Moral Education

The Government's ideas on moral education are worse than misguided.

Theodore Dalrymple

Every British child has three parents: mother, a father and the state. As the first two abrogate their responsibilities so the third assumes them. Unfortunately, the state is a clumsy parent at best, and a cold, unfeeling and cruel one at worst. The Government's proposal - as a quid pro quo for the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which bans the promotion of homosexuality in schools - that teachers should both "inculcate in their pupils the value of marriage" and "encourage them to delay indulgence in sexual activity" is a tacit official recognition that a frighteningly large proportion of British parents are utterly incompetent to bring up their own children. But it is nevertheless difficult to know whether the proposal should evoke laughter or tears: laughter at its sheer absurdity, or tears that we should be ruled by nincompoops who believe it constitutes a solution to the problem. In the first place, it is unlikely that teachers, so many of whom are unpersuaded of the necessity to impart correct grammar and spelling to their pupils, will emerge as convincing moral disciplinarians. Even those with old-fashioned ideas find it difficult enough to get their pupils to sit down and listen: how are they to influence their conduct outside the school gates? Moreover, many of the teachers themselves have descended into the moral morass from which they are now expected, by means of mere homily, to extricate their pupils. Teachers have slid so far down the social scale - or the underclass way of life has ascended so far up it - that their manner of conducting their private life is often indistinguishable from that of their pupils' parents. They themselves have illegitimate children and violent relationships with obviously unsuitable "partners'' (a word they unashamedly use, the words "husband" or "wife" being considered implicitly "judgmental"). Having been consulted by many teachers in such a predicament, I can testify that their awareness of the moral source of their personal miseries is no greater than that of the average single mother in the slums. I can therefore think of few less suitable groups of people than modern teachers to extol the virtues of sexual continence, fidelity and family stability, in any form whatever. Our children might not be able to read properly or do the simplest arithmetic, but they are still able to sniff out hypocrisy with the greatest acuity. Even if our teachers were themselves models of bourgeois propriety, the proposal that they should impart moral values by preaching them would be absurd. Precept plays but a minor part in the moral education of children: example and experience of life are far more important. Canute had a better chance of turning back the waves than teachers of reducing illegitimacy and teenage pregnancy by means of secular sermonising. Our rulers appear to have no knowledge of human beings in general or of modern Britons in particular. Seventy per cent of the children born in the hospital in which I work are illegitimate (which is, after all, only twice the national average). If it were not for the presence in the area of an Indian immigrant population, there would he practically no legitimate births at all. Marriage isn't struggling in the slums of England: it was dead and buried a long time ago, and will hardly be resurrected by pedagogic exhortation. To ask a mother about her relationship with the father of her child or children is now almost an indelicate question. Quite often the answer to the inquiry "Who is the child's father?'' is simply "No". This flat negative means that the mother wishes to have nothing further to do with him. The idea that a father has an inescapable moral duty towards his offspring, or that a potential mother should consider the likelihood that the father of her child will prove a good parent, is about as commonly encountered in modern Britain as avowed atheism in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, I very rarely meet a male patient in his twenties who has not fathered and abandoned at least one child. He doesn't abandon his children with a good or a bad conscience: he simply gives the matter no thought at all. He thinks only of what is financially advantageous to him at the time, and of what course of action will give him the greatest freedom to pursue his degraded entertainments. To tell him that to abandon his children is bad for them is like telling a hurricane that it is bad for houses. As for adolescents in the slums, they rarely have any more than passing acquaintance with their biological fathers. Quite often they have not met them since they were infants, or do not even know who they are. By far the most common relationship with a father, where there still is one, is implacable hatred. Such is also the relationship with the succession of stepfathers with whom the adolescents have usually been presented throughout their youth. This method of bringing children into the world and of raising them is now an established way of life. It is as established as is car thieving, burglary and heroin injecting on many council estates. Should teachers be obliged to tell their pupils that stealing cars and burglary are wrong, because owners will be upset at the loss of their property? Would anyone expect the rate of car theft and housebreaking to