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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Moral 'science'

It’s been ten days, more than 500 visits and 20 comments since that last post, so I guess it’s time to move on – though, of course, readers who are late in catching up are welcome to continue to write comments on that post (or any older one for that matter).

I shall urge all visitors not only to read and comment on what I write on my blog, but also to visit those I have provided links to here (scroll down the right sidebar until you reach ‘Blogs I often visit’). Some of these people write well, variously, and often, Tanmoy, Supra and ‘wannabewodehouse’, for instance: they really deserve more commenting upon. You won’t be wasting your time. I shall also be glad if readers directed me to blogs that I might find interesting to read. As I suppose you know by now, my interests are wide.

I was wondering what exactly I should write about this time round. So many subjects swirl around in my mind all the time, not all in coherent and finished form, that I have difficulty in choosing from them. I could write about a biographical collection of the letters and other writing of the great scientist Michael Faraday that I am currently reading, or about the delightful illustrated book about orchids that a pupil’s father has kindly given me to read – such a wonderful world exists there among people who love trees and flowers and can find time to care for them. But let me give you a peep into the kind of thing that goes on in my class.

I encourage the boys and girls to think and write as much as they can, offering them model essays, reading out good ones written by older students, and correcting the things that they write. If you can do nothing more, I tell them, find challenging topics from workbooks and old question papers and bring them up for discussion in class: we can pool ideas to make good essays, and sometimes I can throw in a few of my own. Yesterday someone mentioned a topic they had asked candidates to write on in last year’s ICSE examination – ‘Moral science is the most important subject taught in school: give your views for or against’. Well, I had handled this topic several times before, and so I knew what the reaction of the class would be: predictably enough, some murmured that M.S. was a ‘useless’ subject, some admitted they had no idea what to write. Several in the previous batch had, I remembered, written essays on the same subject earlier, and they were all marked by a singular lack of ideas, an aridity of thought, a sense of total confusion – they had usually tried hard to agree, because, they have been taught, that is the thing to do, but they had done so mechanically, without conviction, without being quite sure what they were doing, and with an almost total lack of examples from the real world to buttress their arguments, such as they were. I don’t blame the poor kids: a lot of their schoolteachers, themselves quite unconvinced, clueless and dull, have made such a hash of the subject that the children have grown up with the unanimous belief that it is both useless and boring. And now a fresh batch of youngsters was asking me what they could possibly write.

I started by telling them that to say something is 'important' is not the same thing as saying it is the most important (one of those obvious things everybody knows but never thinks clearly about until they are pointed out!) Next, an important subject might seem boring because you don’t understand it, or hate to memorise things, or fear the examination, or the teacher has done a bad job: thus lots of students grow up finding math, or history, or environmental studies boring. That does not make the subject unimportant. Third, they have only been told repeatedly that this or that subject is important, but without proof: is physics important because you can score marks easily in it or because your parents are convinced it will make it easy for you to get a job? And is biology important because it is part of ‘compulsory’ science or because you have realised that it helps to reveal lots of mysteries about this wonderful world, and about your own body, and about how to stay healthy? And what is moral science all about really? Is it only about making posters about how model children should behave and singing silly hymns in school to a deity nobody really believes in (except in a superstitious way), or does it offer practical tips and tricks about living well? If you aren’t sure about that, how on earth can you go on to argue whether or not it is important, leave alone most important?... and as I spoke, you could see it clearly in the eyes of the children that they were listening, groping, treading on strange and alien territory. No one had raised such questions before.

So I didn’t dictate an essay for them to cram: I still remember how candidates for the UPSC examination had to cram essays about Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore – mountains of words they neither understood nor cared for – just to get through and occupy bureaucratic chairs, and it sickened me. The least of morals we can teach our young is to avoid unnecessary hypocrisy and empty verbiage. Instead, I told them to think of a few things:

1. When you go under anesthesia on the operating table, do you trust your doctor’s marks and degrees or his honesty that he will do his best to save your life, and not remove one of your vital organs to sell off in the black market?
2. Why is it that weird things happen in board examination results – very good students sometimes fail, and very mediocre ones get superlative scores – is it because our examiners are not educated, or because they don’t do their work sincerely (a moral failure, not a technical/institutional one).
3. We are often told by our elders that money should be the sole yardstick of success. Do those elders ever think what would happen to a country where all policemen and judges took them at their word?
4. Why does a man who has made a fortune out of dealing in narcotics lament if his own son becomes an addict?
5. Unless we are mad and sick, we all expect kindness and consideration and understanding and help from others when we are in trouble, don’t we? So what is wrong with us that we think it is not important to give the same to our friends, relatives, neighbours?
6. When highly educated people get caught for fraudulent dealing, we say we don’t expect such things from educated people. So what is education supposed to give us – information and skills, or something else, something more important?

I let it go at that point. In a two-hour class, I have to attend to many things, not just discuss one essay. But do you think I can look forward to a few good essays now?

P.S.: Faraday and Louis Pasteur and Albert Schweitzer and Norman Bethune, all very eminent men of science, were highly moral, if not also deeply religious men. Science does not necessarily make men stupid and immoral (or uncaring about morals) – we must look elsewhere.


