Morality, Civic Skills, Debate, and Rootedness in Meghalaya

This is a paper written for @UKPastoralChat Pastoral Periodical 3 published on 04.10.2018. I am grateful to @DaringOptimist for the opportunity to contribute to this special issue on Character Education. Maria deserves great credit for collating the views and insights of all contributors. I feel privileged to be amongst that group and hope the journal is well read. After all, the world of education is in dire need of recalibration, I say.

In north-east India, high in the mountains of Meghalaya, the summer monsoons are so heavy that the rivers running through its valleys grow wild and unpredictable, making them impossible to cross. Centuries ago, the villagers came up with an ingenious solution. They planted a strangler fig on the riverbank and began to tease its roots across the river until they took hold on the opposite side.

Through a slow process of binding and weaving the roots together, the villagers created a robust, living bridge that could withstand the deluge of the summer rains. Because it is a work that cannot be completed in any one person’s lifetime, the knowledge of how to bind and tend to the roots has to be passed on to each of the younger generations who keep the practice alive, contributing to what is now a magnificent network of living root bridges throughout the valleys of Meghalaya.

I have been catching up, this week, courtesy of iPlayer Radio, with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ series broadcast on Radio 4 Morality in the 21st Century. Rabbi Sacks speaks to some of the world’s leading thinkers about morality, together with voices from the next generation: groups of British 6th form students. Morality. A useful definition from Rabbi Sacks himself:

Morality is what lifts us above the pursuit of self interest and self esteem. It’s about the things we do not just because they are good for me but because they are good for us. It’s about collective responsibility for the common good.

In Episode 6, philosopher and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel charges schools and universities with the task of doing a better job of cultivating civic skills. Civic skills? He illuminates… the ability to argue, to reason, based on mutual respect. We are not born with these civic skills, he says, we need to learn them. Sandel contends that the media is deeply corrupting in the way it amplifies shouting matches, and with its emphasis on spectacle and sensation. Sandel advocates “reasoned debate about the common good”. And that, in the form of “public conversation”. Although the internet offers open access to public debate, social media has spawned an atomising form of public discourse. Unless very carefully structured, Sandel says, online discussion can be “… very rude, vulgar – it does not teach people to listen very well. The kind of discourse needed has to be cultivated, through practice:

Human presence, people gathering together, whether this be in the classroom or the Ecclesia. People arguing with one another, seeing one another, hearing one another, having to contend with one another, even when we disagree.

Rabbi Sacks’ theory is that over the past fifty years we have outsourced morality to the market and the state. The market gives us choices, the state deals with the consequences, but neither passes any judgement on those choices. Supposed freedoms have come at a cost, that including loss of community, loss of trust in organisations and government, and “the vitriol that passes for communication on the internet”.

The writer David Brooks also features in the series. Brooks contrasts what he calls “resumé virtues” with “eulogy virtues”, as discussed in his book The Road to Character. As the name implies, “resumé virtues” are those attributes and achievements that we want to push in order to build up our own stature. Resumé virtues are about accomplishments, performance, and abilities. Brooks says our most valued, most treasured qualities and virtues are revealed in our eulogies. In honouring the lives of people who have passed away we talk about their empathy, compassion, and love for others. We talk about how they served and cared for those who were in need. Brooks suggests that these “eulogy virtues” are all too readily trumped by our pursuit of resumé virtues in the materialistic world we inhabit.

Toko-pa Turner is a Canadian writer, teacher, and dreamworker who blends the mystical tradition of Sufism with a Jungian approach to dreams. She did not feature in Sacks’ series but may well have done. Toko-pa has a fascinating take on Belonging, shared in her book Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. Toko-pa says that the absence of belonging is “the great silent wound of our times”. She says that most people think of belonging as a mythical place. But what if belonging isn’t a place at all? What if it is a skill that has been lost or forgotten? Toko-pa speaks of “the ache of a life orphaned from belonging.”

There are many ways to be made an orphan, other than outright, by the parent incapable of caring for you. We are also made orphans, she says, by a culture that, in its epitomising of certain values rejects others, forcing us to split off from those unwanted parts of ourselves. And this is the worst orphaning act of all, because it is an abandonment in which we are complicit.

If Michael Sandel is right, and there is little to suggest he is not, cultivating civic skills is a moral obligation for schools, surely? If we were to place such cultivation at the core of our school curricula, might we begin to reverse the damage done over the past fifty years by seizing morality back from the market and the state? In so doing can we redress the balance of resumé virtues vs eulogy virtues, in favour of the second set? May we then request that Toko-pa lift the charge of us being complicit in the worst orphaning act of all?

In my view, there is no point in kidding ourselves that projects such as that we began with (above) – the bridges in the mountains of Meghalaya – would ever take off, never mind be sustained, in the West. My view. Think about it.

Hope. There’s always hope. Listen to the series. Hope rings clear in the voices of the 6th formers. They know. Our young ones feel it, instinctively. It is for us to give them the space. Space, slap bang in the middle of our ever burgeoning curricula. In the epicentre of our schools.

Imagine, just imagine, if all our schools had at their centre an Ecclesia, a debating chamber. A space of human presence. A place of public conversation. A place where young people argue with one another, see one another, hear one another, and contend with one another, even when they disagree.

Debating Chamber, Old Royal Grammar School, Edinburgh

And then reflect on Rabbi Sacks’ definition of that, he claims, we have outsourced to the market and the state.

Morality is what lifts us above the pursuit of self interest and self esteem. It’s about the things we do not just because they are good for me but because they are good for us. It’s about collective responsibility for the common good.

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