Educating for Social and Moral Responsibility

As such, key questions in terms of developing social and moral responsibility in educational settings remain problematical. Is there a difference between moral education and social engineering to improve public behaviour? How can we resolve issues about the fluid and contextual notion of moral values? And are we truly able to be held morally responsible for our actions in a deterministic world? Hersch et al (1980:14) suggest that the purpose of moral education in the nineteenth century was to promote a ‘narrow form of socialization’. However, in the twentieth century this narrowness was challenged by philosophers such as Dewey (1909;1938) who argued that morality was a dynamic not static concept, linked to the changing values of modern democracies. Dewey believed that moral education needed to be rooted in the development of reasoning, not in training children to be dutiful to fixed moral rules. As such, Dewey’s arguments suggest that moral education and education per se are the same thing as they both involve the use of reason to resolve issues.

However, liberal educationalists such as Dewey were challenged in their belief that learning the ability to rationally reflect on values was sufficient to develop moral responsibility. According to Carr (1999) liberal educationalists in a secular world sought to promote ‘rational moral autonomy’ to prepare individuals’ for their role in an individualistic market economy and to maximise the chances of positive life choices. This notion of morality is rooted in concepts of individual rights and reciprocal relationships between individuals rather than the absolute moral values of previous times. Jonathan (1999) suggests that liberal moral education supports the development of individuals as moral agents who are equipped to reflect on the range of values they encounter and make considered moral judgements about these. Kohlberg (1981) supports this approach through his theory of moral development. Theorising that moral development is achieved through stages in progress towards increasingly sophisticated moral reasoning signifies that such moral reasoning is the ‘central feature of morality and moral education.’ (Straughan 1982:19).

Wilson (1990) argues that moral relativism does not make all values and beliefs arbitrary. He suggests that the answer to problems of relativity in moral thinking should be answered by closer focus on the processes of thinking about and rationalising moral issues. However, Carr (1999) concludes that liberal moral education, with its tolerance of a wide range of moral perspectives, excluding those which infringed on individual rights, failed to establish or explore ‘which human goals are worthier of pursuit than others.’ (p38). Straughan (1982) suggests that the determining the content of moral education is problematical because nothing can be categorically determined as morally right and that moral agents need to be able to make rational judgements and choices to be moral. However, he also argues that whereas following the dictates of an external moral authority has no value as a basis for moral development, developing a rational conscience, in which the moral authority is internalised, has.

Jonathan (1999) also states that the development of critical reasoning is not sufficient in moral education as it does not in itself provide the

framework upon which to develop and structure moral values. However, responses to the perceived crisis of moral decline vary. Straughan (1982) suggested that the perception that a moral vacuum had entered the classroom, as the declining influence of religion severed society from moral certainties, was a flawed concept. Straughan argues that the ‘moralistic argument ‘ is untenable as it is not possible to educate for moral certainties or to teach children ‘to be good’. (1982:9). Straughan suggests that while educators affect value neutrality and value clarification to support the development of individual moral reasoning, in fact values are transmitted through in all educational institutions through pedagogical choices and practices.

Wilcox and Ebbs (1992) suggest that the learning community is the key element in supporting the ‘scholar teacher/researcher’ to balance individual and group needs as they negotiate ‘teaching, discovery, application and integration.’ The learning community provides coherence to the experience of members and supports the development of an ethical basis for the institution as a whole. Learning communities can be described as:

‘an ideal type of higher education culture that seeks to overcome current tendencies toward individual alienation and intellectual fragmentation with regard to present academic specialization and special interests.’

It is clear that the role of HEIs must go beyond simply supporting the development of rational thinking in students in value-free ways. The culture and ethos of the institution needs to promote the development of social and moral responsibility in more active and committed ways, which support the student to negotiate the competing demands of self and others.