In Herodotus’s masterpiece The Histories, he speaks of the type of education children would receive from ages 5 to 20, “to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.” One is drawn to the elegance, simplicity, and power of the triad, perhaps most of all by the last clause (to tell the truth). How important and relevant is such a clear moral educational dictate over 2,500 years later, in the complex, intertwined world of the first quarter of the 21st Century?
There has been no shortage of technical skills put to the forefront of mainstream educational learning objectives over the past 150 years of curriculum development with, from the Second World War onward, an expansion of scientific experimental skills, data handling, mathematical thinking, and literacy. In strictly secular educational environments such as the French Republican schooling system, teaching has been seen almost uniquely as a technical exercise, the argument being that ethics and values are to be developed at home by parents. In his famous “lettre aux instituteurs” in the 19th Century, the Republican statesman, Jules Ferry, made it clear that education was the job of parents with their children while instruction was the work of teachers and their students. The two were separated by a strict line, dividing a secular and agnostic school from the religious privacy of the home. The only attempts to instill values in Republican schools would be through courses in civility which were essentially lessons in history and state ideology.
However, not all systems followed this design, other models with more communal leanings would focus not only on technical academic skill development but character education, ethics, and, in many cases, explicit religious messaging too. Of course, religious schools have been the backbone of educational systems from the early Renaissance, most especially the work of the Jesuits in Europe and Latin America to Madrassas across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, to mention just two major pillars of religious instruction among many.
Whether ethics are taught at home, in school, or in both, the question is, to what extent can anyone say with any real confidence that there is evidence that the substance and style of education will have an effect, either positive or negative, on the moral behavior of those who have come through such systems of school or home learning? In short, can we teach someone to be good?
As school missions in the 21st Century tend to be turned to moral imperatives, or at least interpersonal and environmentally related competencies, such as “global citizenship,” “empathy,” and “sustainability,” boards will look to evidence that such traits are truly developed. Where is the evidence that any moral education students receive will render them morally accountable people? How do we ensure that a character education actually develops character? How do we know that our students are global citizens?
The road forks here: either we enter into the difficult if not absurd exercise of trying to design quantifiable metrics to measure so fuzzy and culturally specific a construct as ethical behavior, or we look to highly unreliable and selective anecdotal evidence (for example, cherry-picking examples of alumni professions). Trying to control variables is almost impossible in such a realm of analysis since a student’s behavior is as much, and possibly even more, of a reflection of their home upbringing as it is of any pastoral program at school. Indeed, one would have to be very naive to imagine that assemblies and in-school workshops would be enough to significantly forge a student’s moral compass given the overwhelmingly more significant effect of upbringing by their parents, siblings, friends, and cultural experience.
Does this mean that schools should resign themselves to the idea that ethical behavior is created by what happens at home and schools can only influence a small part of the equation? The answer is yes and no. Yes in the sense that it is important to recognize the impact parents will have on a child’s ethical decisions, and therefore to work in a partnership with parents so that the school does not become the place that concentrates on discipline and behavior, leading to the de-responsibilization of parents’ primary role as educators. No in the sense that school is still the arena where socialization takes place, learning to live with other people takes place, and public behavior is modeled. It is still our responsibility to guide children and explain what is right and what is wrong. The hope, of course, is that this ethical code is harmonized with the messages that students receive at home; that what the school says is right is what the parents say is right.
It is extremely unhelpful when parents criticize and contradict the disciplinary efforts schools make in front of their children because this sends out the message that the school’s ethical framework is bogus and not to be trusted, breaking trust and credibility. At the same time, school administrators need to be aware of their own cultural bias and check in with themselves, and perhaps the parents, before disciplining students, as this might contravene the message they are receiving at home. This is just one of the reasons why a home-school partnership, through dialogue and mutual understanding, is important.
The paradox of resilience and humility
A central paradox that transcends the whole sphere of education, whether it is that done by parents or by teachers, is how to reconcile the uncomfortable truth that resilient and highly ethical people will often have become so through experiences of hardship; and reconciling that with the understandable desire to ensure that the educational experience is humane, rewarding, and confidence-building.
On the one extreme, there is the Victorian-styled “character” education with corporal punishment, humiliation, punishing work schedules, and a diet of intensive sports, peppered with menial labor (cleaning, making one’s bed, chores, and duties) and acts of discipline (standing when an adult enters the room, never speaking out of turn, respecting a rigid dress code); on the other, there is the more laxist student-centered approach with student choice and agency in the center position, no uniform, adults called by their first names, students contesting grades, and parents intervening when not happy with school decisions.
