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December 23, 2003
Denis Dutton on moral education

I've started to read this piece by Denis Dutton, a recently acquired interest of mine, and so far I like it a lot:

With Toni Morrison, I acknowledge that what I think and do is already inscribed on my teaching, and all my work. Indeed, we do "teach values by having them," or at least cannot but reveal our values in the classroom in one manner or another. This is not a voluntary option for those of us who teach in higher education or anywhere else: it is a permanent feature of the human condition. I sit at my computer overlooking a grass commons between suburban houses. As it's a warm New Zealand summer, neighborhood children below are playing an improvised game of cricket. Mr. Gagliardi from the house opposite mine appears with his lawnmower and asks the kids to give way so he can mow the lawn. Today he's doing my side as well, because my old mower is still in the repair shop. They patiently wait by the side of the commons for him to finish, though it takes some more time when he shuts down the mower to chat a bit with Mr. McConchie next door. When the children later resume their play, Mr. Gagliardi helps out with some batting instruction, guiding them with his usual care and patience.

When I think of "teaching values," I find it hard to keep my mind focused on university classrooms. The promulgation of moral principles in the classroom or lecture theater plays a real but overestimated role in the moral enculturation of young people; more important in my opinion is the human example set by teachers and other adults in the ordinary conduct of life. If morality could be instilled by teaching principles in the same way that mathematics can be taught through principles, then Moral Principles 101 would long since be required in every university. As things are, the moral education most people receive at the university is continuous with the moral example being set by Mr. Gagliardi for the children down on the commons: his demonstrated sense of communal responsibility, his kindness and friendliness, his willingness to take time to help them with their play. He's not sermonizing from a pulpit, sacred or secular, he's just mowing the lawn, and setting a decent adult example.

I will be reading all of it, and my guess is, so may quite a few of you, if you haven't already

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:35 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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