Sunday, September 14, 2014

Education and Secular Morality

Education, to be modern, it is generally assumed, should be overtly technical and value neutral. The pursuit is not of values and beliefs, but rather of 'quality', which, in a self-fulfilling way, is defined to be meeting the proclaimed objectives. 

Morality, one could almost anticipate the argument, is not about day to day lives. It is one of those big things that the student-as-a-worker may not need to concern with. However, if one benefit of modern life is expansion of choices, the flip side of it is an expansion of responsibility: Suddenly, what we eat or what we wear, not to mention how we travel or where we bank, have a moral implication. The more control we have on our lives, the more power we have over nature - the very gifts of modernity we celebrate - expands our moral involvement. 

The fact that a technocratic education, which most people tend to receive, seek to leave such questions out - and yet those questions keep coming up - create two different realms, one of everyday practice and a separate one for religion. If the original purpose of a scientific education was to push back the theological hold on ideas, by denying the moral involvement, it has somehow achieved just the opposite: Religion has taken over the vacuum and become the provider of last resort for all moral questions.

This creates two different challenges. 

First, religious morality is structured around us and them lines, and it allows us to hold two standards of morality - one for the ingroup and one for the others. If one is perplexed how very civilised and kind civilians display extraordinary cruelty and indifference to people of a different religious faith, this is perhaps because we fail to hold ourselves to any obligation outside the religious morality.

Second, all institutional religion allows moral redemption, an easy after-the-fact way out. Such practices, which is what outraged Martin Luther in the first place, disconnects morality from every day life, just as the implications of choices we make become ever more consequential. 

Relegating morality to religion, therefore, have two consequences: It makes us increasingly parochial just when we are starting to live global lives, and it allows us to become more irresponsible just as we have more impact on our surroundings, both people and environment. The great failure of modern education is to develop a secular morality, and one could plausibly argue that this is the root cause of many of the civilisational problems we increasingly face.

The current conversation about education completely overlooks this question, in fact, avoids it assiduously. The idea of individual morality is ultimately subversive, as deciding for oneself, Enlightenment's rallying cry, perhaps vests too much authority on the individual. However, the alternative proposition, that one wants them to become consumers without a sense of responsibility may eventually become unsustainable. Besides, for all the enthusiasm about making education about competencies to work, there is an acknowledgement that we are missing out on competencies to live. 

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