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

For some reason, the comment that I posted on your post, did not reach you, so I am trying to summarise whatever I tried to say yesterday.

Your latest post (Good CEO's and Bad Policians) reinforces that why we need moral education since I am sure people who forward such emails to you have lost the ability to judge what is good or what exactly is bad. People forward emails without reading the content or putting any thought to what they are forwarding and why they are doing so.

However, I am not sure whether morals can be taught to people. Perhaps you can enlighten us on that aspect.

When we were child we were encouraged to read books like Hitopodesh, Upanishads, Kothamala, Jataka tales and many more which made younger minds reflective. These books made kids think and in some way aided in the way they chose to govern their lives. I would not say, we followed everything that these say but at least we were aware where we are going wrong. At times our awareness stopped us in doing things which we knew were immoral. I wonder whether to-day’s kids even know of such books. It would be unfair to blame the kids entirely for that because these things were made available by our parents.

In an environment where juvenile crimes have increased manifold and younger generation have become more intolerant towards each other on petty issues, I wonder whether it is serving any purpose when we ignore something like moral education. Moral education is not mere chanting of hymns as you rightly point out. To me essentially in means developing willpower, understanding concept of teaming, civic senses, aiding in decision making, enhancing confidence and tolerance. I think the entire world needs such things but in India we need it more because we deal with most unique problems in our daily lives which most of the world has cured it for itself. The neglect that the subject receives from the board (who had the subject in their curriculum in our times but recommended a bad book) amazes me. I am sure these things can be taught in a better way and in a collaborative manner with the students. I think even Civics as a subject receives such neglect which I always felt bad about.

Even if we are always critical about television but earlier at least television got people (kids) interested to at least read some of the stories from Puranas, or learn a bit of Civics with quiz shows etc. These days that avenue is closed too.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Food for thought as usual.

But the first thing first. It was nice to get a glimpse of your classroom. I appreciate the way you help your students “think”, an activity that students can generally do without in our system of evaluation.

I don’t know what is taught under moral science now, and how much importance is given to the subject. When I was in school, the curriculum was singularly devoid of the knowledge or skills that are essential for a person to become a responsible social being. It did not make us think about the meaning of human relationships or how to communicate effectively or about our responsibility towards elders and the less privileged. More than anything else, then and now, no credit was/is given to boys and girls who read many things outside the curriculum. Students are tested and implicitly encouraged to concentrate on the narrow space provided by text books. No wonder many a school topper end up as dismal failures in life.

One way of learning much of what I listed in the previous paragraph is by reading, particularly, reading literature. As a teacher, do you think we can devise a system in which students are given credit for reading books that are not a part of the curriculum?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

1. They have a subject like moral science only in schools run by various tribes of religious missionaries. The government has been hemming and hawing about introducing something called ‘value education’ in its schools for years, and nothing has come of it yet, for reasons that I think should be obvious. It would be a case of the blind leading the blind!
2. Where they do have moral science, I have already written about how it is treated by teachers and pupils alike. It would be better to do away with the farce. Whatever little morals/ethics they are ‘taught’ can be handled through literature, history, civics, economics and environmental studies (it is a fact that not only does India routinely rank among the most corrupt countries in the world but that all the above mentioned subjects have been increasingly regarded as ‘unimportant’ by teachers, pupils and parents alike over the last 30 years, and I think the connection is strong and obvious. Indians want their children to grow up successful rather than upright, decent and valuable citizens – when they cheat and get caught, the only lament that is heard is not that they cheated but that they got caught. This applies as much to a 16-year old examinee as to Ramalinga Raju).
3. Not only is no credit given to children who read outside the curriculum, they are strenuously discouraged from doing so. There was a time when even doctors and engineers took pride in knowing a great deal about things outside their narrow specializations; now, more and more, that kind of knowledgeability is not only not missed but considered quite unnecessary, boring, and an obstacle to success in examinations and careers. I can vouch from very long and unhappy personal experience that one reason why so many parents speak ill of me in my town is that I ‘distract and confuse’ the young by telling them to read books (and that too when I recommend to them literature of the highest standards, as well as informative books of every kind, quiz books and encyclopedias included!)
4. One reason that so many sit for engineering and medical entrance tests these days rather than going for things like law or the civil service examination – countless old boys have candidly admitted this to me in private – is that the latter type of career requires a lot of ‘studying outside the syllabus’, meaning what is called general knowledge, and the way they have been educated has left them not only sorely lacking in general knowledge but clueless or unwilling to acquire it. Matters have not been improved by the widespread awareness that getting a BTech followed by an MBA and then becoming sales manager for Cocacola or something like that will get you much more money than becoming a civil servant, who has to learn so much more to get his job!
5. One more thing about bad morals: our parents are increasingly determined to keep their children juvenile as long as they can. Whenever anything serious at all is being discussed – from money matters to someone’s ill health, they tell 14 and 16 year old kids to get lost, ekhane boroder kotha hochchhe! On top of that, parents do things for 16 and 18 year old children that in our day would not have been done after we were 8 or 10; nor are the children allowed to read good books and watch good movies (you know the kind I mean). Is it any wonder that millions of such children are growing up into dumb, lazy, irresponsible and utterly selfish adults? Alas, I have watched so many of them grow up like that despite my best efforts.