These are caricatures, of course, as they outline extremes. However, there is a depth to the question of just how both parents and schools can foster resilience while sustaining self-belief, happiness, and confidence. There is no simple answer to this question. Some parents break their children by pushing them too hard, others spoil them rotten; some school programs are so rigid and uncompromising that they turn children away from them and even society in lasting ways (studies in gifted education show that many gifted children, when not recognized in schools, turn to delinquency), others are so ensconced in facile positivity that no real corrective feedback is given and the result is mediocrity.
The remarkable intellectual, George Steiner, in a chilling passage, reminds us of the failure of an enlightenment education based on the arts, to quell the evil that people are capable of.
“We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning."
At the end of the day, there seems little guarantee that any type of education, no matter how sensitive or ethical, can create ethical citizens. The most educated people are capable of the worst horrors and people with little education can be extraordinarily kind. This is not to say that efforts should not be made at all levels, as we can always believe that schools will make a difference, and if there is no messaging and no consequences for actions whatsoever, one can be fairly sure that things will get worse.
What does this imply for school leaders? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, William Damon, and Howard Gardner formed the Good Project in the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1996. This research hub has been dedicated to exploring the best tools and frameworks to use when faced with ethical decisions. Much of this takes the form of reflection routines, weighing up trade-offs, and compromises in the face of ethical dilemmas, for it is ultimately when faced with ethical dilemmas that one’s ontology becomes clear and we move from theory (“I believe in this and that”) to action (what are we actually going to do?).
I would venture that the single most important thing a leader can do is to model ethical behavior. Speeches are important, but it is behavior ultimately that will speak the loudest, and people watch the principal to see what she/he or they are doing mainly for the signal this sends out about how trustworthy they are, how stable and fair they are in the decisions they take, and how compassionate and humane they are.
Here are three higher order moral imperatives that leaders must respect at all times to keep their own integrity, model ethical behavior, and build trust. They are not complex to conceptualize but not necessarily easy to live by at all times either:
1. Truth. Never lie, never go back on your word. Your yes must be a yes, your no a no. People might pretend that they heard something else (what they wanted to hear), and the leader will be accused of not being clear, of having said one thing and done another. All you can be sure of is that what you say is what you do. Stay true to this consistently and absolutely.
2. Fairness. Choose the best candidate for a role, not the one you prefer for personal reasons. Have the courage to sometimes take decisions that you might not want but you know deep down inside are fair. Iniquity is caused by twisted, ad-hominem decision making. If you are consistently fair in your deliberations, people will know where they are with you and will be brought to act fairly themselves, because the overall system in which they are operating is fair and not political.
3. Compassion. Remember that human beings are fragile, that life can be tough, and that people might be masking a lot of suffering. Forgive those who turn against you; offer them a hand to pull them back up and walk the high road. Don’t destroy people’s lives for logistical reasons; treat them as ends and not means. This does not mean that you should allow abuses to take place or be emotionally blackmailed at every decision; firm and clear judgment of each decision is needed. However, don’t be afraid to explain clearly to others when a decision is made that might not align with a perfect, mathematically designed plan that it's because people deserve a second chance, and we are trying to sustain our humanity as we make our way through life. A leader who is compassionate reminds everybody that we can be kind to one another and care for each other’s wellbeing, that we are not just pawns on a chessboard.
If you are a school leader, know that standing up for the right thing is more important than anything. Strategy is needed to operationalize the vision, shifting the culture is needed to have your community adhere to the vision, and the clarity and power of the vision are compelling and essential to all that follows. However, when you’ve come to the end of your tenure and you look at yourself in the mirror, it will not be the vision, the strategy, or the culture you will remember, it will be the faces of the people who needed you, who trusted you, who relied on you, and the way you responded. You will see in the mirror the eyes of the students, parents, and colleagues whose lives were changed by your decisions. Walk the high road, and that day, in front of the mirror, will be a replenishing one that makes you proud.
Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) is the campus and secondary principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been a school principal, director of education, International Baccalaureate diploma program coordinator, and teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India, and the Netherlands. Conrad is a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People, and a research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education. He teaches philosophy.