errand.
Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at BRAC University, led the study “Ethics and Values in School: Capturing the Spirit of Education.'' He was assisted by a research team from BRAC Institute of Educational Development.