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21st century moral education leaves Simpson's donkey behind

Having recently published a book entitled Acting on Conscience, I am delighted to have the opportunity to wrestle with these issues. I am no stranger to arguments and positions at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy of our politicians and media. I even have the occasional difference of opinion with some of my own church leaders.

We are now all well familiar with the public talk of values. Each school now displays a values poster listing Australian schooling values:

• Care and compassion
• Doing your best
• Fair go
• Freedom
• Honesty and Trustworthiness

• Integrity
• Respect
• Responsibility
• Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion

Many Australians have reservations about a government poster espousing such values with a quote from an English novelist, George Eliot, proclaiming "Character is Destiny". Others wonder about Simpson's Donkey as the emblematic carrier of these values. But most of us do not have a major problem with this particular listing of values. We might quibble with the ordering or wonder whether such a listing of values is a useful pedagogical tool.

The major Australian reservation to this listing of Australian values is the very unAustralian idea that government specifies what our values are for us, and then government dictates that we must display the values in our school - otherwise the cheque will not be in the mail. Then again, perhaps this is becoming the Australian way. We do not even espouse publicly our values unless required by government and unless there be some financial incentive. We are very pragmatic and consequentialist in our reasoning and planning, and thus in our values.

We are looking at the school of the 21st century as a local form of community where values can be enfleshed, enacted and espoused. As moral agents, we and our students are responsible for our intentional acts, for incidental aspects of those actions of which we should be aware, and for at least some of the reasonably predictable effects of those actions.

In our different roles, we acknowledge the authority of evaluative and normative standards embodied in our particular social and cultural order. But as moral agents, espousing the virtues of integrity and constancy across roles and in each of our roles, we also acknowledge standards independent of those embodied in our social and cultural order – standards we can use to critique our social and cultural order.

I note that we can all get a bit weary in taking a stand on complex issues of conscience, especially when we receive friendly fire. I get into trouble every time I go to Western Australia nowadays. The local Catholic paper The Record has little interest in reporting my position on proposed new laws which raise ethical concerns. They prefer to report on my failure to comply with every Vatican utterance. Recently, The Record purported to report my remarks about proposed new laws on stem cell research under the headline, "Embryo research OK: Jesuit – The Church teaches research on embryos left over from IVF process is not morally permissible. Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan says it is." (22 August 2007) I made no such claim.

The partisan church tabloid confused three issues. There is a need to distinguish (1) what is morally appropriate for childless Catholic couples wanting to avail themselves technical assistance with the bearing of their own children, (2) what ought the law be for regulating experimentation on human embryos already in existence but with no further prospect of implantation, and (3) what ought the law be for permitting the creation of human embryos for experimentation.

When contemplating the guilt or responsibility of a whole social and cultural order, we want our students not to be caught in the compartmentalised lives driven by duty and responsibility in their roles but with insufficient attention to integrity and constancy in their lives across many roles, as moral agents. There may well be times when they will have to take a stand on their own, feeling unsupported by the authorities in their social and cultural order (even including church leaders).

I dare to say that the school providing a moral and ethical education for its graduates of the 21st century will be producing APEC demonstrators as well as government advisers and heads of state. It is often left to the protesters to proclaim from the rooftops those things which the social and cultural order want us not to know.

- Excerpts from "A moral and ethical education for the 21st century", a wide-ranging address given at the Reinventing Schooling conference at Loreto Normanhurst, in Sydney, on 4 September 2007. The full text is here.


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