Teaching morality

Is it possible to influence the minds of pupils in our schools without resorting to complete reliance on secular arguments? asks Paul Griffin

Schools often say with justice that the problem of badly behaved youth is a parental responsibility. If so, how can society best approach those children whose parents, by their absence or hopelessness, fail them? The first and perhaps only time such children will be in a stable group will be at school. The responsibility, however exasperatingly for teachers, returns to them.

Even assuming that our school is a Christian one, the group will contain a large non-Christian element, among which the problem children will mostly number themselves. To convince them, our arguments need not be ostentatiously Christian. However formidable the task may seem, it requires only patience, conviction and clear speaking to convince children of the folly of, say, abusing drugs, by graphic reference to the damage caused to their work, their finances and their future.

They may also be encouraged by good teaching to give weight to their effect on others. Since others will probably include parents against whom they may be bent on wreaking revenge, and since it is very hard for the young to concentrate on how older people see them, this last argument may not weigh heavily with them. Also, even once convinced, they may not follow their conviction; but they are free beings, and the teachers duty has to stop somewhere.

 

Sidestepping Christianity

The problem comes when we ask what our Lord would have said. He certainly did not reason against adultery by speaking of its financial cost and its effect on careers. He was working within a whole body of law and custom of which we lost track when we became effectively a secular country. There is nothing specially unchristian in using practical arguments of the sort mentioned, except that they only go so far, and sidestep the soundly based Christian morality accepted by previous generations.

By not starting with the faith, a teacher may well have a sensation of falling into the submerged liberal conviction that God's way of speaking to us is through the fashion of the time. Are we, by using only the same arguments as a humanist, selling the Christian pass? Should we not be talking first about holiness and the Kingdom of God, as our Lord would probably do, with the arguments for material concerns coming in second?

Yet God does speak to us in his own way through fashion. He speaks in whatever he chooses: peace, plenty, calamities, global warming, history, the EA. Cup, and even, believe it or not, television. He speaks to us all the time. The problem is to decide what he is saying, and since he is unlikely to contradict himself, it helps to study what he has said on the same subject in the past, notably in the Bible.

 

Communication problems

My conscience about the days when I ran a Christian school is far from clear. A former pupil from long ago who visited me recently said at one point: 'Of course, you were rather keen on religion, weren't you?' So I must have mentioned the matter; but I have a feeling that I too had tended to concentrate on the material arguments for sensible living, in order to reach those who switched off at God talk.

One of the problems of God talk to the young is that they find it hard to consider the ultimate dimension of death. Without war or bereavement to concentrate their minds, the absence of the Last Things handicaps their judgement and our power of communication.

I take four conclusions from this. One is that if a child goes to a non-religious school he or she need not suffer from a fair humanist and materialist education. The second is that to us such an education is building a house on sand unless the parents have done their religious duty first. Thirdly, good Christian schools are vital, to offset parental failings. Finally, no fashionable argument is entitled to a special position because somebody devoted to fashionable arguments says it is God at work in a special way. Not even the General Synod of the Church of England.

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