Moral Education and Pluralism

By Mal Leicester; Celia Modgil et al. | Go to book overview

6

The Cultural Desert of Schooling

TONY SKILLEN

It is impossible to discuss 'multicultural education' without examining what these multiplicities are multiples of; it is equally question-begging to embark on such a discussion without an examination of the culture inscribed in our primary embodiment of our conception of 'education': the modern, the contemporary, school. This entails looking, not just at current debates, but at the institutional framework they normally presuppose. I propose to apply my argument to the more specific issues of race, ethnicity and creed. But in my view it would be wrong to ignore the general truth that all education involves interaction and possible clash of cultures, and that, in so far as moral education is the development of the dispositions and capacities of free fellowship, the issues of cohabiting with others, with their differentness and their differences, cut across life's categories from friendship, marriage and work, to broader local, regional, national and transnational relations. In short, you cannot expect to attach whatever is 'educationally correct' regarding specific things like race or gender relations to an otherwise taken-for-granted picture-and then wonder why, for all our efforts, things keep exploding in our faces.

It is hard to conceive of moral education in the absence of commendation and censure or rewards and sanctions. No parent, teacher or even friend could properly do without them. But such practices and responses, to have an ethical impact, function to focus the mind on the action, to effect a rethinking, revaluation, re-feeling of that action. The contractual behaviour policies currently erupting as legal and paralegal documents in schools throughout the realm explicitly work to draw attention to the consequence to the agent of the monitor's response to that action. Indeed, when they are in place and the good behaviour ritually bombarded with stars, the very disposition to so behave is corrupted by subordination to the disposition to gain reward and recognition-itself a dangerous habit. And when that dangerous habit is conjoined, as it often is, with weekly raffle tickets for virtue…or is that a way of teaching that virtue is not necessarily rewarded? But then, in the absence of totalitarian surveillance, the whole thing is a lottery, and part of that mercenary culture. Pretending to confine itself to the externals, to behaviour observable within large-group limitations, the 'new system' not only reinforces but positively inculcates an ethos of appearance management-a virtual morality that at the same time reduces the humanly significant adults in the school and the home to participants in an interactive game of show. (I must not get caught failing to call someone by their 'normal or preferred name' but if I can drop someone else into transgression…)

The 'new scheme' at my child's school resembles many other schemes of explicit formulation that have spread among our institutions in recent years; schemes that constitute a veritable 'discourse' of auditing, assessing, monitoring, contracting and controlling that, seeking to bring accountability, to 'professionalise' vocations, in fact render them more like life on a soviet collective farm than in the 'efficient' businesses whose accountancy they ape. But it would be wrong to confine one's critical attention to this respect in which moral accountancy in schools partakes of and reflects wider practices and concerns. For it is not the case that such schemes and policies are just a virus caught by the otherwise healthy body of the school. Misguided and corrupt as the moral accountancy scheme may be, it is a response, and one which might have local benefits, to felt problems, even crises, in schools and their relation to the family and to wider social

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