Character and Conviction

by Andy Bannister

In a fascinating essay in Education Forum, the magazine of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Stephen Anderson tells a chilling story of a philosophy class he was teaching on ethics.[1] Wanting an “attention getter” to shock his students into thinking morally, he displayed a photo of Bibi Aisha. She was a young Afghani girl who, aged just 14, was forced into marriage with a Taliban fighter, who proceeded to horribly abuse her. After suffering four years of violence, Aisha fled but was soon captured. Her husband and other family members then hacked off her nose and ears and left her to die in the mountains where she was later rescued by aid workers.

As Anderson told Aisha’s story and displayed the picture of her hauntingly beautiful but marred face,[2] he was hoping his students would display strong moral outrage. But he was shocked to discover that nothing of the kind happened, rather there was a fear of saying anything that might appear critical or judgemental. “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures,” one student stated. Another timorously raised their hand and said: “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” Anderson went on to suggest that we have succeeded in raising a generation of students who have imbibed one key idea: “never judge, never criticize, never take a position”.

His findings are not unusual. A similar phenomenon was recounted by Kay Hauugard, who described how her class of literature students were discussing Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”, in which each year the residents of a small, rural town choose one member of their community to stone to death to ensure the well-being of the community and the crops. In 1948 when the story was published, it provoked outrage. But Hauugard found her class responding with sentiments like “if it’s part of a person’s culture, it’s okay”. It was not that her students were unwilling to take a stand on their convictions: rather they had no convictions at all.[3]

The trend seems to be growing…

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Character and Conviction | Andy Bannister