Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moral Education, the London Riots, and the Entanglement of Economics and Schooling

 My series on the fraught status of the teaching profession is still unfinished, but I wanted to put up a quick post on another topic. The Guardian’s political blog reported  yesterday, on comments by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the role that schools should take in the long-term response to the riots (and, inevitably in such discussions, the role that schools have taken in permitting the riots to occur).

Williams, speaking in the House of Lords, said:

There is nothing to romanticise and there is nothing to condone in the behaviour that has spread across our streets. This is indeed criminality – criminality pure and simple."

For Williams, the cure for further outbreaks could only be found in the long-term and in the reorientation of schools towards teaching virtues rather than skills:

Over the last two decades, our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship — 'civic excellence' as we might say. And a good educational system in a healthy society is one that builds character, that builds virtue.

Character involves… a deepened sense of empathy with others, a deepened sense of our involvement together in a social project in which we all have to participate.

Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions — asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens.

The nice thing about having a state church, I guess, is that there’s a voice for old fashioned ideas of morality and spiritual health in public debates. It says something about the state of a society, though, when the strongest public advocate for humanism is the church. I’m deeply sympathetic to Williams’s desire to view people in more than purely economic terms: citizenship is a far more worthy goal for education than consumerhood. Williams’s exclusive focus on character, however, ignores obvious economic factors that must play a major role in what’s going on in England right now. Viewed in the most cynical terms, his ideas of virtue and character appear to be tools for keeping the downtrodden from acting out: religion as the opiate of the masses.

I’m not inclined to view Williams’s arguments cynically. (I rarely view others’ arguments cynically. The accusation of insincerity is too often a means of ignoring viewpoints that differ from our own. It assumes that everyone believes what we believe, that those who espouse other views are simply lying. That’s a nice way to avoid engaging in real conversation.) Still, there’s a real narrowness to his perspective, and it’s a narrowness that’s politically convenient. People do not suddenly take to the streets, looting and burning, simply because they haven’t learned good manners or good moral character. Economic and social conditions must be a major factor in these riots, and looking to schools to fix the situation avoids addressing deep structural issues in the society. It assumes that oppression, in the broadest terms, either does not exist or should not matter.

This discussion has a close parallel in American education. Many on the left (Barbara Ehrenreich is a prominent example) view the emphasis on moral education and character-building at KIPP and other No-Excuses schools as an attempt to brainwash the poor into not complaining about it. The rhetoric of hard work and discipline in the name of college attendance and upward mobility, they argue, provides a palliative of false hopes and an illusion that one’s successes and, more importantly, failures are one’s own doing. A reader of this blog recently made a similar critique of my own arguments in favor of moral and civic education in my series on “College for All.”

I know lots of people in the No-Excuses movement—school founders, school directors, teachers, and students—and I’ve never met anyone who’s out to brainwash anyone into suffering injustice quietly. Indeed, I’ve watched school directors talk explicitly to students about the disadvantages they face as poor, minority, inner-city students. It’s true, however, that, hard as No-Excuses educators work to overcome the achievement gap, I’ve never seen one of them talk honestly to students about the magnitude of those disadvantages. The reason is obvious: it would simply be too discouraging. That reality underscores the complex nature of the problem and the difficult position in which the inner-city educator finds herself.

Educators are educators; they do what they can, within the context of the school and the classroom, to give kids the tools to live better lives. That’s what they ought to be doing. Those who feel inclined to call that project futile or to question the purity of their motivations should remember that it is a great deal easier to think about what should be done than to actually do something. It is important to keep in mind, however, that inner-city educators work within the context of a deeply troubled society, whose ills are neither the fault of the schools nor within their power to mend.

We must keep the two conversations separate: we cannot risk reducing the problems of the society to the problems of the school, but neither can we risk reducing the problems of the school to the problems of society. The two are inextricably connected, but they are not the same, and if we conflate them, we will not think clearly about either.


  1. Archbishop Williams wants to teach the poor to respect a society that doesn’t respect them. This is not only illogical (respect doesn’t work that way), it’s insulting because he’s asking them to condescend to themselves.

    Yet he seems right in much of what he says, and, interestingly, he doesn’t blame the rioters, but British society as a whole. (This, too, is condescending and disrespectful in its way, but let that pass.) The ‘civic excellence’ he wants is a collective virtue, not just an individual one. To achieve it, the British would not only have to educate their poor in values, they would have to look seriously at the values of the society, including those that tolerate economic deprivation and isolation. I bet the Archbishop be all for that sort of self-criticism. Whether he’d be ready to restructure the society accordingly is another question.

  2. The main way in which the young rioters in Great Britain are oppressed is that they do not have jobs. The private sector in England (and other societies) is driven by the bottom line so it outsources jobs; the government doesn't have the resources to employ everyone. That looks like a dilemma that isn't solvable by anyone, at least not a present. But while we work towards a system that does provide jobs for all, are we supposed to be OK with young people destroying their own neighborhoods, their own neighbors? We've had depressions and high unemployment before, and they led to demonstrations, political movements, populist candidates running for office -- but not self-destruction. The Archbishop has a point.

  3. Thanks for your comments, “hbean” (an ill-disguised relative of mine).

    Of course, we're getting into politics here, not education, and I don't want to go too far down that road, but I do have some thoughts on this.

    Your points about respect and condescension relate back to questions of respect in the classroom, specifically it's reciprocal nature: you can’t respect someone who doesn’t respect you; you may admire him, but that’s a different kind of relationship and not as healthy a one for teacher and student. I wrote about this a few months ago. Your reference, I think, was intentional

    Your second paragraph raises a more complicated question. I’ll address a brief post to it, probably later this evening.

  4. Anonymous,

    Thank you for that excellent comment. You're absolutely right, of course, and your reply to my critique of the Archbishop's position is the same reply I always want to give to those in the American education debate whose emphasis on poverty and cultural isolation as the roots of poor education outcomes is so forceful that it almost seems to relegate schools to irrelevance.

    Yes, whatever the wider conditions of society may be, we must improve schools. As an educator, that's where my efforts will always go; and the bleak economic landscape does not dampen my enthusiasm for that project. The Archbishop's proposal is a good one, and it's my mistake if I didn't emphasize that enough in my post. We must do a better job, both here in The States and apparently in England as well, of providing moral education.

    That project is significantly complicated by the broader socioeconomic problems of the society, in ways that I will try to delve into a bit in a separate post.

  5. Now, in the wake of uncontrolled anti-social juvenile behavior, the adult caretakers of young people are suddenly expected to be so much more than society has ever helped them become.
    Life in London for the disenfranchised, like life in Harlem, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland or any of the urban centers in the good ol’ USA that I have visited, only becomes a focal point when trouble erupts.
    The question of the poverty lifestyle that Cameron focuses on exists on a daily basis for families with single female heads of household, with children lacking access to quality education and people living in an environment spawning a culture that glorifies violence.
    Read full article at: