Here's a short paper that is adapted from parts of my book The War For Children's Minds. Title taken from the event, which is focused on Philosophy for Children. Austrian Centre for Philosophy with Children and Youth. Details here. Apologies for font issues (I can't solve them)
Do the individual and his or her rights disappear behind the over-emphasis on cultural identity?
My approach to this question will be to look at two arguments for restricting young people’s freedom of thought and expression on the grounds that this is necessary if they are to develop a robust cultural and moral identity.
I favour what I call a Liberal approach to moral and religious education. By a Liberal approach, I mean an approach that emphasises the importance of encouraging young people to think independently and make their own judgements on these important matters. A Liberal approach lies at the opposite end of the scale to what I term an Authoritarian approach, which encourages an attitude of deference to some external authority. According to Authoritarians, young people should be raised to realize that what is right or wrong, religiously true or false, is not for them to judge – they should defer to those who know.
Traditional moral religious education has often been Authoritarian, with an emphasis placed on policing both behaviour and thought. A colleague who was educated in the 1960’s in a strict Catholic school tells me that, even today, a half-century later, she still feels guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief, despite the fact that she gave up religious belief decades ago. However, it’s not just religious traditionalists who can be Authoritarian. Totalitarian atheist regimes have been no less obsessed with restricting freedom of thought and expression.
Today’s Western societies are fairly Liberal, certainly compared with the past. We’re free to make our own judgements about which religion if any is true. We are also free to make our own moral judgements. Of course, we’re not free to do whatever we want. We’re not free to drive at 150mph down the motorway, but we are entirely free to believe, and publicly express the view that, we should be free to do so. It’s freedom of thought and expression with respect to moral and religious questions that Liberals defend, not an anarchistic freedom to do whatever we want.
Modern Liberal thought draws on, and is historically at least partly rooted in that period of our intellectual history known as, the Enlightenment. The French intellectuals Diderot and d’Alembert define the Enlightenment thinker as one who,
trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.[i]
Daring to think for yourself is a core Enlightenment value. In 1784 Kant wrote a short magazine article entitled “What is Enlightenment?” Kant, not normally known for his brevity, came up with one of the most quoted characterizations:
[Enlightenment is the] emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason![ii]
“Sapere” and “Aude” are, not uncoincidentally, the names of two philosophy for children organizations. Philosophy for children is very much an Enlightened, Liberal idea, and in arguing that children should be raised to be autonomous, independent critical thinkers, proponents of P4C are promoters of a core Enlightenment value.
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about that value, particularly in the classroom. Some social and religious conservatives believe that to encourage children to think independently and make their own judgements is to sow the seeds of disaster. They argue that, without some religious Authority in the classroom to which children are encouraged to defer, children are cast perilously adrift. They insist that, in the absence of some external Authority, morality boils down to nothing more than individual, subjective preference and choice. Every point of view becomes as “correct” as every other. So a Liberal approach – which removes external Authority from the classroom – is a recipe for moral decay and catastrophe.
Those who take this view are, in my view, muddled. In my book The War For Children’s Minds I tackle a range of arguments offered by those critical of a Liberal approach to moral and religious education. Here I explain the failings of just two amongst many particular lines of argument. Both involve the thought that development of a robust cultural and moral identity requires more or less uncritical acceptance of certain cultural norms and values, at least early on, and that a P4C approach is therefore likely to be culturally and morally destructive.
1: The Character Building Argument
How do we become good? One popular answer emphasizes the importance of building character by instilling good habits. It runs as follows.
Being good and living well are skills, just like, say, being able to ride a bike or play the piano. And skills are primarily acquired, not through thinking, but by doing. Just as we can’t intellectually work out how to ride a bike, then hop aboard and confidently cycle off in style, so neither can we intellectually figure out how to be good and then immediately proceed to behave well. If we want people to behave well, we have to drill into them the right behavioural dispositions. It’s in having such dispositions that having “good character” consists, and it’s on instilling those dispositions that “character education” focuses.