go down as a result? I meet hundreds of young people who take heroin, and not one of them did not know of the dangers involved at the time of first taking it. Just as ignorance is rarely an explanation of misconduct, so knowledge is rarely its remedy. Teenage pregnancy, be it remembered, was much less frequent before the advent of sex education. Even the most responsible and intelligent parents have difficulty in neutralising the effect of the highly sexualised culture by which children are surrounded nowadays. Teachers cannot be expected to do what parents find impossible. Publications directed at 12-year- olds concern themselves almost exclusively with sex, doctors are enjoined to provide contraception confidentially to mere children, and television, films and advertising posters impart a vision of the world in which sex is not merely important, but all important. It is small wonder that children think that once they know about the function of a penis, they know about life. The attempt to influence behaviour by changing attitudes is notoriously difficult. Despite all the effort and expense that have gone into promoting the equality of homosexuals, the fact remains that the lot of a working-class homosexual is a thoroughly wretched one, largely because he is so likely to be the object of physical intimidation and attack: violence that, like the vast majority of violence in the slums (about which I hear every day of my working life), is likely to be carried out with complete impunity. What the working-class homosexual needs, therefore, is not sermons in schools but safety as he goes about his daily life. It is the inescapable responsibility of the Government to provide this safety: but to ensure it, the Government would have to tackle the malevolent inertia of the police, the utter incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service and the callous leniency of the courts. This would take courage, which is the one characteristic we cannot expect of our political class. Even if the Government were sincere, its plans to inculcate better values in children would fail. But of course it is not sincere: it is engaged upon nothing more than a giant advertising campaign, designed to please everyone, and to make itself feel good. That is why teachers will be enjoined to emphasise the importance not just of marriage, in the Prayer Book sense of the term, but of "stable relationships". The use of this weaselly expression is nothing but an attempt to deflect accusations of moralising and to take back with one hand what has just been granted with other: for in the slums, a relationship lasting six months is now regarded as stable. Moreover, a harem, polygamy or polyandry can perfectly well be stable. Last week I was consulted by a patient whose common law husband had broken her jaw, both her arms, her ribs, her fingers and her skull over the past 10 years and had half-strangled her time out of number, to say nothing of the black eyes she had received from his fist. She was, however, in a perfectly stable relationship. It is not a coincidence that the British population is both the worst educated in Europe and has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy. Teachers would be much better employed, therefore, in their traditional duties than as moral indoctrinators acting on the fickle instructions of the Government. As for the Government itself, it would do more for children by giving large tax advantages to married couples, and withdrawing them from others, than by indulging in patently insincere moralising. Archbishop Blunkett will convince no one: but taxman Brown has an opportunity to do so in his Budget on Tuesday.

My comment :Whilst I essentially agree with Mr Dalrymple's idea that teachers should teach and not moralise,and that those that rule us are moralising nincompoops imposing their own value system upon people about whom they have little comprehension,I doubt that giving tax incentives will induce people to marriage. Nor should it.Marriage is an outdated institution,and whilst most thoughtful people are perhaps dismayed at the disregard of children by their fathers/mothers or "partners", the idea that victorian values or nuclear families or orthodox christian virtues are somehow a remedy is farcical.I've often been given the idea that the solution to the problems of today is to go back to traditional ways that are implicitly moral and virtuous by being god-given.To this I say that any ideas that stem from God are implicitly farcical and useless. Since teachers have the remit to teach and moral virtue or good decision making depends on ideas about culture and society,I think children should be schooled in philosophy.Alain de Botton made a very good case on Ch4 in "The Philosophy of Happiness" that the great philosophers have taught us a great deal of things in regard to how to solve modern problems.What we simply cannot have is knee-jerk hyper emotional and quick fix solutions like public order offences to essentially get kids off the streets. If you wish to fix crime and morality hit it at the core of the problem - develop a plan of what your society is for and what it is trying to attain,so we don't have whingers carping about lost money on space exploration,give people the means and opportunity to be involved and tell them why they are involved,and hopefully we'll get rid of New Age hokum and mystical BS which plagues modern