A few years ago, ethics classes were introduced as an option alongside traditional scripture in public schools across Australia. Like scripture, the classes are held each week for around an hour and are taught by volunteers, if they can be found. Earlier this month the ABC’s Radio National weighed in on the topic wondering how religion should be taught to young children – or if it should be taught at all. As I gear up to step into the classroom to teach my six year-old daughter and her classmates for 60 long minutes next week, it’s something that’s on my mind, too.
When I was in primary school I carried my comic-book bible everywhere. By year five, I knew the Old Testament off by heart (Deuteronomy was my personal fave), could lead a group prayer session, and would regularly evangelise about my faith to other students—pleading with them to “accept Jesus into their hearts.”
Thinking back to that time evokes a gut-punch of emotion. Mortification, first. Not because of the religious ideas specifically, but because of my naivety absorbing and recalling them without question. Incredulity, second. How could my parents/grandparents present their faith as fact? (When my grandmother told me the red splashes on the petals of hibiscus flowers were the blood of Jesus Christ, I believed her. Whoa.) Why didn’t they balance their beliefs with science or acknowledge their way was one amongst many? (As a parent myself now, this one seriously has me shaking my head.) But there’s one feeling that’s stronger than all the others. Something curious and utterly unexpected: ADMIRATION.
Admiration for the brains and effort it took to remember all the lines from that thumping big book. Admiration for the confidence and eloquence it took to talk to kids I didn’t know. Admiration for the compassion and thoughtfulness the ideas stirred in my heart.
It is only looking back on my own behaviour that I really see the truth of the cliche: children are sponges. Smart, sincere sponges with a limitless appetite for myths and stories and spiritual doctrine that takes root in their imaginations and flourishes for a lifetime to come.
If you could teach a child anything, knowing they would take your kernel of information and more than run with it—pour their heart and soul into it—what would you teach them? English, maths and science, of course. You’d teach them to eat well, move their bodies, and understand basic health. But what about their emotional, mental and spiritual health? What about empathy, body confidence, the ability to resist advertising, politely disagree, handle bad luck and to be a true friend?
Ethics is the branch of philosophy that explores human action and interaction. It encourages self examination and aims to teach the skill of ethical reasoning – that is, encouraging individuals to think for themselves on the basis of reason and evidence. As opposed to skills that can be fairly well mastered like maths and English, ethical reasoning is a nebulous skill that involves constant evolution and constant reflection.
For me, personally, ethical reasoning comes into play every single day. Should I download Game of Thrones or buy a Foxtel subscription? Should I opt for the expensive organic free-range eggs or the cheapies that may or may not be the real deal? Should I say something when I see a four-year-old boy in the park cruelly tease his sister? When my garbage is overflowing is it OK to take my extra bags and dump them in next door’s bins?
Ethics is implicit in many subjects and many places. It’s found across almost all school subjects and certainly in all scripture teaching—no matter the religion. Through the program that I’m involved in, Primary Ethics, teachers are given a defined curriculum—every subject, every lesson, every comment is laid out completely—and each teacher is under strict instructions not to deviate from the script. Topics include pride, teasing, animal rights, laziness, forgiveness, sharing and being similar and different.
The ethics class I go through with my daughter each week is not about freewheeling discussion or chatting to the kids about my personal experience. More often it involves telling a story, setting up a scenario and then asking questions about it: “Why do you think that is? Does anyone agree or disagree with that? What does it depend on? Why would it be OK for some people but not for others? What would happen if everyone decided to do that?”.
And let’s be honest, these are six-year-olds, not university-educated philosophers. If an answer will give them a chance to a) make their buddies laugh b) get you off their case or c) give them a little more time to stare intently out the window – that’s the one they’ll cough up. But sometimes, unexpectedly, you’ll get a glimmer of brilliance and someone will say something so profound, so true, you’ll have to stop yourself and ask, “Yeah, why doesn’t the world work that way?”
What I like about ethics is that it doesn’t aim to tell you the “Truth” (implicitly hinting any other ideas are “Lies”), saddle you with buckets of guilt or proselytise others. In fact, none of that is even remotely the point. Ethics simply aims to get you to ask questions – of the children and yourself. To reflect and evaluate what could be right and wrong in different situations for different people.
And, as cool as Deuteronomy is, that’s exactly what I wish someone had taught me.
If you’re interested in learning more about Primary School Ethics, go here.