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The Blind Spot

July 15, 2015

I've complained multiple times, both here as well as in other places, about the culture of education in the United States -- not about the idea of education, which the US has mostly right (or, at least, heading in the right direction). But about the way our culture approaches solving problems in education and improving our public education system. And many of them have been about how the United States' (and other cultures') education mindset neglects the arts education and the exercise of creativity, or about the way testing-focused education leads to the neglect of the non-STEM subjects. In short, my words are echoes of criticisms and discussions that aren't very difficult to find elsewhere, from more reputable critics of public education.

And that's all well and good, but the point I want to make today is something that might not be such a familiar criticism, nor a very highly accepted idea. But I think it's interesting at the very least, and it's something I firmly believe in.

When we talk about the ways education takes place at large scales -- I think there are three main ways we teach and learn. The first, and my personal preference, is just "teaching yourself". This is undoubtedly the most robust, oldest, the most motivating, and the most productive way to learn anything. But it also takes a substantial bit of perseverance and mental effort, which is why it's also not the most "popular" of the options. The second is the one that's discussed the most often -- education that happens in institutions we generally call schools. That includes everything from public schools to private universities. And it's usually where the vast majority of debate around education is focused. But while both of these "types" of education are flawed in their own rights, the least-discussed, third type of education is the one I'm also the most interested in. And that's what I would call "spiritual education"*.

I have many bones to pick with the way education "takes place" in our culture. But one of them, surprisingly, has to do with adopting something traditionally unique to religious practices.

My so-called spiritual education obviously emcompasses learning that takes place in churches, mosques, temples, and wherever else religion is practiced. But I'm not so interested in the aspect of learning about scriptures and the history so much as I am about the ethics and morality that's often discussed in that same context. I personally am not a religious individual, and I'm adequately vocal about that. But because of my family and other reasons that come up, I'm also familiar with at least one critical type of learning that takes place in the context of religion, and that also happens to be the one thing the other two types of education -- self-learning and education in schools -- are completely and utterly missing. It's the blind spot of institutionalized education.

I'm familiar with at least one critical type of learning that takes place in the context of religion, and that also happens to be the one thing the other two types of education -- self-learning and education in schools -- are completely and utterly missing.

I'm talking, of course, about the education of morality and ethics**. The first question that we could ask goes, "why would morality be taught in schools?" And I suppose there are a handful of arguments against me. For one, morality could be delegated to family or, obviously, religious contexts. Morality is also a sensitive and controversial topic to many, and schools generally don't like to deal with sensitive or controversial topics, hence the lazy avoidance of talking too much about religion and faith in many schools. Another argument against ethics education is why it would be necessary or even beneficial to "teach" morality, when it's such a personal issue that's often difficult to address in groups. My response to that is twofold. First, religious institutions do a perfectly fine job -- and often far more -- of getting people to talk about morality and the big questions in a mature way that's vastly more helpful than it is "controversial". Second, while we try to shove and force into students' heads what they already know -- that drug kills, underage pregnancy is better avoided, and bullying is terrible -- these problems still persist not just because of the lack of information, but also because often, the people who encounter these problems also don't have the moral support they need to get through the lows in their lives in a healthier way.

You could also make a case that morality can't be taught like math or English. And yes, that's true. But the same goes for the arts. We don't try to teach music the same way we teach calculus, and we don't approach physical education the same way we do foreign language education. In the case of "teaching morality", it's perfectly enough to regularly have productive, thoughtful discussions about big ideas. And it's possible, because I've been a part of several such discussions.

Morality shouldn't be "taught" like long division or battles of the Civil War, but it also doesn't mean that giving students opportunities to expand and challenge their ideas about their morals would be trivial, counterproductive, or "controversial".

Morality shouldn't be "taught" like long division or battles of the Civil War, simply because they can't be taught that way. But that doesn't mean we should avoid talking about the important questions in our lives at the level of schooled education, and it certainly doesn't mean that giving students opportunities to expand and challenge their ideas about their morals would be trivial, counterproductive, or "controversial".

I do not follow a religion, and that position won't change for the long forseeable future. But that doesn't mean I don't respect the practice of religion, and one of the things I envy about people who practice religion is that they, on average, have more opportunities to think critically about the things that truly matter in life. While they reap the benefits of STEM-focused education in schools, they also have the opportunities to think not just about how to integrate functions and why the Seven Years' War happened, but also about the ideas of death and mortality, right and wrong, and a millon other ideas that impact our lives. And I think, as a culture, we ought to at least try to bring that opportunity to as many people as we can manage.


* Frankly, I don't think that's the right term for it, but I don't know what else I'd call it, and I'm too lazy to do much research on terminology when I could be doing research on concepts.

** Yes, there are differences between the two words' meanings, but because "ethics education" is necessarily accompanied by "morality education", I'll use them interchangeably here.