In his The Principles of Psychology, the philosopher William James emphasizes how important good habits are to living well. He begins with a comical illustration of the force of habit:
There is a story, which is credible enough, though it may not be true, of a practical joker, who, seeing a discharged veteran carrying home his dinner, suddenly called out, 'Attention!' whereupon the man instantly brought his hands down, and lost his mutton and potatoes in the gutter. The drill had been thorough, and its effects had become embodied in the man's nervous structure.”[iii]
James believes that, just as soldiers are drilled to obey commands to the point where doing so becomes automatic and unthinking, so we should similarly drill ourselves in behaving in ways advantageous to us.
The great thing… in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy… For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can... The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.[iv]
James believes that it’s by repetitive drilling from a young age that good character is developed. If we want to behave well, the mere desire or intention to act well is not enough. We must instill the right habits, so that good behaviour becomes unthinking and automatic.
No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.[v]
James argues that unless the right habits are ingrained early on, the fabric of society is under threat. Habit is “the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance”[vi].
Aristotle, like James, also emphasizes the importance of instilling good habits. Aristotle believes children will not spontaneously develop such virtuous character traits as honesty, integrity, generosity, fortitude, perseverance and orderliness. Their nature, to begin with, is to do whatever they feel like doing. They are led by their own immediate desires. It’s only through training that they will acquire the habit of behaving virtuously.
However, unlike James, what Aristotle is after is not mindless, automatic behaviour. As Sarah Broadie, the author of Ethics With Aristotle explains, Aristotle’s view is that
[f]orming a habit is connected with repetition, but where what is repeated are (for example) just acts, habituation cannot be a mindless process, and the habit (once formed) of acting justly cannot be blind in its operations, since one needs intelligence to see why different things are just in different circumstances. So far as habit plays a part, it is not that of autopilot…[vii]
What we should get into the habit of doing is reflecting and applying our intelligence in order to arrive at the right judgement, and then acting upon it. This is not something we can do unthinkingly.
According to Aristotle, by getting into the habit of behaving well, so that it becomes second nature to us, we are able to learn two valuable lessons.
First, we learn that behaving in these ways is good. This is not something that can be figured out purely in a purely intellectual way. We need personal experience of what living virtuously is like before we’re in a position to appreciate that this is how we ought to behave. And we are only able to have that experience if we have been disciplined and habituated into acting well by some an external authority. It’s only by being forced into the habit of behaving thus that we’re able to recognise for ourselves that this is how we should live.
Second, having been properly trained, we’re released from the grip of our own immediate desires, and so able to live that way. So it seems an individual trained in the way Aristotle recommends acquires both a kind of knowledge and a kind of freedom that the child left to his or her own devices will never attain.
There’s much intuitive plausibility to character education and the view that habit has a key role to play in moral education. According to character education, key is to ensure good habits to be reliably passed down from generation to generation, as part of a cultural tradition. But then shouldn’t moral education, focus not, as Liberals, suppose, on thinking and reasoning, but rather on ingraining those important traditional cultural and moral habits?
That moral education should be rooted in the instilling of good habits is an increasingly popular point of view. Numerous books have been written to help parents and schools build character, including best-sellers like Character Matters – How To Help Our Children Develop Good Judgement, Integrity, And Other Essential Virtues, Character Building – A Guide For Parents And Teachers.
In the U.S., character-building has caught the popular imagination. Many see it as the cure for the so-called “moral malaise”. Thomas Lickona, for example, says that:
The premise of the character education movement is that the disturbing behaviours that bombard us daily – violence, greed, corruption, incivility, drug abuse, sexual immorality, and a poor work ethic – have a common core: the absence of good character. Educating for character, unlike piecemeal reforms, goes beneath the symptoms to the root of these problems. It therefore offers the best hope of improvement in all these areas.[viii]
Indeed, character education has been a focus of both the Democrat and Republican parties. George Bush’s plan for education, No Child Left Behind, specifically funded character education. Character education has, according to one proponent, Kevin Ryan, become the “new moral education”.
