Monday, August 07, 2006

Right and Wrong; Is It All Relative?

I came across this article on the London Times website:

It describes a new set of principles upon which to base the National Curriculum – a guideline for all schools in the UK. Here is an excerpt.

"SCHOOLS would no longer be required to teach children the difference between right and wrong under plans to revise the core aims of the National Curriculum.
Instead, under a new wording that reflects a world of relative rather than absolute values, teachers would be asked to encourage pupils to develop 'secure values and beliefs.'"

Initially I felt appalled! My initial reaction was one of criticism and disdain. After all, have the teeth of relativism sunk so deep into the flesh of our education system? How can we not educate regarding "right and wrong?"

After some thought, I began to realise that as an educator these philosophies are increasingly challenging, in real ways, everyday in the classroom. One can talk, from a Jewish perspective about the value of the Family. But can we talk about it with the same confidence when half our students are from divorced families? In a Western world in which homosexuality is an equal lifestyle choice, can educators assume the same clarity as they had twenty years ago? In an age that is tolerant of all difference, how do we teach the Birkhat Hatorah "who chose us from amongst the nations"? In the Zionist, Diaspora classroom, is Aliya taught as an obligation or an option? I have spoken to colleagues who tell me that in their Modern Orthodox schools they cannot teach about certain Halakhot because the community do not support those standards.

On second thinking, the British education system is not eroding values in the classroom. It is simply responding to a blurring of moral clarity and communal values in our post-modernist world. In a post-modernist world there is no belief in right and wrong. There is a belief that these are MY values, that this is the tradition in which I have been raised and educated, and that these are the principles that govern it, its rites and ceremonies.

This clearly is a product of multi-cultural society and the openness to other cultures. In most classrooms in Europe one will encounter children from a potpourri of ethnic backgrounds. Where one encounters difference one realises that MY perspective is not the only truth. Relativism is very tangible in the multi-cultural classroom, or in the global village, (ever more global since the internet.)

I feel that these issues are becoming more complex. What are our Truths? Do we define Right and Wrong by the standards of the families that our students come from, or alternatively, on the basis of their Synagogue affiliation, or possibly from the Shulkhan Arukh?

So how do we progress? How do we educate?

In the Times, the article provoked many interesting responses on the
letters page.

This particular letter attracted my interest:


Of course children should learn right and wrong. They should learn it at home, at school, in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. The question for those of us who are reviewing the aims of the curriculum is how this should be expressed in a practical way which helps teachers to do their jobs.

The curriculum aims should be more prominent so that they underpin all that goes on in schools and are as accessible as possible. Our aspiration is that all young people become successful learners who enjoy and achieve, confident individuals who lead safe and healthy lives, and responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

Chief Executive, QCA

I found it interesting first, because of who wrote it: The CEO of the QCA – the very organisation quoted! Second, the fact that he looks to home and religious institutions rather than public schools to instil those very truths.

So, are we saying that everyone should be educated within their tradition, and live with their own Truths as well as tolerance to others?

And then other questions arise?

1. What about when there are clashes between MY truth and yours? What gives?

2. Where is the collective? Where are the shared values? Or are we simply a strange mix of very different sectarian groups?

Here in Israel, I feel that sometimes we have exactly that. There is a national-secular education system, and separate school systems for Arabs, Haredim, Religious Zionists, Sephardi-Shas. Each group teaches different values. Each group answers to a different call. There is precious little contact between the groups in wider society frequently they live separately, think differently, and have very little in common. They fear each other, at times hate each other (in varying degrees.) And the question that we have is where is the glue that unites society?

3. And back to philosophy… What happens to the very NOTION of TRUTH in a world governed by relativism? Have our contemporary Jewish thinkers (with the exception of the mystical thought of Rav Kook, and the recent writings of
Rabbi Sacks) addressed this question? Are we the only ones who are right and is everyone else wrong? And who is we? – Modern Orthodox, Zionist? Religious Zionist? Haredi? Etc.) IS everything OPINION, or is there really something called good and bad, wrong and right? I personally feel that there is. Or is it just my own personal perspective?

… and tomorrow, part 2 of this posting … National Heritage Education.

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