Navin said...

Adding on to the thoughts of Santunu Sir and Suvro Sir, I would like to speak from personal experience that Moral science is indeed one of the most important subjects taught in school.
I have known some school Toppers which show lack of conviction and courage to face up to their problems when they were confronted with some real life problems in job/higher education/personal life. just because they have never seen failure and in the absence of failure forgot to internalize some very simple rules of respectful conversation, and ethics. They start drinking, misbehaving and pick up various bad habits due to that stress .
I think, many people make most mistakes when there are in stress or pressure( they may not deviate from normal social conduct when they are happy and not in any kind of adversity etc) . It is wonderful to have a rule book of good behaviour, ethics, compassion in the face of adversity, etc to fall back upon so that you do not end up regretting the fact later that you were not a good man. Moral science lessons constitute the rule book for me and I try to follow it blindly in the face of adversity and pain. It is a very "useful " thing to know that even when one is not able to think properly, just following some rules saves a lot of pain in future.
Particularly, I have seen people in stress or pressure making mistakes in dealing with their most important relationships(mother, father, brothers, wife etc) simply because they did not follow the rules of respectful conversation and ethics and they come about to regret it later. It is very difficult to even out the knots especially in relationships.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It seems to me that any talk about moral/ethical issues either makes people uncomfortable or strikes them dumb. Why else should there be so few comments on this post?

Sudipto Basu said...

One of the overwhelming problems in our education system is that it tends to put all subjects into closed chambers-- hence students develop impractical notions of what is permissible in the scope of a subject and what not. It is the same in this case.

Given that the educational system, and in a larger scope, our society is more or less quantity-oriented (not quality-conscious), it is not much of a surprise that moral science has lost its weight and importance. Even success is measured in the absolute terms of accolades, degrees, wealth and such objective parameters-- discounting the fact that subjective factors are much more precise and decisive. The problem with objective evaluation is that it follows certain grooves, so new nooks and crannies must be left for the meandering ways of subjectivity.

And so lies the problem with moral science. It is of it's own nature, shapeless and formless, and can't be bounded by equations, laws and such. It lies open to analysis, re-analysis and revision, as and when the situation arises. Which makes it difficult for the habit-and-formula-bound commoner to interpret: how can he/she see what has not been rigidly defined within set parameters. Fact is, there has never been a subject that can be separately be squared as Moral Science, though. It is a bit of every major subject in the world, though mostly indebted to philosophy and conscience/intuition. The aforementioned pigeonholing of subjects is here to blame. Teachers, these days most of them are second-rate (or even worse) and shallow, of the respective subjects have no clear idea of what they have to teach. Since their attention is fixed on the salary they get each month, and how many of their students are qualifying for entrance examinations at the end of the year and such similar trivialities, the big picture evades them-- that the real goal and meaning of education is to make a person better (again not in objective terms).

It is dismal to see that people shirk away from the most important things in life (Russell was spot-on when he said that men would give everything, possibly even their lives, to avoid thinking!) only because it hurts them to see clearly. It's their loss anyway! What can we, those who do care about morality, do but try to help the poor souls out of the grooves of un-thinking they go by?

I'll end now, but add one more nugget: it is perfectly understandable that everyone cannot be equally ethical (how many can reach the ethical purity of a titan like Gandhi?). Humans do have their own limitations, however it is not unfounded to expect a basic level of morality from everyone-- blessed as we are with conscience, the greatest teacher of all, and it would do everyone a bit of good to pay heed to what the conscience has to say once in a while.


JD said...

Thank You Sir for leading me to the article. The write-up is as as good as ever. No reader would ever complain about the time he/she invests for reading your blog.

It's true that the perception that moral values are waning from humans is gaining ground day-by-day, but yet I still have faith in the capacity of humans to do good.

To feel, think, behave & act humanely is still appreciated and taught to the youth in most of the households. Yeah, I admit with the world having a more complex environment with each passing day, the onus is on the guardians to pass on the teachings and instill them in their wards.

I believe that values once instilled is bourne forever by a person and I also believe that there are people who still say, " Be a good human being first."

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Notice, Joydeep, that it is more than two years since someone wrote a comment here. That in itself should tell you a lot of things!...

Next, just by coincidence I've been watching a TV discussion among experts and politicians regarding the pathetic electrical power situation in West Bengal, and there were two things nobody disagreed upon: that corruption (including letting a huge coal mafia flourish) and inefficiency (which, indeed, I regard as just another form of corruption, to the extent that it stems from job shirking, kaam chori) are two major reasons for our plight.

Finally, I wholly agree with you that there are still parents who tell their children 'Be a good human being first'. I am one (and I keep telling my daughter all that she will have to suffer - including ridicule - for treading the straight and narrow path lifelong). I would love to meet some others. Parents who insist that it is better to fail than to cheat, and better to make a humble honest living than to be a 'successful' crook. Help me find such parents, will you? It will help to wash off some of my cynicism.