I’ve been reading about abortion, religious belief and other social issues on Libby Anne’s blog LoveJoyFeminism. It reminded me of the discussions I used to have in my RE classes with Mr O’Grady.
Mr O’Grady was a great teacher, but I think he made a big mistake.
When we discussed an issue, say, abortion, he would ask us, “What are you views on abortion?”
The classroom was a safe place to express ourselves. He tried to eek out the widest range of opinions, to get people to divide into classes of belief (e.g. pro-life and pro-choice), but to also make them discuss the exemptions to or variety within their beliefs. We really had to think about it. Some people had different reasons for reaching the same conclusion, such as religious or moral beliefs.
But by posing the question, “What are you views?” Mr O’Grady automatically legitimised authoritarianism as a mechanism for belief.
That is, he normalised the idea that morals transcend human conscience, that they leap fully formed at you and that you accept them whole as your parent, schoolteacher or religious leader presents them to you. That is, whilst he was asking us to think about our beliefs, he was expecting us to tell him not our beliefs, but the beliefs of our elders.
It makes sense: we were children, and many of us had not fully formed our beliefs, if for no other reason than because there were aspects of the adult world to which we had not been exposed (such as sex).
But I think a very much more interesting and introspective way of teaching should recognise this moral limitation and show children that unformed opinions and evolution of moral stances are not only normal for that age, but a good thing to have at any age.
In other words, it is not a good idea to be too sure of yourself.
That is, he should ask, “Do you have any views on abortion? And if so, where did they come from?”
He could also go on to ask, “What do you think will influence your stance on this in the future?
“Is morality rigid?
“What would you need in order to change your mind about the issue?
“Do you want to learn more about the issue?
“Do you think it’s important to explore an issue before we pass judgement on it, or is it more important to have a stance on an issue, even if you do not know much about it?”
“Can we every be objectively moral?”
And what is more, this should not just be a lesson in itself, these kinds of questions should be tied in to every discussion on specific issues. It is easy to say, “What are your beliefs on abortion? …Why?”
It is much more challenging to discuss who told you this (have many children actually read all or much of their holy books? Have many adults?) and why you believe them. To consider what is needed in order to question the validity of unquestioned authority (after all, how many children behave badly in school, hmm? I know I have) and what the appeals of sticking with your current standpoint are. To encourage people to explore the information behind the opinions they form, challenge their opinions and expose themselves to other opinions without building up an immediate wall of defence.
I think this would really teach us something.