Forgiveness, Education, Public Policy: The Road Not Yet Taken

By Rodden, John | Modern Age, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Forgiveness, Education, Public Policy: The Road Not Yet Taken


Rodden, John, Modern Age


WHILE THERE ARE MANY facets and aspects to educational reform that may contribute to halting the rising tides of violence in our immediate families and in the international family, one dimension is too seldom discussed systematically: Forgiveness. If we are to break the cycle of conflict continuing from past to present, forgiveness is worthy of consideration as a serious public policy option. Forgiveness represents a road rarely taken toward resolving public enmities. It is a possible path to peace because calls for revenge and punishment typically deepen and reinforce conflicts, reigniting them into perpetual conflagrations. And as the crimes of terror on September 11, 2001 continue to provoke cries for more campaigns of retaliation and indeed for more "preventive wars" against nations that fall within an alleged "Axis of Evil," the need for new policies that can promote safety, order, and lasting peace is greater than ever.

Granted, the full process of forgiveness may require generations in order even to begin healing recriminations and bitter memories. But there is often no other way to break the feuds between the Hatfields and the McCoys, to break the chain of violence and to undo the effects of history.

Let us examine more closely what one might term the "pedagogics of forgiveness" and the question of whether such a pedagogy deserves a place in public and international policymaking.

Forgiveness vs. excusing

What does education have to do with forgiveness? Although philosophies of education have traditionally ignored the topic of forgiveness, they have invariably sought to nurture a society in which there is hope to live mutually respectful lives. Educators committed to what has become known as "character education" have repeatedly asked: How can we develop people who are more considerate and compassionate, citizens who strive to bring out the best in others and not use or exploit them? Their inquiries should not be equated with the ongoing American political debates over "family values," which are often simply a set of political maneuvers designed to co-opt a powerful, emotionally charged word in our culture--"family." Rather, philosophers of education have aimed to inspire a vision of what a person could become and of a society committed not to exploitation, but to care.

Forgiveness could be central to this vision, precisely because a cycle of unforgiving has incited hatred and violent crime to explode in all directions. The violent conflicts in our families, our schools, and throughout our scarred world have their emotional and psychological roots in a willful vengeance, an insistence on holding grudges, and a fetid climate of resentment--i.e., in a history of unforgiving.

Because the task of forgiving is so multifaceted and complex, it is worth-while first to step back from the immediate issues of education in our schools and from the practical issues of curricular change, so that we can return to them better equipped to understand the process of forgiveness, both on the level of individuals and groups.

A broad perspective on this topic is valuable because educators--indeed even moral philosophers--have seldom paid much attention to forgiveness, certainly very little in comparison with the attention given to the concept of punishment, to which an entire academic field--criminal justice--is devoted. But Jean Piaget, writing in 1932, saw forgiveness as an advanced stage of moral development. He argued that it required empathy, a sophisticated capacity to take the role of the Other. Empathy is the cognitive operation making forgiveness possible, because it entails the compassionate recognition that the Other is also human. Hence, Piaget urged introducing an ethic of forgiveness into the educational system. He recognized that empathy can also have a pragmatic element of self-interest, because it acknowledges the futility of revenge and the value of good relationships. …

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