by Didi Ananda Devapriya
Excerpted from Every Child Has an Inner Compass:
Facilitating Children’s Moral Development (2010), Neohumanist Association.
Leadership in a Prout society is based on ethical principles, and expressed through collective leadership.
Neohumanist Education Perspective
Students are taught to engage in ethical dialogue and decision-making, and democratic class meetings are an essential component of the curriculum. Social learning, communication skills, critical thinking, and the tools of negotiation and collaborative decision-making are fostered. Service learning is well developed and forms an essential component of the curriculum.
Relating the highest moral development to one that includes a deep ethical concern for other beings and resources of the planet requires not only a sense of justice, but more importantly a deeply felt sense of care, solidarity and connection. If we are to look at the effect that the current relationship of humanity to the rest of creation is having on the planet, it is clear that it is not a sustainable, thriving, regenerative relationship that can take us into the future. To motivate the massive shift of consciousness necessary to reorient that relationship away from an anthropocentric utilitarian one towards a consciousness of care, will require the mobilizing of powerful sentiments, not only dry rationality. Although the rational reasons for changing consumption patterns, emissions, etc. has been available for years already, we have not yet proven able to make the mass level changes needed.
On a planetary level, it seems that human consciousness as a whole has to evolve beyond anthropocentric standards of morality, if we are to survive and flourish. This next step in our evolution is what PR Sarkar termed “neohumanist consciousness.” In education, instilling good behavior through the clear and consistent use of fair rules, and the cultivation of virtues such as helpfulness, truthfulness, etc. are valuable in developing the child’s pre-conventional and conventional morality. However, in order to create the moral foundations that will allow a child to fully develop beyond those stages requires cultivating connection to the inner self.
On the practical level, this means that teachers need to create space for a child to practice listening inside. Instead of telling children what is right and wrong, to invite them to reflect on fairness, to think through conflicts and practice perspective taking already when quite small. Open-ended discussions cultivate not only critical thinking, which is a cognitive skill needed for making rational, moral choices, but also can invite them to practice connecting to their sense of discrimination. Often, even with open-ended questions, children still are eager to give the responses that they “think are right,” having picked them up from their observations of
the adult world, or that they think are what the adults want to hear. When an astute adult observes this, he or she can reflect this back to the child and invite them to think a little deeper. “Yes, that is what many people think, but what do you really think?” While the seed of goodness is innate in all human children, its flourishing is the result of effortful processes. This happens within the child’s own self, through their natural striving to be good, to please and to help. The seed also receives water and sunlight through the nurturing care, validation, love, and guidance that caring, connected, sensitive adults are able to provide. When the factors that nourish this goodness are lacking, it is possible that this seed of goodness remains dormant or underdeveloped. A child who is living in adversity, such as neglect or abuse, will not have their sense of goodness affirmed, and instead can develop a distorted sense of self. Selfishness, fearfulness, meanness, or insensitivity in the emotional environment created by primary caregivers or other important adults can develop similar qualities in the child during this impressionable period of life that cloud her innate goodness.
The integration of ethical thinking into learning is a key principle in Neohumanist Education. Ethos, the Greek word at the root of ethics, means “character” or “conduct.” Neohumanist Education is a values-based approach to teaching and learning, and thus rightly concerned with the cultivation of an ethics in line with its philosophy. Issues of right and wrong, fair and unfair, harmless and harmful, surface in everyday life in the classroom as well as across the curriculum. The capacity for critical moral reflection is a developmental one and involves a multitude of factors, including learning to listen to one’s peers, cultivating empathy, practicing mindful agreement and disagreement, observing effects and speculating about the future consequences of actions, and exploring the implications of individual and group decisions. In order to create the “good society,” leadership must be characterized by an “awakened conscience,” which Sarkar also called the “rationalistic mentality,” the human capacity for determining the best course of action for human welfare.