The school I attended was run by a Catholic order. Like most such institutions then as now, it made no attempt at indoctrination, let alone conversion. The Catholic students received religious instruction; the rest of us studied Moral Science. It is a curious term, for ‘science’ implies a material exactitude impossible in moral matters. More basically, one may question whether morality can be imparted by theoretical lessons in the classroom. By our teens, we were duly sceptical about the content of the course. If the school instilled a sense of ethics nonetheless, it was through the personal example of many priests and other teachers.
Those memories were revived by reports of a new compulsory three-year course in Ethics and Values at all universities in Odisha. I have no knowledge of this course beyond press reports, if indeed the details have been worked out as yet. It appears that the course was not conceived by the universities but imposed by government fiat. The disregard of academic autonomy argues a strangely simplistic sense of ethics and social well-being. It would be equally unethical of me to expatiate on a proposal I know nothing of. In what follows, my target is not the Odisha course but the much-touted notion of value education generally.
Our leaders, movers and shakers habitually deplore the corruption and debasement of society. Instead of resolving the problem by their actions and policies, they invoke education to work this miracle. Having thereby passed the buck to the next generation and hence, in the first instance, to the community of teachers, they can return to their rewarding pursuits with double vigour. Society’s moral deficit mounts by the day, like surging credit card bills.
The pattern is repeated within the family. Mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins connive blithely in ill-concealed or declared malfeasance at work, or lying and betrayal at home — of course, only to ensure the well-being of their heirs. When those heirs, predictably, reflect such traits in their own behaviour, the response is: ‘Is this why we are paying for your expensive education? What do they teach you in school?’
Do we think our children are fools just because they are young? At least let us credit them with the devastating clarity of the naïve inexperienced gaze, like the boy who exclaimed that the emperor had no clothes. Faced with the brazen contrariety of the society they are born into, our youth evince one of two reactions. They commonly undergo a rite of passage whereby they insidiously, or sometimes with callow flamboyance, slide into the ways of the adult world, to the latter’s relief. At times, however, the process takes a more roundabout route through sincere protest and resistance. Sometimes the outcome is creative independence: that is what keeps society functioning and even advancing. More often, it leads, by a self-subversive path, to one or other form of political debasement, from militant radicalism through lumpen disruption (starting with politicized student unrest) to plain public corruption, perpetuating the same old cycle. The ethical deficit keeps mounting, transferred to a new credit card.
The teaching community cannot be let off the hook. Its special dignity and responsibility are not always upheld. Too many teachers exploit their standing, like other elders in positions of power. But finally, in a debased world, it is simply unreal to expect teachers to single-handedly inculcate values in the young. Everyday ethics is not a subject for classroom instruction. It can only be acquired in the common course of life from the total environment we grow up in, the way we learn how to use money or perform household chores. Every person in the child’s milieu is a teacher.
Textbook morality and ideology inhabit the same mental world as mythical pseudo-science. Alarmingly, both are contributing more and more to India’s national narrative. The fictive ancient India that devised airplanes, television and plastic surgery is also credited with an implacable discourse of caste, patriarchy, intolerance and authoritarian rule. That socio-moral concoction — very much a present-day construct — operates in a world where cows exhale oxygen and peafowl reproduce through the male bird’s tears. Teachers, students, and the educated public thereby face a dilemma. They can either dismiss all such rigmarole, both moral and ‘scientific’ — but perhaps with it, to our everlasting loss, the wisdom and deep humanity of our ancient, noble and multifarious culture. Or they can accept the package lock, stock and barrel, almost certainly to the extinction of its precious and enlightened elements, to society’s detriment and their own. Any attempt at formal value education runs a grave, almost inevitable, risk of falling foul of this trap.
If the fundamental purpose of education is to foster critical thinking, we can certainly plan a course in value education to that end. It would address the knotty ethical issues of our time, dissect them impartially, and seek rational and humane solutions without impairing the fabric of society. If allowed
to function freely, uninvaded by politicians and vigilante groups, such a programme would go far to create an informed and responsible citizenry.
This happy result seems unlikely, given the intolerance and regimentation bedevilling our education system. No such programme could last a week without bending to what a tainted power structure finds admissible, thereby defeating its purpose. Dissenting faculty would be persecuted, the campus stormed. Political parties would rouse their footsoldiers within the institution. Too many people in power have invested in an educational order marred by the twin blights of authoritarian control and mindless anarchy. Our educated classes as a whole seem unfazed by this scenario, so long as they can buy an escape route for their own offspring: the fewer competing purchasers, the better.
I repeat that my observations are generally meant. They are absolutely not directed at the Odisha proposal, of which we know little as yet. If Odisha’s educationists can indeed pioneer a fruitful programme of value education, the whole nation should rise to applaud and emulate them. Let us live in that hope.
(Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University)