Education, Ethics, and Equality

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Our morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.

To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education.

— Albert Einstein1

While at university, I was once required to write an essay on personal ethics to guide an educator. Of course ethics entailed respect for the rights of all humans, but mere respect for rights is insufficient.

Each person must decide on which principles they hold and abide by them as much as possible.

I propose the following as a simple basis for making decisions that have ethical consequences.

1) Respect that others may abide by different principles. Therefore, before rendering any decision, the reasons held by others for or against any action must be heard and considered.

2) Principles must be open to scrutiny. If a superior conception of a principle exists, then an inferior principle must be abandoned.

3) Given that a principle is morally and logically sound, decisions should be rendered upon this principled basis.

4) Since mass participatory democracy is preferable to dictatorship, decision-making should be achieved, as much as possible, through a consensus.

As for my personal ethics, I hold that all humans must be not only regarded as endowed with equal rights but provided with equal conditions. The United States Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” This is factually inaccurate. We are all created unique, each person with his own strengths and weaknesses. From this mindset, how “we” value certain attributes determines how “we” view equality among humans. Society2 values certain attributes more than others; consequently, individuals proficient in certain skills or possessing other attributes valued by society will be treated differently than individuals who do not possess society’s valued skills or attributes.

The phrase “all men are created equal” is obviously a platitude. It would have been much more honest to simply state that we are all different; nevertheless, we are all entitled to equal rights – and importantly, because it is not stated in the Declaration of Independence – equal conditions. (The Declaration of Independence undermines itself by referring to the Indigenous peoples of “America” as “merciless Indian Savages.” This is pertinent because it is a document held sacred by most Americans; and Americans and Canadians hold a similar — not identical — colonial origin and culture.)

That everyone is entitled to equal conditions is seldom stated as a principle in society. This is not surprising because it does not exist, and this is unsurprising because it thoroughly undermines all notions of equality in society. Canadian society is capitalist (with socialist elements). Theoretically, capitalist society is predicated on competition in the market, and current capitalist mythology holds that anyone with skills who works hard enough can make it to the top of society. There is a top and there is a bottom. That fact that there is a top of society, itself, refutes the notion of equality.

Yet, it is simple to demonstrate that equality of conditions is a sine qua non of a society where equality of rights exists. For example, very few people would argue that a 100-meter race where some runners start from positions far behind the start line is fair. It is axiomatic. Very few people would argue that a professional boxing match between a heavyweight and flyweight is fair.

Yet, many people — and most educators!! — think it is fair to grade children using identical parameters, despite the inequality of their conditions. In the education system, a child from a poor, single-parent family who is poorly fed, often going to school in the mornings with an empty stomach, and who must help out his parent will be assessed the same as a child from a wealthy, loving family where both parents are professionals and the shelves are filled with books and educational DVDs. Is this fair? I submit it is not, but the system requires educators grade regardless of conditions outside the classroom.

The obvious solution seems to recognize the inequality of conditions and reflect this in the assessment of students. Better would be to provide for equality of conditions.

Not only is a system of testing and grading unfair but it is inefficient, as study after study shows that cooperation is superior to competition in promoting achievement.

Cooperation is something that should be fostered in society. Therefore, the imposition of competitive grading should be eliminated and cooperative learning encouraged. It seems sufficient that students can decide upon their own goals and plan (with facilitation from a teacher/parent) their paths to their goals.

Yet education is fraught with authoritarianism, and one consequence of this authoritarianism is that learners are taught that it is normal in society to wield power over others, often without accountability to those the power is being wielded over.

Hence, a discussion of ethics in education is rendered moot because education (in the mainstream of the capitalist system) is flawed by an unethical foundation.

  1. Albert Einstein: The Human Side, Helen Dukas and Barnesh Hoffman (Eds.), Princeton University Press, 1979: 83. The quotation continues: “The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action.” []
  2. Here I am not referring to the masses in society because society is not governed by the masses; society is a function of agendas set by owners of corporations and their political faces. []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.