Moral lesson from a distant massacre

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Working in the French-speaking part of Switzerland we have been made well aware in recent months that this is the 10th anniversary of the genocide in another francophone country, Rwanda, in which more than 800,000 Tutsis were killed as part of a systematic government-led policy.

Students from my school took part in an act of remembrance for the victims that was held here in Geneva.

The genocide in Rwanda is an event within the lifetime of all of our secondary students. It is something they need to learn about, and to reflect upon, as an important part of their education as future national and global citizens.

Learning more about Rwanda raises all sorts of questions, most of which remain unanswered. Why were so many educated people (teachers, headteachers, journalists, broadcasters, members of religious orders) involved in such terrible actions? Why did some senior figures in other countries deliberately choose to turn a blind eye to these events at a time when they might have been able to do something about them? Why did others, by contrast, show such moral courage?

The sources of moral action probably have more to do with personality, upbringing, the nature of the wider society in which one lives and the general influences of the times, than they have to do with the education one receives. The potential of education to mould ideas and feelings and attitudes, to develop empathy and to shape character, should not, however, be overlooked. It is one of the things that makes a teacher's job so terribly important.

And yet we often spend relatively little time talking about these things.

This is partly because there is a prevailing feeling around - a relativist feeling - that the best we can hope for in a world of so many different values and opinions is to agree politely to disagree.

It is still often said that the main moral purpose of schools is to help young people to decide on their own values, as if they were shoppers in some values supermarket where a completely free choice were permitted.

Obviously there are many controversial matters on which students must make up their own minds, but over-emphasising these can obscure the core purpose of schools which is actively to transmit certain sets of values shared by all men and women of good will.

Rwanda - a country with a fully-developed education system and large numbers of French and Belgian-educated teachers - shows what can happen when these purposes are neglected. The killings in Rwanda were not some spontaneous "tribal" eruption: they were carefully planned by educated people.

Moral education in schools is a many-sided matter. Most of it takes place informally through how the members of a school live together as a community, through how disputes are resolved, and through the role model set by adults, rather than through formal lessons.

The potential for sporting, musical and dramatic activities, for example, for helping young people develop respect, consideration and empathy for others is probably in practice greater than that of any formal discussion of moral issues.

The latter, however, is also important as it is through helping young people think through moral issues that we sensitise them to the fact that they are moral actors who will define themselves, in their own and others'

eyes, by the quality of the moral decisions that they will have to make.

Many of the parents and teachers' meetings in which we spend a lot of our time talk a great deal about school development plans, building projects, examination results and suchlike matters, but rather less about these more fundamental purposes of education that teachers and parents have in common.

Perhaps it is time to shift the balance a little and become rather more explicit, rather more often, about the moral education that we are trying to provide. Rwanda is a far off place of which we know little, but this may be one of the lessons that it has to teach us.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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