society.Teach the children what their role is in society and what is expected of them and what they'll get in return,why they should participate and that money is not the only source of benefit as a reward.Materialism has destroyed people's capacity to realise that life has more rewards than goods and finances.I agree that society is over saturated in sexual imagery,and whilst this indicates we're perhaps less hung-up about it,the idea put forward by some,that it has no downside is completely misinformed. Being obsessed with one's sexual nature or indeed someone else's is like analysing one's own excretia. It's like looking fascinated at your own belly-button hoping to glean some deep truth.Yes sex is liberated from the puritanical prudes,but we still censor,and we censor hypocritically.We expect standards, but do not set up good role models.Whilst I always take issue with the sanctimonious ramblings of the religious,I do agree that relationships are about love, compassion and a whole host of other things that they inarticulately express as "good values" or as things that are overlooked by today's society. Mary Whitehouse and the Washington wives' type morality has no place in a modern society,but neither do we wish to become a caligula-like den of iniquity or the equivalent of Sodom and Gomhorra. Note that homosexuality (at least for some) has become a valid sexuality and prior to now was judged as being as perverse as paedophilia.We might ask how long it is before paedophilia is accepted as normal upon the same basis,and all the current furore will look like the ill-considered ramblings of bigots,as we look back with hindsight at the Marquess of Queensbury and wonder at how he attacked Oscar Wilde. Unless we actually make our minds up where the line is and stop pussyfooting about with liberal PC values,and allowing criminals to go unpunished and victims to be less serviced by the law than their persecutors,we can expect a continued decline of behaviour. Those that say "It's my body,if I wish to lap dance and make money that's my choice" should be made to understand that they have a responsibility to society and that being so selfish and materialistic they help to create the nastiness that ends in rape,prostitution,and the ever increasing tendency to accommodate lower standards of morality on the TV and in the media. No there is nothing wrong with the human form,but by the same token there is no need to parade it about lasciviously for drooling low forheaded sex starved saddies to masturbate to.Let's not be hypocritical - I accept that theoretically we'd all fall for this sort of thing if we let down our intellectual defences and followed only our base urges.But that is precisely what is wrong. No one is prepared to take issue with acting purely upon base instincts,primal urges,and sheer gratification,to quote Sue Greenfield "The Future could be too much fun". The exact process (contrary to what Sue articulates these days) that stops us from becoming raging rapists is the capacity to exercise some control and constraint over our base fantasies.Can we learn nothing from the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? When will we devolve into the kind of dystopias envisioned by Verhoven and his fellow film makers? Liverpool is already taking up automatic weapons and donning Kevlar to deal with crime,and the nincompoops who can't even add up are telling us what our crime figures are,and lecturing us on morality,and about our illiteracy and innumeracy whilst being just as bad themselves.People in glass houses...
Moreover their farcical imposition of their own values of what is "wrong" and "right" makes a mockery of hundreds of years of philosophy.If you broadcast images of sex, money and death to people,how do you think they will act? Education will only help if the ideas are presented as to how to think about morality and society,philosophy is notably missing from the lower school curriculum. It maybe that teachers purely as human beings stand as role models for notions about society and about setting standards of decorum,in this they have as much onus as any other adult in society to indicate what is acceptable and what not. Don't forget that teenagers are notoriously anti - authoritarian and rightly so,we MUST have contrarianism, and progress only happens when staid rules are overturned. We should exploit this brashness,not subdue it with munitions.Teenage angst and frustration comes from being misunderstood and frustrated at not being heard.One has ideas,that are not taken seriously because like as not they are naive,but they are overlooked by pompous adults who think they know better -"You're elders are your betters" they say - what cack,what rubbish. What I hear from old people is bringing back whips, keeping imperial measure,censoring sex,ie control, control, control - especially youth (Perhaps they should be taught philosophy too). The young need to be free to try out new things and experiment,but with adult aid to avoid dangers.One very good idea I heard only last night was "mentors"-adults who volunteer to help those at the fringes of society who feel dispossessed or malcontent,I'm sure some of them are philosophers or are a solution requiring application. One thing's for sure,branding all youth criminals and being wary of them only forges the fear that causes people to lock up their houses and resort to keeping shotguns under their pillows. In