Monday, September 3, 2007

Ethics in Education

As the new academic term begins, I find myself in a class on ethics, justice, and virtue in education. Since education has taken a turn to focus on developing skills in students as opposed to developing critical thinking, the course wants to ask if "Character" education should be re-instituted into the purpose of education. Arguably, "character" education never left education, it just became an implicit purpose as opposed to an explicit purpose...afterall, students learn norms and " how to behave" in class in a variety of ways, just not through an actual course devoted to it. However, should character education become an explicit part of education where notions of citizenship, value, ethics, etc are discussed, where differences are utilized rather than norms?

While I think "character" education is an important topic, what dilemmas do we face as we think about it. How do we talk about character development in a way that is transformative and provacative, as opposed to limiting and marginalizing. Along with this, how does the research community around issues of education hinder the possibility of character education with its emphasis on quantifiable skills and quantitative methodology inevitably de-humanizing the education system by propelling forward a notion of determinism and prediction? By this, I mean...if we privilege quantitative research (or positivist epistemology in general) because of its ability to illustrate patterns and "predict" what could potentially occur, do we eliminate the change, the unique relationship between each student in the desk and the complex environments around each of them? Do we deny the variability in humans and if so, what does that say about us?

Thinking about a particular part of education, I want to think about "sex education" and character education. I would argue that "sex education" is a form of character education. It in current "form" it teaches students that "abstinence" is best and heterosexual relationships are the only legitimate form of relationships - they are moral while anything outside of heterosexual relationships are immoral since they deserve no discussion unless through pathologization. Since sexual "ethics" is such a taboo and controversial subject matter, how can education trouble this form of sex education and could it do so through "character education?" In the current political environment, my guess would be no since 1) education funding has decreased and 2) sex education profers up abstinence instead of thinking about the "fact" that teens have sex and desires - giving them information will not make them or less sexual, it will just provide them with more information about issues of health, safety, and perhaps even the multiple forms of desire (i.e. oral, anal, S/M, etc.). How can we then re-insert sex into sex education and discuss notions of desire, pleasure, and perhaps a queer ethics of sexuality? How would such a format to "sex education" propel students into thinking about sex instead of feeling shame or embarassment when sex or desire or pleasures are brought into conversation...OR how do we embrace that shame to disrupt the power shame has been used to silence discussions on desire and sex, showing that sex (no matter how one "identifies") can be pleasurable but exists within a complex web of shame and moralizing that complicates it.

Beyond sex education though, should education incorporate civic courses that debate and discuss notions of citizenship, politics, etc...perhaps bringing in critical lenses such as feminism, postcolonialism, queer, and critical race theories? Would such an approach trouble the economic underpinnings that are part of education and minimize critical thinking...since such thinking would not create docile student bodies, but bodies of subversion and difference. Can character education do this or would character education simply re-assert or re-affirm norms of "majority" ethics centered on phallicized whiteness?

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