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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine