Is murder wrong because it is illegal or is murder illegal because it is wrong?
A few years back, I decided to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I didn’t expect to agree with the book because I knew it was a key text of educational progressivism: I was aware that Freire’s criticism of the ‘banking model’ was used by some to disparage explicit teaching. However, I initially found the book to be abstract and vague. Freire wrote hypnotically about the oppressors and the oppressed, without clearly identifying who these were, while focusing on the need to become ‘fully human’. So when I reached the following sentence, it was as if jolted from a dream:
“However, the restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot resume their former position, do not constitute oppression.”
Freire goes on to expand on the difference between the new regime and the old but even so, it does look a lot like, ‘meet the new boss: same as the old boss’. And as I have discussed before, Freire talks of repressing the old oppressive power and points to Mao’s cultural revolution as a positive example. We can imagine rules governing behaviour under the new regime and consequences for disobeying these rules.
When a group is engaged in a long battle against injustice, it is a victory when laws or regulations are changed to support their position. But it is not an end. I was challenged recently on Twitter as to whether the idea that Australia is breach of the UN convention on the rights of refugees is a strong argument against Australia’s position. I don’t think it is, no. A strong argument would consist of explaining why Australia’s behaviour regarding refugees is wrong.
An action may be in violation of a law or some other form of regulation and it may attract a punishment, and yet that does not explain why it is wrong. Some laws are silly. Some are misconceived. It is possible to break a law, receive a sanction and be morally right. This is the logic of civil disobedience. It’s a social Godel’s theorem: some truths simply cannot be expressed while staying entirely within the formal systems that humans have constructed.
Those who have fought a long battle against a great injustice and who have won that battle and changed the law may say, “I am tired of explaining. You are wrong and the law says you are wrong.” But this is dangerous thinking.
Imagine the young man who is engaged by fascist ideologues or religious extremists. They listen to the young man’s views, take him seriously and invest time and effort in explaining their moral universe to him. Opponents of the fascists or religious extremists take no such trouble. Instead, they tell the young man that he is wrong and his views and actions are unlawful. This may be true, but it is not an argument with much potential to change the young man’s views.
This is not to force a choice. A person who commits an offence should expect to both receive the appropriate punishment for that offence and to come to understand why it was wrong; or at least why others believe it to be wrong. We can have both of these things. They are not mutually exclusive.
And I believe that we should model this in the way we deal with behaviour in school. No, I do not think that a teacher should immediately stop a class to explain in great detail why throwing paper balls is disruptive. Sometimes we need to simply act in the moment and leave any discussions for later. But we should design systems where we explain norms and expectations from the outset and positively reinforce and reexplain those constantly as the contexts vary. When we give a necessary sanction, we should explain why we have done so, even if the student does not agree or we feel that it’s obvious or that we have explained it a thousand times before.
If we explain the need for a sanction then that doesn’t somehow stop the sanction from being ‘punitive‘ as some people seem to think. It is still a punishment and it will still be experienced as a punishment. The danger with mincing our words is that it reduces the precision of our language, and when dealing with student behaviour, clarity is essential. Teachers need to know what actions they may take that are aligned with the culture and values of the school. They don’t need to be given some vague, intangible notion of what not to do.
As teachers, we wish students to understand the world they inhabit. Insofar as we have a responsibility to teach them right from wrong, we have a responsibility to explain why some things are right and some things are wrong. Ultimately, our students may reject these arguments and face the social consequences of doing so, but that is their choice. Humans are not computers. Humans cannot be programmed with rules, whether they are the bad rules of the oppressor or the good rules of the enlightened and virtuous.