Education for the Greater Good
Lack of social ethics is one of the causes of violence and it is at the root of our present social and economic crises
We live in a world in turmoil, a world of collapsing ideas, unfulfilled promises, and crashed ideologies and we experience the forces of change invading our classrooms every day, and at the same time, the voices of the discontents demanding radical reform of public education at all levels, including higher education.
The world is threatened not only by a severe economic crisis, but also by natural and man-made disasters, from oil spills to radioactive leaks. There is also an oppressive feeling of disintegration of everything that was reliable, predictable, and able to serve as a guide for solving our problems. Political, economic and social corruptions are increasing. Anger and dissatisfaction create riots in every corner of the world, and those considered responsible for the crisis we face are condemned as selfish, greedy, unfair, arrogant, cynic. More than ever, we are aware of the deleterious consequences of the «I deserve all» philosophy practiced with absolute contempt for the people who will suffer its consequences. As ordinary citizens, we know this is not only an economic crisis, regardless of what politicians and economists say. We feel in our bones that this is an ethical crisis, a structural problem that is not going to be solved with the same ways of thinking that created it.
After the defeat of Nazism, humanity rejected with horror the cruel philosophies of hate that provoked the most terrible nightmare of the twentieth century: the extermination of millions of innocents in the name of one Race, one Realm, one Leader. That parenthesis of rejection and horror gave rise to a moral revolution: the rights movement, which recognized the civil liberties of women, children and minorities.
It would be interesting to pinpoint, in what moment in the history of the past century, the memory of the Nazi crimes began to vanish like those midnight nightmares that we are unable (or unwilling) to recall the next morning. In what moment of time the stain of the innocent blood was erased and human beings emptied their souls to receive the new narcissistic philosophies of selfishness and greed and began to define the «good life» as a life driven by the quest for money and power; a life without shame, remorse, gratitude, compassion or good will.
In recent years, there have been significant efforts to convince people that altruism, compassion and tolerance are not virtues at all, but empty words motivated by spiritual snobbery, and a desire to impose totalitarian ideas. Growth for the sake of growth has become overriding and for this reason environmental protection is a bad idea, because it threatens its growth. Sympathy for the unfortunate is considered a sign of weakness, which only serves to multiply parasites dependent on the State, leading to a tax burden on hardworking and creative individuals (creativity bean narrowly defined as the ability to create wealth). We are bombarded with the idea that consumption is happiness, and in the name of freedom, as the Czech poet Czeslaw Milosz said referring to his life under communism, «we were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons, but pure and generous words were forbidden.»1
Of course, in view of their consequences, these ideas appear before us today as crude intellectual errors defining a narrow world. But the world is not narrow anymore. We, as psychologists and educators know that new technologies have expanded the horizons of children and adults, and that many possibilities are open for the acquisition of cognitive abilities. We know that truth is increasingly more difficult to hide, and this fact leaves an open door to emphasize the importance of rectitude and fairness, integrity, and the need to apply critical thinking to the information received.
The new technologies allow people to unmask moral hypocrisy and to discover more easily the gap between what is preached and what is practiced. Ethics should be taught as the seeking of truth, not as the expression of opinions, or from the narrow perspective of spiritual snobbery. Ethical behavior cannot be achieved by just adding courses or activities to programs of study. It needs to be embedded in all of the educational process as a lifelong learning progression.
The times call for a new ethical revolution in education that stresses the importance of the human being not merely as the invisible hands of the market place, or as a consumer of goods, or an isolated brain, without a heart, without a conscience, and without artistic sensibility. We need to educate for ethics and aesthetics, for a commitment to justice and liberty, for the ability to admire the beauty of human creations and to respect the planet and its biodiversity. We cannot teach to the test at the expense of teaching to the heart. That type of teaching only values a short term learning process instead of an attitude towards lifelong learning.
Ethical education should be a commitment against cruelty, against intolerance and fanatical moralism. Aesthetic education lets us admire the beauty of human creations and ethics leads us to understand that people who think, and live, and behave differently to us are capable of enriching our life with marvelous creations in science and art. We need to teach the language of emotions and how to interact in compassionate and intelligent ways to accept, understand, and manage our feelings and the feelings of people around us.
We need education for liberty and the responsibilities it implies. Liberty without responsibility is license to do anything without ethical considerations, to forget justice and the rights of others, to receive without gratitude because we deserve all. It is to live under the false impression that life has only rewards, no consequences and punishments. Education for liberty is education for making decisions based on ethical reflection, on how those decisions will affect our own life, the life of our fellow humans and the life of the planet.
Ethical education should embrace the place of freedom in our lives. Education without liberty is indoctrination; it is authority by intimidation and not by inspiration. Education for freedom is education for accepting oneself, for searching, for experimenting, for doubting, for making mistakes, for expressing feelings without fear of being subject to punishment or ridicule; freedom for being able to question authority, to speak without coercion, to challenge the dogmas of the times, to bear in mind that more than two centuries ago Voltaire warned us, that «those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.»2
Many wars have started when propaganda made people believe absurdities. The bad news is that we are now living in a more dangerous world than the world of Voltaire because we have weapons of mass destruction that can fall in the hands of anyone. The good news is that we also have powerful communication technologies that can be used to avoid conflicts, and to help leaders with good will to spread their messages of tolerance.
To those who say it sounds too idealistic, too difficult and too expensive, I would say that war, and conflicts, and destruction are more expensive. The new generation lives in a world invaded by information, where creativity is needed in order to replace, not to repeat, the mistakes of past generations; where sensibility will be needed to appreciate and protect the immortal creations of the human talent, and where ethics will be needed to guide their decisions. They will have access to information not tainted by ideologies, governments, economic or political interests, but they will need wisdom to separate the wheat from the chaff. They will need the power of imagination to construct new models and new tools to replace a world in decline. They are going to live in a real global village, where human interactions will be more diverse and wide-ranging; for that reason, they need an education for the emotions to avoid unnecessary conflicts and create an authentic brotherhood and sisterhood of people.
In a world invaded by novelty and glaring technologies, human beings will need moments of peace and introspection that only art and the proximity of nature can offer. The aim of the new education will be to liberate the mind from the idea that as human beings we are something separated from nature and from the rest of humanity. “This delusion”, to quote Albert Einstein, «is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires, and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.»3
1Czeslaw Milosz (2003). Poem “A Task.” New and Collected Poems:1931–2003 (March 25)
2Voltaire (1765). Questions sur les miracles. In Ouvres Complètes de Voltaire: Mélanges IV (S.H. Translator.)
3Einstein, Albert (1950). Letter as quoted in The New York Times (March 29, 1972)
©2013 Miguel Angel Escotet. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint with appropriate citing as follows:
Escotet, Miguel Angel (2013). Education for the Greater Good. Scholarly Blog. Retrieved from http://www.miguelescotet.com/2013/education-for-the-greater-good