Faith and Reason: Lesson in the danger of empty scepticism: In the third article in a series on the Loss of Virtue, Anthony O'Hear, Professor of Philosophy at Bradford University, assesses teaching's role in Britain's moral malaise (CORRECTED)


IF THERE is not a full-blown moral crisis in the country, there is certainly a moral malaise. Clearly, the decline of the family and of formal religion have a lot to do with it, but I wonder whether education may not be playing its part too. I am not referring simply to the dismal fact revealed recently that over a third of students in further education need extra help with reading, writing or basic mathematics. That is symptom rather than cause. The cause lies deeper, within the style and ethos of teaching orthodoxy.

George Orwell wrote in 1940: 'Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline - anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes.'

Just because they could does not show that they would be right to do so. In fact, nothing is easier than the empty scepticism which arises from forever questioning everything and always asking for the criteria on which particular belief and institutions rest. The worry implicit in what Orwell says is that education supposedly critical and rational encourages sophistry of this sort.

Anyone who teaches undergraduates today will tell you that the most prevalent reactions they have to most social and moral issues is a jejune selectivism: 'It's all a matter of opinion, isn't it?' The exception is when we come to fashionable political causes: hunting, tobacco companies, South Africa, minority and women's 'rights', the Third World, poverty. Here it is very much not a matter of opinions. Radical and instant upheavals of the status quo are called for, and no opposition is brooked.

By contrast, friends who teach in inner-city comprehensive schools tell me that attitudes among the majority of their pupils to crime, and especially to juvenile and so-called poverty-related crime is robustly retributive, reassuringly so in some ways. Could it be that the process of education itself is contributing to a sense of moral disengagement among the more intelligent young?

As the archetypical representative of a certain type of rationalism about morality, we find Keynes writing in My Early Beliefs: 'I can see us as water-spiders, gracefully skimming, as light and reasonable as air, the surface of the stream without any contact at all with the eddies and currents underneath'.

While a few upper-class water- spiders can doubtless be tolerated in a society in which the majority is in contact with the deep running currents of life, the matter becomes far more problematic when large numbers would act as Keynesian water-spiders. A disoriented truculence is too often the result, rather than grace or light.

Central to Keynes's high-riding confidence is the assertion of the individual will so as to undercut any sense that the experience of generations, as encapsulated in traditions, institutions and myths, might contain a form of wisdom which is both real and not immediately obvious to the young.

People from all sides of the political spectrum are now beginning to see the wisdom in virtues such as fidelity, civility, honour, diligence and responsibility, and in institutions such as the family, the army and even the Church.

Unfortunately, much of what now goes under the name of moral or 'values' education is imbued with a Sixties-ish spirit. In what is called 'values clarification', teenagers are encouraged to discuss and question theoretically the values they unthinkingly hold.

The teacher is supposed to conceal his or her own beliefs so as not to inhibit free discussion. Too often the upshot is to produce uncertainty and moral disengagement in the minds of those too young to have had the experience with which to test the values in which they have been brought up.

None of this is new, of course. It is precisely the predicament Aristophanes describes in The Frogs, where the litigious intelligence of Euripides and the relentlessly disengaged philosophising of Socrates are presented as joint causes of Athens's downfall. Aristophanes' solution is for Aeschylus to return to earth: Aeschylus the articulator of noble myth, of heroic courage and of aristocratic morality. In a democratic age, such a thing is hardly possible, as Aristophanes knew. Nevertheless, we can still learn from Aristophanes.

Rather than encourage ultimately destructive questioning of values, educators should attempt to instil in the young a respect for perennial human values, so as to open their eyes to the possibility that there may be sources of value relating to human life which transcend individual choice. In attempting to articulate perennial values and their transcendent sources, teachers themselves must have a sense that what they are touching on is to be treated with respect.

They must not force it into an intellectual mould of their own, but must seek to convey a sense of respect for existing moral values to their pupils.

Where, it will be asked, if not from religion, will teachers get the material for these lessons in respect? From art in its broadest sense. For it is in poetry and drama above all that human values have been expressed and created, in which human life can be seen as touched by that which is worthy of respect, transcending the day and the age.

In the arts we receive the most articulate and concrete expressions of the complexities of life, and also the most striking refutations of the nation that human life is to be treated as simply the by- product of a blind, mechanistic evolutionary process.

We also receive striking warnings against the simplifications of the political and against the arrogance of the individual who sets his will against his unchosen duties and responsibilities. In that we can recognise ourselves in some form in the heroes of Homer, in the characters of Shakespeare, in the films of Satyajit Ray and in the novels of Chinua Achebe, we get a sense of what unifies the human race beyond local particularity, another pointer to value neither ephemeral nor historically contingent.

Now this, above all, is an educational challenge; or perhaps, when so much education today is narrowly utilitarian or superciliously relativist the educational challenge. I suspect, though, that an education based on respect for what has been achieved rather than on child-centred expressionism will also do rather better on reading, writing and calculating than we do at present.