The new moral education is not a fad. Instead, it is a break with the faddism that characterized much of the moral education of the Sixties and the Seventies … [T]he new moral education is really quite old; indeed, it is deeply rooted in classical thinking about education. [Some of it] comes straight from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle said that a man becomes virtuous by performing virtuous acts; he becomes kind by doing kind acts; he becomes brave by doing brave acts. A school that institutes a community service program is merely operationalizing Aristotle.[ix]
Proponents suggest there’s growing evidence that character-building programs are effective.[x] Character education is increasingly seen, not as an optional extra that might be added to the curriculum, but as the framework within which good teaching takes place. Here’s Hal Urban, a high school teacher, testifying to the power of character education to transform a school:
I’ve had the good fortune to visit schools all over the country that have character education programs in place. The first word that pops into my mind when I visit them is “clean”. I see clean campuses and buildings, hear clean language, and see kids dressed cleanly and neatly. I see courtesy being practiced by everyone – students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Most important, I see teaching and learning going on in an atmosphere that is caring, positive, and productive.[xi]
But if character education is the way forward, doesn’t that mean abandoning the Liberal approach? Surely that approach, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and the use of reason, should be replaced by character education, which places the emphasis where it should be – not thinking but on doing. Surely we need to cultivate good habits precisely so that individuals don’t have to start thinking about what to do.
The attack sketched out in the preceding paragraph commits the fallacy known as false dilemma. It insists we choose between two alternatives that are, in fact, entirely compatible. We can have both character education and a Liberal approach. Indeed, note that, unlike William James, Aristotle actually emphasizes the importance of thinking in combination with doing.
Certainly, the Liberal approach doesn’t rule out character education. But it’s consistent with the instilling of good habits. We can enforce good behaviour even while at the same time encouraging a critical, questioning attitude. We can say that, while we expect students to behave in certain ways, we certainly don’t wish them to swallow whatever we say blindly and uncritically.
So a Liberal approach to moral education is consistent with character education. Indeed, it requires it, for at least two reasons:
(i) A Liberal, P4C approach can only work within a fairly disciplined environment where children have gotten into the habit of listening to different points of view, calmly and carefully considering them, and so on. So it seems a Liberal, P4C approach does inevitably need to be paired with something like character education.
(ii) One of the virtues we should be promoting is that of thinking critically and independently and getting individuals to take seriously their responsibility for making moral judgements. But, to be effective, this is something we need, not just to tell them about, but to get them into the habit of doing, so that it too becomes second nature. In which case an effective Liberal moral education must inevitably involve an element of character education.
So, yes, the Liberal approach needs to be paired with character education. But the reverse is also true: character education needs to be paired with a Liberal approach.
One obvious potential problem with “character education” is that it can be used to ingrain not just noble and virtuous attitudes, but also racist and sexist attitudes too. Suppose we ingrain in our young the habit of treating women as domestic serfs. If our offspring are raised to treat women in this way, without much exposure to critical thinking, no doubt they will find the belief that a woman’s place is behind the sink “obvious” and will in turn pass it onto their children. In this way, such “obvious” beliefs as that women should stay in the home and that Jews are untrustworthy will merrily cascade down the generations without ever being effectively challenged. The “character” each generation develops will be sexist and racist.
An important safeguard against this potential problem is to add a further habit to the list of habits character education should aim to instil: the habit of thinking carefully and critically about our own beliefs and attitudes. I stress this needs to be a habit, a habit introduced fairly early on. If it’s introduction is delayed until those sexist and racist beliefs and attitudes have got themselves fully ingrained in the child’s character, it will then be very difficult to get them out again.
So, far from being in opposition, character education and the kind of Liberal approach to moral education advocated in this book actually complement one another.
Many proponents of character education are clear it’s compatible, and should be paired, with the fostering of independent critical thought. But not all. For some, “character education” is a useful banner under which they want the opportunity to drill the young into mindlessly accepting their own religious and moral beliefs. They are looking to instil specifically religious habits, to get them firmly ingrained in children while their intellects are switched firmly off. Advocates of character education are aware of such divisions within their ranks. Take for example, this quote taken from an article at the character education website www.goodcharacter.com.
