The Malta Independent 18 August 2017, Friday

The Ethics programme in our schools as it truly is

Kenneth Wain Sunday, 6 August 2017, 08:43 Last update: about 12 days ago

I have the following remarks to make about Mark. A. Sammut's article entitle Ethics ('Breaking the Law') (TMIS, 23 July) edition of The Malta Independent on Sunday. First, it betrays a total ignorance and distortion of the aims, purposes, and contents of the Ethics programme which is gaining popularity in our schools today, and that it makes malicious allegations about it, that it is "ideological brainwashing by stealth at best and outright debauchery at worst", which are calumny and false. Secondly, his "hunch that this course is based on Kantian ethics", and his pretentious attempt to prove this by describing Kantian ethics, is every bit as ignorant as his account of the programme, every bit as confused and mistaken.


But then, confused also is his understanding of the subject matter of ethics itself which is displayed everywhere in the article. Kantian ethics is defined not in the publications he cites but in Kant's major work on the subject Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals and other writings specifically on the subject where he elaborates his complex doctrine of the 'categorical imperative'. If reading the book is asking too much of Sammut, all he needs to do is google 'Kantian Ethics' to recognise a total mismatch with how he describes it. Nor, by the way, was Kant a 'pessimist'; pessimism is the last thing one can attribute to a philosopher who proposed 'Sapere Aude!' ('Dare to Know!) as the motto of the Enlightenment.

However, my concern is not about Sammut's misrepresentation of Kant which just shows him up and is not serious, but about the Ethics programme which is serious and about which he claims the expertise to advise parents. I will not waste time counter-arguing his numerous distortions, confusions, and fabrications. Instead, I will go straight to the facts regarding the Ethics programme which are easily checked on the Education Ministry's 'Learning Outcomes Framework' (LOF) website. First fact: an Ethics programme in our schools is mandated by the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) document of 2012 as an alternative programme for students whose parents decide, for whatever reason in this plural and multi-cultural society of ours, to withdraw their children from Religious Education. The authors of the NCF "preferred" Ethics to "a Comparative Religious Education programme" was the other option they could have considered.

 In 2014, members of our department of Education Studies at the University of Malta, myself included, were asked by the Minister of Education to work on an Ethics programme and to train teachers to teach it, as we have been doing since then. Our initial research found that the national programmes we examined taught ethics within non-confessional comparative Religious education programmes which included secular views on life, even atheist. Without any model of a stand-alone Ethics programme to work with, we had to design one of our own. Since it had to be non-confessional, i.e., not taught from the perspective of any particular religious moral doctrine, we decided that the best pedagogical resource available to us was philosophy - and not a specific one either, Kantian or otherwise. Here we could draw on the rich pedagogical resources offered by the abundant work that already exists on doing philosophy with children.  

I shall try to describe its main features as succinctly as I can without doing it too much injustice. In primary schools, its main purpose is to socialize pupils from diverse ethical cultures into the evolving multi-cultural and pluralistic reality which is Maltese society today to foster sentiments of mutual understanding and tolerance between them. It assumes key ethical values that are shared 'uncontroversially' across cultures and can unite people in conversation: respect for truth, honesty, fairness, compassion, loyalty, courage, justice, and generosity. Students learn that these values are understood and practised differently in contemporary plural and multi-cultural societies.

Understanding this and the different moral cultures and traditions that feature in our society's socio-cultural make-up (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and secular humanism) is the first step towards bringing them together in their diversity but, at the same time, as members of the same moral community. This getting together is done through open dialogue (of which they are taught the skills and virtues). It appeals to their moral imagination which gets them to see others who are different from them, even significantly so, strangers, as one of us, as persons capable of enduring the same pleasure and pain, and therefore worthy of equal moral consideration and respect. Ethical respect (which is far deeper than respect for the law) is also taught towards animal life and the lived environment, natural and constructed. Students in these early years learn to value friendship, sharing with others, fairness, justice, compassion, honesty, loyalty, solidarity, tolerance, and so on. They also learn about having rights and responsibilities, and so on. The strong case for friendship is made from the beginning of the programme and used to target bullying, to the extent that the class is encouraged to discuss and adopt a commitment against it.  

Central to the philosophy for children approach is representing the classroom as a 'community of inquiry'. Creating such a community begins from the first years. A community of inquiry is one that values discussion, dialogue, debate, the open exchange of ideas and opinions in a social environment which is free and safe, and where participants feel that they and their views are respected. This is what renders it a community of friends. The community is a place where understanding is built and consensus valued, but also a site where disagreement is negotiated and where arguments are won, if at all, by persuasion not force. Participants in the community (classroom) learn to value rules and the need for a recognised authority to interpret and enforce them, in this case their teacher though not unilaterally.

