Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Ethics of Public School Ethics classes

Last night I watched the Insight program on whether there is still a place for God in the classroom. It centred on the introduction of ‘Ethics’ classes for those students who do not attend Scripture – the one hour a week slotted religious instruction by community religious representatives for those students whose parents permit them to study their nominated religion. The audience -
which included many young children who had little ability to understand the complexities of the topic and were excruciating in their detailed reports of basic classroom activities – raised more confusion about the teaching of morals in society than it answered. Interestingly, in our ensuing family discussion, ethical issues were played out in how to handle disagreement!
Of course, I am a strong advocate for the message of Prophet Muhammad – and consequently for the messages of Jesus, Moses and the prophets before them. I have also attended an intensive live-in four day ethics course with St James Ethics Centre. (St. James??? I thought ethics was not related to religion?!) St James Ethics Centre designed the course now being rolled out on a trial basis through public schools in NSW. Although I benefitted from the analytical tools and philosophy that were presented through the course, I came away strongly feeling that some of their own methods of presentation were in fact unethical. Why? They put a lot of unnecessary and harsh pressure on participants as part of role plays, and refused to accept comments or criticism on their own biases and shortcomings. Would they have accepted that their behavior was unethical? Probably not – the definition of ethics is hard to pin down. This was clearly demonstrated in our family discussion last night. Is ethics related to the discovery of right and wrong? Yes. Is ethics related to morals? Yes. On what basis does it decide on what is right and wrong, or what are suitable morals? Here is the dilemma – while espousing that ethics assists in discovering right and wrong, and assists in moral decision making, it has no basis other than philosophy which is free of morals. Take for example one of the most pressing social needs of our time – care of elderly parents. In the teachings of all the Judeo, Christian and Islamic religions, respect and care of the elderly – as well as the poor, the infirm and the disabled – is a social responsibility that is born collectively. That means that if no-one in the family takes on the care of the parents in old age, all are found to be morally irresponsible. There is a moral duty to respect and to care for elders in the community as well as the family. The ethics in this situation however are more complicated. Family members may be busy, may have their own problems to sort out, their own finances to secure, and caring for an elderly family member may put undue pressure on husbands, wives or children. Their priority then is their immediate family’s needs as well as their own personal priorities. As a result, in today’s Australian society nursing homes are full of sad, old people who are maintained by state taxes and forgotten by their children. The social norms of society also don’t recognize this - generally religiously based - moral duty. As a result, Government funds for family carers of the disabled, the elderly, and the mentally ill are limited or non-existent.
Personally I have huge respect for those members of my former teaching staff who left their comfortable lives in Australia, and returned with their families to lower wages and a less certain existence, in order to care for their elderly parents. This obligation was not just an ‘ethical’ one, it was a moral responsibility for them laid down in their beliefs and their religious Scriptures. I have little confidence though, that these new ethics classes in our public schools would deliver such an outcome for the next generation in comparison to Scripture classes - depending of course on the quality of the Scripture classes. As far as I am concerned, religion wins out on a moral basis every time, because it looks not just at the immediate benefit to individuals, but the long term social benefits to a society – many of which may not be immediately apparent.
In the end we managed to resolve most of our ethical dilemmas during our discussion last night. I am sure I could and should have behaved better, but I become agitated and irritated at what I perceive as inappropriate or unethical behavior , even during - and perhaps because it was – a discussion of ethics. We worked through the issues and agreed to disagree on various points, but returned to the harmony of a family following Muslim norms of care and respect for each other.
Looking at the confusion on the faces of these kids, I am convinced that it is unethical to teach morality without a religious framework in which to discover morality. And once again, I am confirmed in celebrating the wisdom passed down to us by religious scholars, the revelations of the Prophets and the enduring depth and beauty of the Qur’an. Alhamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alamin – All praise be to the God of all of Creation.

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