What is character education? This is a highly controversial issue, and depends largely on your desired outcome. Many people believe that simply getting kids to do what they’re told is character education. This idea often leads to an imposed set of rules and a system of rewards and punishments that produce temporary and limited behavioral changes, but they do little or nothing to affect the underlying character of the children. There are others who argue that our aim should be to develop independent thinkers who are committed to moral principals in their lives, and who are likely to do the right thing even under challenging circumstances. That requires a somewhat different approach.[xii]
It does require a different approach – a Liberal approach. So I think we should say yes to character education, but let’s be clear that it needs to be Liberal in nature – and that it is entirely compatible with the approach advocated by P4C.
2. MacIntyre and the unavoidability of tradition
Another objection to the view that morality can be given a wholly rational, tradition-free foundation is that reason is itself dependent upon tradition. The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre argues that it’s not possible for an individual to conjure morality out of thin air, independently of any tradition. Indeed, according to MacIntyre, whatever forms of reasoning we employ are themselves born of and dependent upon tradition. So it’s impossible to do what Kant attempted to do: apply reason on an individually, independently of any tradition.
[A]ll reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought.[xiii]
There is no possibility of the my “stepping outside” of all tradition and thinking from a tradition-free perspective, for what I am
is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition.[xiv]
But if Kant is wrong to suppose reason can be applied independently of all tradition (because every application of reason is inevitably rooted in some tradition or other), doesn’t that, in effect, spell doom for the Liberal approach recommended here? For isn’t the Liberal approach all about individuals applying reason for themselves, independently of any tradition?
No, it isn’t. Liberalism does not involve defending the view that reason alone can conjure up morality all by itself. What Liberals defend is the view that children, and indeed, adults, should be encouraged and trained to think critically about the tradition in which they find themselves. Pointing out that reason cannot be applied independently of all tradition does nothing to undermine this point. In fact, MacIntyre himself agrees that “[n]othing can claim exemption from reflective critique”.[xv] In applying reason, we may look to and draw upon a tradition. MacIntyre may even be right that we have to. But that’s not to establish that we should be encouraged, at any stage, blindly and unquestioningly to accept our tradition’s cultural religious, moral values.[xvi]
Of course, not every defender of Authority-based moral education wants to turn us into unthinking Jamesian automata blindly treading whatever path tradition lays down. That’s true of former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, for example. Still, while he is not recommending complete, blind, unswerving loyalty to whatever tradition dictates, it’s clear that Sacks and others believe the young should, in the first instance, adopt an attitude of deference to what they both call “external authority” on moral questions.
Sacks, for example, says that before we can properly criticise a practice, we need to set foot within it, “finding our way round it from the inside”. This, says Sacks,
presupposes distinctive attitudes: authority, obedience, discipline, persistence and self-control. …There is a stage at which we put these rules to the test. We assert our independence, we challenge, ask for explanations, occasionally rebel and try other ways of doing things. Eventually we reach an equilibrium… For the most part…we stay within the world as we have inherited it….capable now of self-critical reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps working to change it from within, but recognizing that its rules are not a constraint but the very possibility of shared experiences and relationship and communication… autonomy takes place within a tradition.[xvii]
So Sacks acknowledges the importance, in a mature citizen, of a critical, reflective stance towards his or her own tradition. But he emphasizes we must first be fully immersed in that tradition. And he stresses the importance of deference to Authority in the earlier stages of assimilation. Sacks believes
autonomy – the capacity to act and choose in the consciousness of alternatives – is a late stage in moral development… It is not where it begins.[xviii]
What Sacks means by “a late stage” is unclear. At what point Sacks is willing to let individuals adopt a more reflective, critical stance towards their own tradition? At eleven? At fifteen? At twenty five? It’s hard to say. In fact it’s not clear whether reflective, critical examination of the tradition in which you are brought up is something Sacks is at any stage be willing to encourage. He acknowledges only that it spontaneously happens at some “late stage”.
So while Sacks is prepared to tolerate some freedom of thought and expression at some unspecified point in the individual’s development, it’s clear he wants moral education to be much more Authority-based than it currently is (or at least as it is outside the more conservative religious schools). He believes more emphasis should be placed on more-or-less uncritical deference to Authority than it should on independent critical thought (at least until some “late stage”).
