Imagined chaos

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Marianne Talbot (TES, November 1) wants to see reasoned argument and a co-operative search for truth in morality. A cautionary tale involving two other members of the School Curriculum and Assesment Authority Values Forum will lend weight to her case.

Melanie Phillips, a representative of the media on the forum, will be known to readers as the author of the book All Must Have Prizes. In her chapter on morality, Phillips puts Talbot and myself on opposite sides of her own imagined chasm. Because Talbot speaks confidently of moral truth, she is on firm ground. Because I have argued that pupils must be taught to think for themselves about right and wrong, Phillips puts me on the crumbling ground which is falling away into moral chaos, where anything goes.

How is it, then, that as a philosopher of education on the SCAA Values Forum, I was able to work with Marianne Talbot to produce a glossary of terms in the hope of reducing the widespread confusions about morality? Inadvertently, Phillips exemplifies the kind of careless reasoning which Talbot rightly deplores. Because I argued that people need to do their own thinking about right and wrong, rather than let others do it for them, Phillips concluded that I considered any bit of thinking to be as good as any other. But this no more follows when the subject matter is morality than it would in any subject on the curriculum.

Two philosophers will never agree on everything, but I believe there is no distance at all between Talbot and myself on the central, and very practical, point: that serious, careful, consistent thinking matters as much in morality as anywhere in education. We must not assume that thinking this way comes naturally, but it can be taught, and all teachers ought to be equipped to teach it. Meanwhile, teachers who agree with Talbot - and, even more importantly, teachers who think they disagree - can take advantage of the in-service training opportunities that are already available.

For the record, Phillips incorrectly attributes the article of mine, from which she rather selectively quotes, to The Guardian. It was actually in The TES (March 19, 1993).


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MA in Values in Education

Institute of Education

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