COLUMN

A lesson in oversimplification

Our school system is reducing major moral questions to computer-chip games

Barbara Amiel June 15 1981
COLUMN

A lesson in oversimplification

Our school system is reducing major moral questions to computer-chip games

Barbara Amiel June 15 1981

A lesson in oversimplification

COLUMN

Our school system is reducing major moral questions to computer-chip games

Barbara Amiel

Once when I was being interviewed on CTV’s Canada AM, I saw the almost imperceptible eye-flicker that indicated host Norm Perry had received a time cue. Responding to it, Perry gave me a closing question: “We have about 45 seconds left, Barbara. Could you sum up the problems of the Canadian criminal justice system?” Some problems simply do not lend themselves to keypunch responses.

Or multiple-choice boxes. Even Cicero and Camus could not do justice to an issue such as this in 45 seconds. The marvels of the scientific world can deceive us in curious ways.

Science has given us a technological world of wonders. Press a button and a microwave oven cooks a brisket of beef in 12 minutes. Press a few others and a telephone rings in a room 11,000 km away. Science can be utilized through applied technology without any understanding of its processes. But there is—as yet—no applied technology for the social and ethical sciences. In order to arrive at conclusions about jurisprudence, ethics, morality or human rights, we have to understand a great deal of what lies behind the issues. No push buttons. No shortcuts. No computer chips. Here you have to drink deep of the Pierian spring—or not at all. But Pope’s nightmare about the dangers of a little learning is very much with us. Not only in the electronic and print media— where it may not matter so much—but in our schools.

Taking computer-chip mentality to utter absurdity, our current school systems have decided that the most complex questions can be taught through preprogrammed thought. Ethics is packaged under the modern title of “values education” (complete with charts listing the six stages of moral development in students to be checked off by teachers). Jurisprudence, economics, political science and so on fall under “social studies.” Ontario’s ministry of education, for example, encourages this scholarship as though teachers and students had a 45-secondsto-commercial cue. To open,say, Canada Today, a current Grade 10 textbook, is to plunge into the world of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Except Orwell intended his satire to be just that—a parody of the absurdity of trying to reduce complex thoughts to utter simplicity, a world where the Ten Commandments—too difficult for the sheep, hens and ducks to learn by heart—were “reduced to a single maxim, namely ‘four legs good, two legs bad.’ ” This is the world of Canada Today, a world whose terrifying simplemindedness reduces information to misinformation. On pages 174 and 175 students have charts of a bigot and a tolerant person respectively. A bigot, as the textbook informs students, has an unhappy family life, may be poorly educated and fears things that are unfamiliar. A tolerant person is usually well-educated, has a happy home life and does not compete with other racial groups for jobs, social position or land. Apart from the snobbish middle-class bias of these charts, the conclusions are simply not true. Just about all members of the human race are apprehensive of the unfamiliar; it is a part of the human condition. God alone knows how the authors determined that bigots are from lower-class, uneducated, authoritarian backgrounds—unless they did it from watching All in the Family—because the record of such notorious bigots as the Mosleys, many of the Grand Wizards of the KKK, not to mention much of the German middle class in the ’30s and ’40s, seems to put this in doubt. But then the entire textbook is a compendium of oversimplification and tendentious, fashionable myths.

In a sense it would be reassuring to think that the awfulness of Canada Today—and the numerous texts like it— springs only from some dark plot to twist young minds in a particular ideological bent. But while there may be a smidgen of this, the major problem is the assumption that the great questions of moral reasoning can be pinned down in six stages, or that charts can show the origins of bigotry or tolerance.

A wise society would understand that it is far better not to try to teach jurisprudence or ethics than to simplify them into computer-chip games. It is better not to try discussing constitutional law or social morality at all than to do it on a talk show for 45 seconds with a bright young host or hostess who wouldn’t recognize an idea if it fell on them. It is an error to believe that this kind of education, whatever its political bias, does any good. The uneducated, healthy social and moral instincts of a population informed by tradition and religion are probably preferable to the misinformation of pop psychologists and multiple-choice ethics. We can’t stop talk shows, or a schlock media intent on discussing socially relevant questions. But we can discourage the teaching, and most especially the discussion,of certain complex subjects on such ludicrous levels. To invite a totally unprepared student to comment on jurisprudence or ethical reasoning for an almost equally unprepared teacher is worse than an exercise in futility. It can only result in—it almost ensures—a frightful muddle. A perfect example occurred when Ontario’s minister of education, Bette Stephenson, took to CBC’s The National to announce Ontario’s commitment to values education. Said Stephenson to a chastened interviewer: “Can you imagine teaching English without making value judgments? Or history? And what about mathematics?” Yup. Four legs good. Two legs—you guessed it—bad.