order to forge trust the age groups should mingle.Older citizens could be involved in school projects and perhaps find a new lease of life,rather as Jessica Tandy did in "Cocoon".I know it's all a bit "Waltons" and a bit sickly sweet,but surely it's better than being knifed from behind in a dark alley? No realistic person wants children turned into the dead zone that Ned Flanders offspring occupy,and Bart is a "contrarian" but also a lawbreaker and a vandal. I'd rather be a Simpson than a Flanders! The rather sanctimonious approach of the authorities,prejudges and assumes that they have the right to decide what to do with youths.How about empowering youths,and giving them credit? What about their rights to decide how their society develops,a teenage forum perhaps,which affects government policy? In programmes I've heard teenagers (and children) make a good deal more sense than their elders ("betters").I'm not naive enough to think we can just dispense with old ways,but as the OU pointed out,our buildings represent how antiquated we are.The House of Commons is a palace surrounded by fences,and the common person enters by a common person's gateway,as if we're supposed to be kept out.And open and honest society is less likely to be keeping secrets,and less likely to be subject to manipulation and fraud.I'm frustrated enough,myself and getting nincompoops who affect my life to change their policies.I can vote.Youths cannot.Their voice is a silent scream. Similarly those who are ill-able to exercise power,the poor and the dispossessed will obviously turn their hand to anything to survive (some people even in those circumstances do not steal by default,and are still principled). I stand by Thomas More's assertions in "Utopia",one should not hang a man for stealing or poaching,if you have in other ways done more harm to him by buying up land or taking away the source of his food. Margaret Thatcher acted in the equivalent way to Prince John and her chancellor the Sheriff of Nottingham - if someone acts like Robin Hood,it's only to be expected, given a despotic ruler with no concern other than for those who help themselves.The whole point of a state system,is that it is there to help those who CANNOT help themselves,usually through no fault of their own.I tire easily of the "Get a job" mentality articulated (Especially in the US talk shows) as if the only valid contribution one can make to society is financial. These are noxious material values hyped by our politicians (nincompoops) who cannot see any further than GNP and national deficits and world banks. They talk about nothing but statistics and numbers whilst being unable to calculate crime figures,and think they can solve social ills by messing with financial figures. I have news - some things are nothing to do with money and finances,and one can get rewards and contribute without making money.It's stupid when we all wish we could live without working,to urge others to work because that is the only mechanism that one can see as a valid social contribution. If work is so fantastic,why do so many pay £1 or more for National Lottery tickets? (To the governments shame,the Lottery continues to take advantage of people's ignorance of numbers,and is a hypocritical wart on its policies if it then tries to educate people in mathematics.The best educational step would be to point out why the Lottery is one big con,but no government is principled enough to relinquish the Lottery as it is a good source of income.)
If we wish to instill a moral framework in the next generation it is incumbent up us to set the example.If you don't like something in society,hassle your MP,contribute to forums,make your voice heard,subject it to the review of your peers,and hopefully derive some humility and have enough of it to realise that you may be wrong,and have to alter your views accordingly. Birching the young does not work. I was caned,and all it did was make me resent authority and the silly semi-religious views of the headmaster.Any respect I gained was through any positive action given in attending to my development, listening, good humour and providing positive experiences. Authoritarianism is retrogressive. Do you wish to see tanks and armed militia on your streets? Do you want Robocop firing magnum force munitions at bazooka wielding criminals? (The US and Irish might say it's way too late).And you can watch it all on TV,how thrilling,how sad,how delinquent.And we wonder why we have 12 year old thieves.Garbage in,garbage out. I'm not one to believe in spirits,but I'm sympathetic to the orthodox Christian view that the "spirit" needs to be nurtured. That a "mind" needs food as much as a body (negating the Cartesian dualism).We don't need drugs to experience life close up,nor do we need "alternative" schemes that emphasise "perceptions",we need to get real,and be responsible and own up to our own mistakes,and actually make hard decisions,and stop coming up with makeshift BS like public order offences to deal with child crime.Don't smack them, understand them,reinforce positive role models,and if laws are STILL being breached,THEN involve the punitive institutions,and make sure that the punishment fits the crime,but don't forget not to deteriorate into the same gutter as the offender -LB





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Telegraph March 19,2000 File Info: Created 7/7/2000 Updated 23/2/2002 Page Address: