Friday, August 31, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Morality)

I'm still working on this damn multi-part extravaganza I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do." Here are Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part FiveAll along I've been suggesting that if you're going to read these posts, you might want to try reading them in order, but I no longer think that: you can probably read them all willy nilly if you're so inclined. 

I really thought by now I'd be getting ready to put a bow on it, but here I am six posts in and I've barely addressed the notes I took before I began, so you will excuse me if I start breaking this up a little with a few more "fun" posts about children and the stuff we're getting up to at school. 

As I mentioned yesterday, a big part of writing this has become about discovering my own most deeply held ideas and beliefs about teaching, about our society, and about what I wish for the children who pass my way at Woodland Park. I hope it's not too terribly dull to readers, but now that I'm on this path I intend to continue sitting down each day and trying to write my way through to the next post. I ended the last by opening a door I'd not intended to open in this series, but it's one I now think has a part in this discussion: morality.


I've got values but I don't know how or why.  ~Pete Townsend (The Who)

As a man who recently hit the half-century mark, I just missed the cultural phenomenon of tattoos. A tiny number of my college classmates had them (I'm particularly thinking of one boy who had barbed wire tattooed along one side of his jaw, dooming him, we all felt to a life of either punk rock or crime). It was my considered opinion at the time that this would be a passing fad, but I stand here 30 years later, seeing a world in which it appears that tattooing is something I do have to concern myself with as my own child stands on the threshold of adulthood.

I've never had any particular judgement about tattoos on others, but they weren't for me, not as a fashion statement, nor especially as a way to declare my undying this or that, because with each passing year I discovered that there are precious few things I'd felt so deeply about as a young man, so few things I'd want engraved in my flesh, that I could still honestly advertise them today without shame. As a boy, the only tattoos I'd ever seen were on former military men, usually hearts with the word "Mom" in the center. I can perhaps imagine still being proud of that one, but I know my mother would not, to say nothing of how my wife would feel.

One of the most valuable pieces of wisdom passed on to me by my mother, usually stated when I was playing the role of junior jurist, catching her in inconsistencies, was: "All wise people change their minds." To this day, I hold that ability, that ability to, after much thought and experience, change one's mind, as the pinnacle of wisdom. It takes great courage and humility to admit, finally, that one has been wrong, especially on important matters. But if we are to be wise, if we are to value reason, we do it.

Ah, but what of morals? Certainly there are some moral values that are absolute: black and white, good and bad, unchangeable truths about how humans ought to conduct themselves.

Often when someone from outside our progressive education bubble critiques my approach to early childhood education it is on moral grounds. Most often it is on the topic of obedience (which I addressed in Part One), their argument being something along the lines that obedience to God is one of the foundations of their religious beliefs and that learning it begins with obedience to parents, and perhaps teachers and other moral authorities in a child's life. But others have gone further, insisting that education must begin with the teaching of moral codes such as the Biblical "Ten Commandments." And I'm here to say as clearly as I can, these people are right: morality is absolute and must underpin everything we as individuals do.

We are all moral beings, each of us. You needn't tell me of your morals, however, because I can discover them on my own simply by observing how you live. And each of us, every day, even when we are doing things for which we will later be ashamed, even when we are doing things that we condemn in others as immoral, are behaving according to our own, personal moral code. It's all well and good to point to a holy book and to feel yourself a sinner for not obeying its commands, or to spout them proudly as statements of aspiration, but every day, in every action, we are all obeying the commands of what we believe to be true about our behavior in relationship to others.

I, like you, live each day according to my moral code. It's a morality in which some tenants have remained with me throughout my life, whereas others continue to evolve on a nearly daily basis. I rarely speak of the specifics of my own morality, but on this day, at this moment, I act according to it, and if you want to discover it, judge me not by what I say, but rather but what I do, and I will do the same for you.

As self-evidently equal and free humans, according to "natural law" as postulated by John Locke and the other Enlightenment thinkers, the philosophical forefathers of our nation, we are each a morality unto ourselves, whatever the priests, rabbis, imans or pastors say about it. None of us are pure in our fealty to any external morality. We may aspire to it, but we will always fail because the highest morality, the one to which we actually adhere, always comes from within.

So here we are, a society of equal and free individuals, each unique in our idea of morality, knit together by this document called the Constitution, and from this we've set ourselves the task of creating a society. Holy cow! We can't even arrive at a consensus on such manifestly true moral values as, "Thou shalt not kill," to which we've carved out dozens of legal exceptions, such as in the cases of war, capital punishment, self-defense; hell, we can't even agree upon what killing means, take abortion or living wills as examples.

