For more than 2,000 years, western societies have been operating under the assumption that education makes citizens more civilized, which is to say, less violent, more respectful toward one another, more ethical.
The Roman poet Ovid expressed a common sentiment when he wrote that “... a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.”
Yet Rome’s cruelty was unmatched in the ancient world.
In the 1930s, Germany was arguably the world’s most civilized nation. It used its sophisticated educational system to perpetrate mass murder. Many of the Nazi officers were highly educated. Adolf Eichmann, in charge of transporting Jews to extermination camps, even cited Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory at his trial.
All of this raises the question: Why has 2,000 years of experience with education not resulted in societies that are more ethical, more tolerant and less prone to violence? Is it even possible to teach ethics?
Controversy over this question can be traced back to the earliest writings about ethics. Aristotle thought virtue results from socialization. Good character traits are taught first at home and then in society. As good behaviors are repeated, they become habitual, and the habits gradually become virtues. On this view the chief goal of education is to take amoral children and “form” them into good citizens.
When Alfred Tennyson wrote that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” he was taking sides with Aristotle, as was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously observed that life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Civilization is needed to restrain natural impulses.
Most people tend to agree with Aristotle. The word “education” has almost come to be synonymous with “training,” just as the word “ethics” in some circles has become synonymous with “compliance.”
A contrasting view originates with Plato. He believed that human beings are innately good. The goal of education is not to form good character traits but rather to reconnect people with their sense of right and wrong. We do this not through training but by listening carefully to one another’s words.
Recent studies about empathy support the innate goodness side of the debate. Human beings seem to be neurologically “wired” for friendship, sharing and compassion, but as we grow up, we are “rewired” by cultures of competition, greed and violence.
How does this happen?
For 30 years, Carol Gilligan has been listening to the voices of young girls and boys, paying attention to how they speak about identity and relationships. Her first book, “In a Different Voice,” pointed out the significance of the distinct ways girls and boys tend to talk about moral problems.
According to Gilligan, what passes for normal development is largely a process of dissociation — detachment from self and other — that takes place at about age 5 or 6 for boys and age 12 or 13 for girls.
In the case of boys, this can be heard in the adoption of a masculine voice, the bravura that armors them on the playground and protects them from one another’s ridicule. In the case of girls, it can be heard in a lessening of confidence and curiosity, a loss of voice that keeps them from asserting themselves in the “wrong” ways.
Such dissociation is not inevitable, but it is common, and it results in young people with a damaged sense of moral integrity, a sense that they are not a single, unified person, not quite whole. Many people never recover the voice that they lost as a child, but they recognize it when they encounter it, especially in characters like Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In order to retain that voice of integrity, children need strong, encouraging and loving relationships. Such relationships also are the key for adults who need their humanity restored.
It may sound trite, but the moral of Gilligan’s story is that goodness does not come from education. It comes from good people.
When good people are involved in parenting and educating — when they don’t forget that their loving presence is more important than whatever strategy, or system, or outcomes they are employing — they will have a good influence.
Education is essential to society, but it does not necessarily make people more ethical. Listening with a loving presence is what builds trust. And trust makes people — whether individuals or communities — whole.