Morality in the classroom: The kind of fully rounded education that produces fully rounded adults neither begins nor ends in schools

My own firm moral code was fused from a combination of 19th-century novels and 1990s hip-hop

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The Independent Online

Why are today’s young people such a bunch of selfish a***holes? That’s the question today’s old people have been asking for some time, but until recently the anecdotal evidence of a million selfies, while persuasive, lacked any hard statistical data to back it up.

A large-scale national survey conducted by Birmingham University found that 42 per cent of 10,000 14- and 15 year-old pupils made the “right” decisions when faced with moral dilemmas. Those who scored low on the test questions “often seemed to approach the moral dilemmas from the perspective of their own self-interest, or from the perspective of ‘minding their own business’”. Moreover, even when these teenagers did identify the moral thing to do, they found it difficult to justify or explain the thinking behind their choice.

Birmingham’s suggested solution is that schools take a more active role in teaching morality. It’s hard to envisage what form these lessons might have in practice, but in the meantime, the Department for Education has, it says, already invested £10m in helping pupils to develop “the grit and resilience they need to succeed in their academic endeavours and in later life”. No longer can those without formal education claim a degree from the University of Life. It seems all courses once taught at that institution will now be accredited only as part of the national curriculum.

This approach to cultivating decent human beings is even more bizarre when you consider another finding from the same survey. Pupils who participate in activities such as music, drama or volunteering outside of school made better moral decisions that those with no extracurricular interests. So why do we assume it’s in the classroom that virtues such as “humility”, “bravery”, “zest” and “humour” are forged?

My own firm moral code was fused from a combination of 19th-century novels and 1990s hip-hop, and although it is a truth universally acknowledged that haters gon’ hate, I don’t think I was alone in supplementing more traditional sources of guidance. The kind of fully rounded education that produces fully rounded adults neither begins nor ends in the classroom. It’s in forgotten conversations, silent observations, books, films, music and under-15s netball tournaments – y’know, all that good stuff that can’t be measured by an end-of-year exam.

Morality isn’t exactly taught in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean children aren’t always learning it. The self-interested, conformist values that researchers identified in British schoolchildren didn’t spring out of a vacuum. They reflect an educational ethos so pervasive, it doesn’t need to be written out on a blackboard. The tenets are this: 1) “It doesn’t matter if you actually understand, as long as you can pass the test,” because 2) “Learning has value only insofar as it can help you get a job that will pay off your vast student debt.”

Pink ties at dawn

The territorial disputes of Indian peafowl are usually settled by a display of plumage, and so it is with a much less well understood species; middle-aged men with media profiles.

When Jeremy Clarkson’s latest blokeish battle began, it ostensibly concerned motoring, a topic well within his remit, and that of his sparring partner, Labour Shadow Transport Secretary Michael Dugher. Dugher dissed Clarkson in an interview with House magazine (“I mean the guy is basically an idiot. And the idea that he is somehow the motorists’ representative?”) before going on to dismiss Top Gear as “a bunch of old blokes wearing jeans and sports jackets”.

Naturally, Clarkson tweeted a response, and when he did, he opted to pick up on the sartorial theme: “Labour’s transport spokesman says he doesn’t like Top Gear. Good. We don’t make it for people who wear pink ties.” Top Gear executive producer Andy Wilman then weighed in, defending his show, but concluding: “I’ll take his point on the jeans, though.”

Who are the “pink tie-wearers” that Top Gear is not made for? What exactly is Dugher’s “point on the jeans”? Can any menswear specialist shed some light? At least observers of the esoteric rituals of Clarkson culture can glean one useful insight: forget cars – it’s clothes that maketh (and breaketh) the man.

Transatlantic treasures

Who is Nigel Farage when he’s at home? Lucky for Nigel, he’s spent most of last week thousands of miles from home in Washington DC, where, apparently, everyone thinks he’s wonderful. Farage’s questionable expertise on Islam went down a treat on Fox News, and he gave a well-received speech to the Republican Party, after which South Carolina congressman Jeff Duncan was moved to declare: “I’m American Ukip!”

If this display of adoration was a Farage-only phenomenon, there’d be cause for concern, but America has form when it comes to embracing Britain’s cultural cast-offs. On the other side of the Atlantic, Natasha Bedingfield is at the vanguard of new music; James Corden is an edgy late-night comedian and Hugh Laurie – best known to Brits as the wally in Blackadder – is a dangerously handsome heart-throb. Is there some kind of mass hypnosis at work? Or can our accent really be that enchanting?

Top of the pops

Can you name the current UK No 1 single? I can’t either. Until a few years ago, failure to name the No 1 counted as definitive proof that you were past it, but lately even teenagers don’t pay much attention.

That’s one reason behind a proposal to move the official top 40 from Sunday to Friday night, in line with the music industry’s new global release day. It’s hoped a new slot, leading into the weekend, could make the chart a weekly event in a way it hasn’t been for some time. It also means all the past-it old fogeys who are at home listening to the radio on a Friday night will finally have an advantage.

Cold comfort

Always fancied a cushy job at the Foreign Office, but couldn’t face making diplomatic small talk with the attaché from Azerbajakistan? Your career prospects are looking up, thanks to the House of Lords’ suggestion that the UK create an ambassador to the Arctic. With industry encroaching on the North Pole, however, the real misanthropes should hold out for an even cooler job title: ambassador to Antarctica; population: 0.

Twitter.com/@MsEllenEJones

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