Trust me I'm a teacher;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Schools bear the brunt of helping children to cope with moral dilemmas, but can they do it well enough, wonders Marianne Talbot

On the eve of her wedding, Sophie Rhys-Jones has triumphed in the face of betrayal. And satisfyingly Kara Noble has paid an appropriate penalty for her action: she has lost her job and been sacked from judging "Cat of the Year" (forfeiting two months' free cat food) But why did Noble do it? Surely she knew she was risking public condemnation?

Or did she? There was a time when betraying others would have attracted nothing but vilification. But nowadays we seem to have a sneak's charter, a Judas society, a free-for-all for anyone who wants to "split" on others.

The red-top newspapers, for example, have no trouble finding people to spill the beans on celebrities. Public "whistle-blowing" is an accepted, even lauded, pastime. The Department of Social Security has hotlines - and insurance companies are introducing them - so we can sneak on family and friends. Even the playground bully can no longer rely on his victim's silence.

This, of course, gives the game away. There's a world of difference between betraying the confidence of an innocent friend, and "betraying" those who bully, cheat and lie. The former is disloyal, a violation of trust, the latter is justice, born of an urge to punish wrongdoing.

Is it always so easy, however, to distinguish betrayal from righteous whistle-blowing? Did Linda Tripp rightly expose a mendacious, adulterous President? Or wrongly betray a starry-eyed young friend? Were those who might have averted the sinking of The Herald of Free Enterprise wrongly protecting the guilty, or were they understandably, if mistakenly, keeping faith with colleagues? In a different time, would Kara Noble have been doing Prince Edward a service?

But even ignoring this, should we really feel so sanguine about encouraging people to rush to the authorities whenever they perceive apparent wrongdoing?

Clashes between loyalty and justice are inevitable. It is in the nature of values to conflict. It is in the way we deal with such clashes that our characters are made. Recently, however, our beliefs about how such clashes should be dealt with have undergone a sea change.

Once, arguably, loyalty weighed more heavily than justice, at least if justice could be achieved only by going to outsiders. Family members, friends, neighbours were more likely directly to tackle a wrongdoer, appealing to their better instincts, than approach the powers that be, or the person wronged, stand back and watch the fireworks.

Now, justice seems to weigh more heavily than loyalty. Judging someone to have acted improperly, we go straight to the authorities or approach the perceived victim, so offloading the responsibility for setting the record straight.

In some cases this is clearly a change for the better. Justice is not always well or impartially administered by those closest to the crime: many bullies have got off scot-free because they (and their friends) were stronger, older, more influential than their victims.

But I wonder how many calls to hotlines are motivated by revenge, spite or simply mischief? All teachers have experienced distaste when confronted by a child who, under the guise of righteous indignation, tries to solicit favour andor make trouble. Isn't there even a hint of this in our feelings about those who use these hotlines?

I wonder to what extent the willingness to see justice administered by faceless outsiders is weakening the ties of trust that should bind us to those with whom we live closely. Might this change, indeed, be related to our replacing the support network of family, friends and neighbours with the support network of the state? After all, if we can rely on the state in times of trouble, then what need have we of loyalty, trust, the bonds of love, honour and a sense of belonging?

And if our first response to perceived wrongdoing is to fly to the powers that be, what is our role, our moral responsibility? Perhaps it is simply to recognise the wrongdoing of others and report it. But don't we also have a responsibility to exercise charity, to consider the possibility that we are mistaken, to give the supposed wrongdoer the benefit of the doubt? Shouldn't we at least have the courage to address them before we take our indignation to the authorities? (Sometimes this would be foolish, and it will always take courage: but then courage, moral courage, is a virtue well worthy of esteem.) It is teachers (and parents) who bear the brunt of helping children learn how to deal with such moral dilemmas. Sometimes it is obvious how we should guide them. But often it is less easy. And here there are no clear-cut rules, explicit guidelines or boxes to tick: we have to depend on our own moral sense.

Perhaps, were society to understand how often teachers must rely on this, they would better grasp the importance of helping teachers acquire confidence in their professional judgment?

Marianne Talbot is a philosophy tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford, and a consultant to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development

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