My question is: why is more-or-less blind, uncritical acceptance of the pronouncements of Authority required at any stage?
Sacks cites MacIntyre in support of his Authoritarian stance on moral and religious education. But MacIntyre’s plausible point that reason is inevitably rooted in tradition – that it cannot be applied independently of any tradition – does not require that individuals should be discouraged from applying their own powers of reason once they are able. And it’s clear from studies that children are remarkably adept at applying their critical faculties to moral questions from very early on. Some immersion in a tradition may be required before their critical faculties can be properly engaged. But once they are engaged, once the child is striving to engage them, once they are beginning actively to question and explore (which comes very naturally to them), what is the case for actively suppressing their application to moral and religious beliefs? Particularly until, as Sacks puts it, some “late stage”? For if Sacks wants to restrict the child’s ability to think and question until some “late stage”, he is going to have to actively suppress this natural tendency.
What Sacks tries to extract from MacIntyre’s point about tradition looks suspiciously like an open-ended invitation for him to shut down the critical faculties of young people long enough to get them heavily religiously indoctrinated. Sacks leaves the door open for years and years of religious programming at the hands of some moral Authority, sending new citizens out into the moral world intellectually armed with little more than a tokenistic, last-minute bit of critical reflection grudgingly tolerated at some “late stage”.
If that’s what Sacks is after, he’s going to need a much better argument to justify it. MacIntyre’s plausible point about the impossibility of applying reason independently of any tradition does not support it.
Children, surely, have a right not to have their bodies stunted, crippled or mutilated in the name of certain cultural religious, moral or aesthetic traditions and values – such as the Chinese practice of foot-binding or the cultural practice of female circumcision. I believe children have a similar right not to have their minds crippled and stunted in the name of certain cultural, religious and moral traditions. I would argue that they have a right to freedom of thought and expression. They also have a right to a quality of education that will give them the skills they’ll need if they are to be able to distinguish facts from myths and spot intellectual snakeoil when they come across it. These rights are trampled if cultural and religious identity is used to justify enforcing conformity of belief and suppressing potential dissent.
We’ve looked at two particular lines of argument used to justify restricting children’s freedom to think critically and independently about the cultural, religious, moral, and other values and traditions with which they are raised. The first argument draws on the philosophy of Aristotle and emphasises the importance of instilling good habits in children. The second draws on the work of e.g. philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre and turns on the thought that morality cannot be thought up by an individual from scratch, independently of any tradition. While neither argument is cogent, both are popular amongst critics of a Liberal, P4C based approach to moral and religious education. Liberals should be prepared to encounter them.
[i] Quoted in Phillips, All Must Have Prizes (London: Warner Books, 1998), p. 190. My italics.
[ii] Immanuel Kant, quoted in the entry on “Enlightenment” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[iii] William James, The Principles of Psychology, chpt. 4, on-line at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm, p.121
[iv] Ibid, p. 122.
[v] Ibid, p. 125.
[vi] Ibid, p. 121.
[vii] Sarah Broadie, Ethics With Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 109
[viii] Thomas Lickona, Character Matters (New York: Touchstone, 2004) p. xxiii
[ix] Kevin Ryan, “The New Moral Education”, available on-line at: http://www.hi-ho.ne.jp/taku77/refer/ryan.htm.
[x] See, for example, B. David Brooks, “Increasing Test Scores and Character Education - The Natural Connection”, available on-line at: www.youngpeoplespress.com/Testpaper.pdf.
[xi] Quoted in Thomas Lickona, Character Matters (New York: Touchstone, 2004) page xxvi.
[xii] Source: http://goodcharacter.com/Article_4.html.
[xiii] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd edition (London: Duckworth, 1985) p.222
[xiv] Ibid, p. 221.
[xv] John Horton and Susan Mendus (eds.) After MacIntyre (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994) p. 289.
[xvi] By the way, I am not suggesting that MacIntyre thinks otherwise. While MacIntyre is a well-known critic of “liberalism”, it’s less clear to me to what extent he would wish to be critical of Liberalism-with-a-capital-L. See the appendix to this chapter.
[xvii] Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997) pp. 176-7.
[xviii] Ibid, p. 177.