In her article ‘Religious education: the way forward’ (The Sunday Times of Malta, May 25) Dr Pauline Dimech made the following strange­ly misinformed (for a religious educator) declaration about the new Ethics programme which is gathering momentum and popularity in our schools: “The reasons for offering religious education are compelling: personal development, cultural understanding and social integration are all essential in a multi-cultural society like ours, whereas ethics is very limited.” I write to correct her misinformation.

First, the facts. Ethics education was first mooted in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) document of 2012, and specifically intended as an alternative for children whose parents have withdrawn them from the Catholic religion lesson, a growing number as one would expect with a society growing, as Dr Dimech says, increasingly multi-cultural – a reality it would be foolhardy and irresponsible to ignore.

While it identifies Ethics as the alternative to Catholic Religious Education the NCF describes it as its ‘preference’ to the option of offering comparative religion, a very strange preference if one has a multi-cultural reality in mind. Stranger still (contradictory even) is that while presenting them as alternative learning programmes its puts Religious Education and Ethics together in a common curriculum area titled ‘Religious and Ethics Education’.

Here, however, it was probably following the trend in countries in Europe and elsewhere to combine the two in this way. In these countries, however, Religious Education is understood comparatively, not confessionally, the approach ruled out by the NCF, and usually includes secular ethical outlooks, even atheistic, besides the socially significant faiths and beliefs.

If one wants to respond to multi-cultural social realities, comparative Ethics and Religious Education programmes certainly make most sense – but it needs little speculation to understand why the NCF ruled the approach out in our case.

Students learn the value of self-respect and respect for others, to distinguish good from bad role models, promote a healthy self-regard for their minds and bodies, and to distinguish a healthy self-reflection from an unhealthy self-absorption

In any case, when the Department of Education Studies at the University was commissioned to set up the Ethics Education programme and to train teachers to teach it, we knew that our task was largely to respond to this reality; and to create a programme that is neither comparative nor confessional we turned to philosophy. Firstly, because ethics has been a philosophical concern since the time of the Ancient Greeks when Socrates pondered over the question of what constitutes a virtuous life and whether virtue can be taught; and secondly, because of the substantial literature in doing philosophy in the classroom we could call to our aid.

Our Ethics programme begins in primary school. Its first object is two-fold: firstly to create self-awareness – who one is in relation to others, and secondly to socialise students into ‘uncontroversial’ cross-cultural values such as honesty, respect, fairness, truth-telling, courage, loyalty, friendship, and so on, and the qualities of character (or virtues) that go with them; these together with key values that encourage multi-cultural respect, understanding, tolerance, and solidarity.

The immediate task of Ethics teachers is to turn the classroom into a ‘community of inquiry’ reflecting these values, where one listens, discusses, debates and argues one’s thoughts and opinions with others in a safe, open, environment of trust and mutual respect. By participating actively in such a community, students cultivate the communication skills and intellectual virtues required for the purpose.

It is not difficult to see these qualities of an ethical ‘community’ as those of a democratic community. So conceived, the Ethics classroom contributes strongly to cultivating democratic citizens while the emphasis on friendship actively discourages and combats bullying (an emphasis sustained throughout the Ethics programme).

The secondary school programme consolidates and builds on the primary. The level of inquiry is raised with the development of the students’ intellectual and communicative skills. Emphasis is laid on the importance of self-reflection where the self concerned is social, one that lives with and in relation to others – the ground for this notion is already laid in the primary programme.

Students learn the value of self-respect and respect for others, to distinguish good from bad role models, promote a healthy self-regard for their minds and bodies, and to distinguish a healthy self-reflection from an unhealthy self-absorption that is obsessive, narcissistic and leads to practices that are of self-harm and harm to others; various kinds of addictions, irresponsible risk-taking, self-exposure and sexual activity.

Students are encouraged to reflect critically on their own private beliefs and conduct towards others and are sensitised to the importance of side-effects, the consequences of actions for oneself and others. They are also encouraged to engage critically with ethical subjects and issues introduced by the teacher and taught some elementary logic for the purpose. They learn to regard the disagreement in ethical matters as endemic to a society that values freedom of belief and that tolerates cultural difference, and how to deal with it.

Inevitably I’ve done nothing approaching full justice to a rich and complex, but not over-ambitious, programme, but even with this limited description readers can judge whether it is indeed ‘narrow’, as Dr Dimech says.

Kenneth Wain is a philosopher and professor of education at the University of Malta.

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