Participation in dialogue cultivates not just the children's communication skills but also their intellectual virtues, like honesty, respect for truth, loyalty in debate and to the argument, fairness, tolerance, trust, moderation, courage, consideration of other views and ideas, and so on. It cultivates communicative skills like putting forward ideas, views, information, arguments with economy (to recognise the same rights to space for others), reasoning, listening, weighing, exploring, arguing, evaluating, analysing, negotiating, and so on. These virtues and skills are also democratic besides being ethical (the distinction between ethics and politics is a fine one), so the community of inquiry is a democratic one (hence the Ethics programme is also an aspect of the education of democratic citizens). Finally, the community is also ethical in practising ethics as a way of life.

The secondary school programme (especially in Forms 1 and 2) consolidates and builds on this: the level of inquiry grows increasingly sophisticated through the further development of the students' intellectual and communicative skills. The manner of teaching through dialogue continues but new emphasis is made on the importance of self-reflection; reflecting on oneself and one's life personally and in relation to others. The value of self-respect and respect for others becomes more pronounced and achieves wider meaning between Forms 3-5. The critical element also grows and becomes more pronounced, as students are encouraged to think reflectively on their own beliefs and conduct in their private life and their relations with others. In both cases they are sensitized to the ethical importance of the side effects, the consequences of what they do for themselves and for others. A more critical outlook also colours their participation in classroom dialogue which is slowly extended to ethical subjects and issues encountered in the wider society and the media.

The use of social media itself is raised as an ethical issue. Students are encouraged to reflect critically on the views and information they access there and elsewhere. They are taught to evaluate their validity, reasonableness, fairness, adherence to truth, and so on, helped by the tools of elementary logic. They learn to regard the disagreement in ethical matters as endemic to a society that respects freedom of belief and values cultural (religious, ethnic and other) diversity. This is after all what they have learnt by belonging to a community of inquiry.

To expand a bit on these generalised objectives of the secondary programme, which are among those most misrepresented in Sammut's article. In Form 3, the general theme is 'Respect for Self and Others'. With valuing self-reflection, living an 'examined life' in Socratic language, students also learn the importance of self-responsibility and ultimately self-mastery; the ability to be in control of their lives and to make responsible life-choices for themselves as they relate with others. They learn to distinguish good from bad role models in society, promote a healthy regard for themselves and for their minds and bodies, and to distinguish self-reflection, which is healthy, from an unhealthy kind of self-absorption which is obsessive and narcissistic. This leads to self-harm and harming others, various kinds of addictions, self-inflicted harm (which includes irresponsible risk-taking, self-exposure, and sexual activity). The Ethics programme's thrust against bullying which continues throughout, more specifically addresses practices of cyber-bullying, and students are sensitized to the debates on aspects of cyber ethics. This focus on the meaning of ethical responsibility and the issues it raises is expanded in the Form 4 programme titled 'Ethics of Care'. Self-care is represented as a fundamental ethical responsibility and including care of others, particularly for the more vulnerable. Care for others is represented as an indispensable part of caring for oneself. One of the subsidiary modules (there are three to each theme); 'The Ethics of Dependence' represents dependence not as a deficit but as a feature of our humanity. From the perspective of the ethics of care, it explores our dependence on others in childhood, and as we pass into adulthood, where others are dependent on us, then finally into old age where we become dependent on others. What is explored here is basically the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity, of giving and receiving, of care and generosity towards those who are temporarily or permanently dependent on us through their immaturity or disability. The last module, in Form 5 (which is time-restricted because of the SEC exams at the end of it) moves seamlessly into 'Life and Death Issues'. These are particularly sensitive and controversial, but which the students will certainly have already encountered in their lives and possibly experienced, and which they are now mature enough to consider and discuss responsibly with their teachers.

I am sure I have done nothing approaching full justice to what is a very rich and complex, but not over-ambitious, programme. It is a programme intended to address issues of diversity and social cohesion that inevitably arise in contemporary societies like ours. It contributes to an ethics of understanding and respectful co-existence in our pluralistic, multi-cultural world, to the democratic resolution of difference, to environmental responsibility, an ethical consideration of everything living, human or animal, zero tolerance for bullying in whatever form, cyber responsibility, and so on. I think that from this description, succinct as it is, 'malicious misrepresentation' is a mild assessment of Sammut's article. I also hope that those who shared it on social media will share this reply to it too.

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