The answer, if our experiment in democracy is to be successful, is that we are always charged with creating a new morality, a public one, informed by, but ultimately separate from the moral codes by which we individually live our lives. It is a morality that is not an unchangeable tattoo, but rather one that is the best we can do at this particular moment. There was a time, for instance, that the best we could do was to agree that, first in all, then in only one half of our nation, human beings could own slaves. There was a time that the best we could do was allow only half (less than half in fact) of us to vote. We now live in a time when people of a certain sexual orientation can be cast out of their jobs and their marriages broken because of it, but slowly, through our democratic process, one that is much larger than mere voting, we are coming to realizing that we, as a society, can be better. Our public morals are evolving.

It's a morality that must be situational, fluid, and changeable because that is the way of progress. It is a morality that does not require individuals to step down from their own personal moral values, but rather to acknowledge that we're equal and free and all in this together, and that compromise is the only way forward.

Our Constitution assumes that, as Locke put it, we should self-govern "according to reason" and strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty," and it is therefore from a place of reason, not morality, that we must start. 

Why not start with morality? Simply because when a man begins debate with moral arguments, it is, by definition, over. No argument can trump a moral one. Compromise is not possible. When a man, for instance, says, "God says so," even if we do not believe in that man's god, for all practical purposes he has "won" the argument because no human can back down from his own morality, nor should he. And there will always be those who enter the public sphere with the fire and brimstone of moral certainty, but simply by virtue of this approach, his arguments must be set aside because there is no progress to be made there, because compromise must stand at the heart of self-governance in a pluralistic society.

This is not a problem we face in preschool. Young children never hold such strong moral convictions, although this is not to say that they have no morality whatsoever. As I mentioned before, I have no interest in what another man tells me about his morals, because I can discover them through his behavior. This is true also of the children with whom I work. Perhaps it is because we are a secular school, or more precisely, a pluralistic school, but I've never met a child who spoke of right and wrong or good and bad, except when experimenting with ideas through dramatic play. I have, however, taught many children who have clearly discovered moral values like compassion, non-violence, and fairness. These are the children, even very young ones, who will not hit or push no matter how provoked. These are the children who run to the side of a crying friend and take his hand. These are the children who, unprompted, give half of what they have to the child who has nothing.

There are some, such as another Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who would assert that young children are born with these values, but I'm inclined to believe, along with Locke, that they have discovered them through their experiments with the world; their reason has lead them to these behaviors that betray what they have so far learned to be true. That, because man is essentially "good," so long as our "institutions" (in this case parents and teachers) preserve natural law, this is where reason will take us. And this is why I must reject the approach to morality that the ideas of Thomas Hobbes would dictate, one in which parents and teachers must impose morality because the "state of nature" is essentially "evil," and that without such authoritarian control life would be, in his most famous words, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

It's my view, therefore, that creating a public morality must be very like the creation of our individual morality. This practice of discovering morality through the application of reason, of the scientific method rather than authoritarianism or mysticism, building public morality upon the progress made by those who have come before us, is essential to civic life.

You may, of course, choose to tattoo yourself with your own morality, committing yourself to engraving it in your flesh, then clinging to it no matter what your reason later shows you. That is the right of an equal and free human. But when it comes to collective morality, we mustn't, because to be able to change one's mind is where wisdom lies, and to have tattooed ourselves with the morality of the past would certainly have us today hanging our heads in shame. 

So I come around to ending where I ended yesterday: it is through the process of debate, conflict and reason that our collective morality must emerge. It is the place we end rather than begin.

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diƤtplan said...

good post

Kara said...

It happens that during the course of your "Why I teach..." posts, I am personally struggling with the decision that I made months ago to enroll my child in an all-day public preschool. It sounded fine and dandy at the time, and it was practical in order for me to attend grad school. But now that I've actually witnessed it, I'm appalled. And I kind of blame (and thank) you, Tom. Although I'm surrounded by a lot of people on what might be called the progressive end of the education spectrum, your writing in particular has developed some latent beliefs that I, as a non-parent up until recently, never had cause to examine. Now I'm at a loss as to whether I should disrupt her schedule and environment (and my own education) in order to pull her out and find a solution that is less of a compromise on my personal philosophy about education, or allow society's mores to infect us and rationalize that this is just the way it is done. I guess my point is just that your writing is especially poignant to me. And that you should move to the Midwest, because you're needed here.