An extract from Chapter 9 on secular ethics:
Note: Chapter 9 discusses why ‘philosophical ethics’ — rather than ‘Christian morality’ — is essential in all Australian schools. And this includes all private Christian schools — which now teach just on 40% of all Australian schoolchildren — and with some still teaching students that Genesis is “the literal truth from God”. This worrying phenomenon is covered in Chapters 2 and 3.
‘Philosophical ethics’ rather than ‘Christian morality’ is essential for all schools. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates clearly the universal benefit to children in taking dedicated classes in ‘philosophical ethics’ — from Year One in all primary schools. But for decades, children who were ‘opted out’ by their parents from Special Religious Education (SRE) — or Special Religious Instruction (SRI), in some states — were left to sit in hallways or empty classrooms with nothing productive to do.
In schools across Australia children were denied any kind of educational activity on the basis it ‘disadvantaged‘ the children who attended SRE or SRI. It seemed not to matter that the opt-out kids are themselves disadvantaged, and even stigmatised by the pious SRE kids who somehow felt superior.
In New South Wales (NSW) in 1980 an effort was made to give non-SRE children an ‘ethics’ class, essentially to balance for Christian ‘morals’ being taught in SRE. But the idea was killed off by the churches that saw ethics as ‘competition’ to the stories of Jesus!
So, for almost three decades Christianity imposed yet another of its doctrinal imposts on children who did not share its faith — and not just to non-believers but to Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist kids too.
In 2009, after years of campaigning in NSW, the St James Ethics Centre (SJEC) was finally asked to devise an ethics program for opt-out SRE children in primary schools. SJEC is a wholly independent non-religious organisation specialising in ethical solutions for business and government. A pilot program of 10 primary schools was trialed in 2010 and the results were startling.
Students became more attentive, interacted more easily with others, and their curriculum studies improved. Parents reported that children brought home interesting discussion ideas and the ethics classes generally improved their outlook. Finally it showed that ‘secular values’ were more relevant than ‘Christian morality’ in contemporary Australia.
It also showed that parents could be confident there would be no ‘moral vacuum’ once religious instruction was removed from the classroom. SJEC then helped Primary Ethics Limited become established and handed over the project to expand and further develop the program.
Today, more than 20,000 primary school children in NSW gain the benefit of ethics classes, run by 1,500 volunteers and 1,200 teachers. Primary Ethics is based on the model of CPI — Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry — which means students sit in a circle and discuss philosophical issues from a set curriculum 23 that deals with all the topics relevant to their schoolyard and home experiences.
Classes are age-appropriate and issues discussed range from keeping secrets and telling lies to a full spectrum of more complex social and ethical challenges. The focus is to encourage critical thinking, empathy and reasoning as long-term life skills.
Curtin University produced an academic review 24 of CPI in 2011 that confirmed all the spin-off benefits to these children — including improved understanding of school lessons, better communication skills and a more inquiring mind.
But what is most disappointing, despite all the evidence, is that Primary Ethics still reaches only 25% of NSW primary students. And no other state has anything remotely comparable across the public school system.
A South Australian model for other states? Adapting the Primary Ethics concept for other states is a distinct possibility — but it would seem necessary to move from the NSW ‘volunteer’ structure to an in-school teacher-based model.
Initial discussions with leading education academics in South Australia has raised the possibility that a CPI-type ethics format may well fit within the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) guidelines and be trialled for inclusion within South Australia’s primary school system.
The relevant point is framed under ACARA’s ‘Overview: General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum‘ 27 where it identifies “essential skills for twenty-first century learners”, and states an objective of preparing students…
“…who can manage their own wellbeing, relate well to others, make informed decisions about their lives, become citizens who behave with ethical integrity, relate to and communicate across cultures, work for the common good and act with responsibility at local, regional and global levels.”
This, too, is the core objective of CPI and the philosophical ethics program. There are seven ‘general capabilities’ within the Australian Curriculum and together with Literacy, Numeracy and Communications there’s an element termed ‘Ethical Understanding’.
That objective could effectively be met as the whole concept of philosophical ethics can be applied directly through subjects such as history, geography and English, as well as through Citizenship and Civics classes. A second option is to apply the Primary Ethics program through other elements of the ‘General Capabilities’ curriculum that include Critical Thinking and Intercultural Understanding.
Clearly, the ideal aim would be to introduce a stand-alone ‘Philosophical Ethics’ class that deals directly with all of today’s myriad issues that students face — and will certainly face as adults. It would be an outcome that squarely meets the educational objectives articulated in the ACARA quote above.
Why this is not happening already is beyond belief.
The benefits cannot be overestimated. Incorporating philosophical ethics within the school system — using qualified teachers rather than volunteers — takes student education to a whole new level. Not only would it mean that all primary students gain the enormous benefits of such a program but public schools systems in other states may well be encouraged to follow similar progressive strategies for their students in the 21st century.
Nothing is more true than the phrase quoted earlier; “There’s a difference between moral instruction and ethical inquiry”. Throughout this book we have drawn on that difference. For too long, society has been dictated to by the pious authority of churches; religious hierarchies fearful that once people began thinking in broader philosophical terms, they would see through the biblical myths, desert the fold and abandon the faith.
This is precisely what is happening. Since the Age of Enlightenment people have rekindled the flame of Greece’s Golden Age — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, et al — to once again think critically, to reason rationally and to question philosophically.
How sad that for so long, children in schools across Australia have been denied the stimulus to develop all these skills from an early age — skills that will serve them well as they mature and grow intellectually. Delivering a dedicated program of philosophical ethics — for all schoolchildren — is integral to Australia developing as a modern progressive secular nation.
The Scandinavians have achieved it, as we have examined earlier in the Chapter 9. We too can achieve it!
Plain Reason: promoting science, logic, reason and critical thought.