Leading Article: The lesson is that morality is unteachable

The first of a flotilla of craft is about to lift off on a robotic survey of the Red Planet, write Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest
Click to follow
The Independent Online
An A-level in morality. Just pause for a moment and consider the preposterousness of such a suggestion. It is only in the fevered circumstances of our present "periodical fit" of morality-talk that it is not instantly blown out of the water. Whose morality? John Knox's or Kant's? Are marks to be awarded for the correct answer to questions such as: was Abraham immoral for not cleaving to a two-up, two-down family structure, or (the kind of economic-structural question our new moralists are none too keen to have posed), is it right and proper that the distribution of wealth and income should have become more unequal during the past 17 years?

The very idea of putting "morality" into the examined curriculum in this way is not just daft, it is an insult to all those teachers of English literature who, followers of FR Leavis or not, have striven to teach their books and plays as if Eliot and Lawrence, let alone Shakespeare, were indeed making moral judgements in their characters and plots; those teachers of physics and maths whose pedagogical existence is to found truth in empirical experiment; all those heads of school who, without ever stooping to the "m" word, have built functioning communities, based on rule and respect, and succeeded by organisational example in teaching generations of pupils and students more about the good and the right than a hundred formal lessons could hope to do. Examinations in morality are no answer: the solution lies in raising the aspirational climate in schools as institutions, so that children learn to aspire to the decent society.

Moral education as a syllabus component is very largely a nonsense. In the same way as religious education in secular schools disappears quickly into a desiccated run round the major world belief systems, moral education would instantly become a vacuous recital of platitudes. This is pretty much what the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority will produce later this week. The idea of 150 good people and true sitting around agreeing on moral propositions that can then be dispensed from the front of the class as if they were rules of arithmetic, correct spellings or the capitals of European countries is risible. For Gillian Shephard to jump in with her pennyworth on the family before the document is even published is unfortunately further evidence of how no one, even an admirable Conservative minister with a decent record at education's sharp end, is immune from shoddy sound-bite thinking that answers every partisan and no public purpose.

Yet talking about what should be taught and how schools work are at least concrete subjects that may give us a dry path out of the soggy morass of "moral talk" of recent weeks. And the lunacy of examinations in morality (has no one read Dickens?) points us to an obvious if neglected proposition. It was mouthed yesterday by, of all people, Nigel de Gruchy, to whom one would usually be loath to go for educational enlightenment. Morality, he said, is caught, not taught. Good examples by leaders in every walk of life are going to be worth more than a million lessons.

He is right - and he should be the first to practise what he preaches by accepting that teachers are, along with many other professional people, at least partly responsible for our present concern - along with parents, pontificating politicians, employers, and (take a bow, Cardinal Winning) prelates whose practice of the Christian doctrines of meekness and love seem sometimes open to question. How all of us behave, our public identity, is as important as what we say. Oh, and throw newspaper and broadcasting journalists into that list, since we are at least as culpable as everyone else.

Morality is unteachable. If the notion is to be left with any meaning, it must embrace choice. A morality which is imposed is not moral, it is merely someone else's belief system. Without choice, there is no right nor wrong. We are not attracted to the right and the good because we are told we should be. We learn by example. How good would this generation of teenagers be if they relied on television coppers for their example? The answer is that they would be near saints. Instead, they see real police officers too often being rude, offensive or downright abusive in their commissioned tasks. Ditto, how far did teachers enhance the moral climate in schools when they emphasised individual expression over responsibility? It is not a matter of whether teachers slope off to the staff room to smoke or seduce their colleagues; it is whether in the classroom and school corridors, in their body language, they convey a sense of the school as community, expecting duty and discipline of all its members.

Parents are, of course, the main source of exemplary conduct. "Parentage", said Shaw, "is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interests of children." Blaming teachers for not teaching the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount - as a guide to contemporary living! - will not get parents off the hook. Nor vice versa. Good example cannot make good children, but it can offer children a choice. What applies to parents applies in spades to those who aspire to lead society - the political class. Morality is not about declaring that a candidate for public office prays or attends religious services (have none of them ever read what Christ said about the Pharisees?): it is about living a decent and respectable life (in the real sense, meaning a life that merits respect). Of how many contemporary political leaders could it be said, "these are good men, and true"? The Bible, as so often, has some memorable one-liners on these matters, imagistically expressed in terms of motes and beams, glass-houses and stones. It also reminds us at a pertinent moment to beware judging, lest ye be judged.