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Posts Tagged ‘education’

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 58)

This time I will be looking more closely at both expressions of bias, as well as at possible remedies for discrimination.

Before doing so I want to include a reminder of Tom Oliver’s take on a closely related issue: our delusion that we are an independent and separate entity from the rest of the world. In his illuminating book, The Self Delusion, he explains:[1]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Our independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

He makes it clear later that ‘recent social research reveals that people respond strongly to subtle stereotyping and their personalities go on to develop in ways which reinforce such stereotypes.’[2] So, when we harbour prejudices, which are included in his list of ‘viruses of the mind,’[3] our behaviour serves to create experiences that confirm to us our misplaced beliefs, and can be infectious. This all resonates strongly with Bahá’u’lláh’s description of us as ‘wandering in the paths of delusion’ and of how ‘superstitions become veils between’ us and our own hearts.[4]

This theme is worth bearing in mind as we move forwards.

Examples of Bias

I suspect most people who have had the patience to read this far are already aware of the many ways that bias can be reflected in behaviour. I shall therefore deal with those aspects of the matter briefly.

An obvious example that Jennifer Eberhardt adduces, in her book Biased, relates to policing:[5]

[In New York City] of all stops made for furtive movement, 54 percent were of blacks, in a city that is only 23 percent black. . . Yet blacks were less likely to have a weapon than whites. In fact, less than 1 percent of those stopped for furtive movements were found to have a weapon.

Studies have been done to examine this kind of pattern. In a study of what triggers a response to fire a gun:[6]

[Joshua Correll and his team] . . . found a race effect. Participants were even faster to respond “shoot” to a black person holding a gun than they were to a white person holding a gun. They were also more likely to mistakenly shoot a black person with no gun.… It was found with both white and black study participants.

The latter finding may seem counter-intuitive but, in the light of how powerful and pervasive stereotyping is, it should come as no surprise. That black participants were prone to this error supports the notion that it is often the result of conditioning rather than an expression of racially motivated behaviour. The same tendency can be seen on the streets: ‘. . . research shows that black police officers were just as likely as white officers to exhibit less respect to black drivers.’[7]

There is no escaping the fact that, ‘Every encounter police officers and community members have with each other happens in a larger societal context that shapes how each responds.’[8]

The conditions prevalent in a work context play a significant part in shaping negative responses:[9]

Yale Law professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares have worked together to develop a model for training police officers on the principles of procedural justice. But why do officers need to be reminded of these principles? Because one of the primary barriers to good policing is the cynicism the officers develop while working the streets. It’s easy for officers to get beaten down by fighting crime. . . As that cynicism grows, it also narrows their vision.

The legal system at higher levels is not immune to this virus of the mind either, though without the same excuse of bitter experience:[10] ‘Judges are not immune to the pull of their own unconscious biases, and the algorithms that risk scores [to assess the likely failure to show up in court] rely on have already been shown to tilt against blacks.’

It is only fair to add that black people are not the only targets, though for reasons explained in the previous post they are likely to be the most persistently targeted. Concerning a white supremacist demonstration Eberhardt writes:[11]

The verbal attacks were also meant to signal to everyone else the Jews were no longer to be accepted as white. Their status was probationary – to be threatened in threatening times.

This also illustrates the previously mentioned role of fear in escalating prejudiced behaviour.

Possible Remedies

It is not easy to counteract patterns that are so deeply entrenched and reinforced by so many influences.

Not surprisingly I registered education as a potentially key aspect of Eberhardt’s thinking. Inside prisons she runs classes for offenders:[12]

Every class reminded me of the power of education to move us beyond our biases and reminded my students of the power of bias to shape their lives.

Clearly, education, over time in a supportive culture, could inoculate us against such viruses of the mind as racism. However, given the situation in which we find ourselves, making lasting and effective change is not easy. She quotes many examples and perhaps an attempted intervention in an organisation affecting a huge clientele would be as good an illustration as any. She tells of Laura Murphy’s work. She was an African-American civil rights attorney enlisted to help Airbnb deal with bias amongst their ‘hosts’:[13]

It’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t see colour, come up with a host of other justifications, and relieve yourself of any self-incrimination for your bias. Laura’s job was to focus the company’s managers on how these psychological manoeuvres worked subconsciously.

The primary problem is not that “People on the platform say, ‘Look, I don’t want any African-Americans’,” Lauren said. “The biggest problem to me is the unconscious bias.” And it’s more difficult to police and remedy that than it is to root out blatant bigotry.

She was able to make a difference, and there was one key factor involved:[14]

When hosts are provided with the previous reviews of guests by other hosts, for example, they are more likely to accept them into their homes, and the racial differences in acceptance rate begin to disappear.… Indeed, decades of research on stereotyping highlight the power of individuating information to mitigate bias.

Care has to be taken to take account of complicating factors. Improvements in behaviour resulting in lower levels of discrimination can backfire. Studies found that:[15]

. . . it was as though responsible behaviour handed [people] a license to behave recklessly. That suggests that companies that offer bias training might be loosening the reins in ways that set prejudice free.

Situations can also be complex in ways that reinforce the prejudices trainers are seeking to reduce. Back to policing again. The general point here is:[16]

Resetting norms isn’t easy, for a country or a company. But the next step – revamping company practices that allow sustained bias – is where things really get complicated.

Eberhardt analyses the exact dynamics in detail. What follows here is a brief helicopter view:[17]

What [these police officers] were experiencing on the streets was the fallout of racial disparities that reflect and generate biases that keep the cops and the community divided. . . . That lack of goodwill stalls investigations and lets crimes go unsolved which sours the perceptions of police and community members alike.

. . . Disparities are the raw material from which we construct the narratives that justify the presence of inequality. Those narratives spring to life to justify unequal treatment not just in the criminal justice arena but in our neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. . . . The narratives that prop up inequality can help us to live less troubled in a troubling world. But they also narrow our vision . . . Those biases will continue to be reproduced until we understand and challenge the disparities that fuel them.

It is easier to blame immigrants, foreigners or strangers for the problems that surround us, than grasp the difficult reality that the system is broken and is in urgent need of a complex repair or even a complete replacement. For more information on that see the sequence Can We Balance Matter and Spirit? Also reading Tom Oliver’s book would be a good place to start.

An Overview

Time to return to some general points. I have already noted that fear plays its part in prejudice. America is experiencing a transition that is raising anxieties in the minds of many white Americans:[18]

 . . . by the middle of this century, white people are likely to be a minority in this country… And simply reminding some white Americans of their diminishing presence can lead them to express more negative attitudes towards blacks, Latinos, and Asians . . . Feeling outnumbered can signal a threat to the legacy of dominance and the white privilege that affords.

Even what appear to be straightforward ways of using scientific evidence to counteract bias can backfire. There are two main ways that this can work. The first concerns what happens when we explain how many people experience bias:[19]

It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us today to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more.

. . . A research group… found that people are more likely to endorse stereotypes about out-groups – from racists to drug users to porn stars to trash collectors – when they believe the stereotypes are widely held in society.

The second way piggy-backs on this first one because ‘too much focus on how good innocent people can be biased without intention can sap people’s motivation to do something about it,’ which means that ‘teaching and learning about bias is a balancing act that has to be expertly calibrated to have the appropriate impact.’[20]

Not a walk in the park then.

Conclusions

There’s no way we can walk away from this problem, even if we want to:[21]

The strategy of turning a blind eye to bias has indeed failed to stem discrimination. But there are powerful currents that pull people away from confronting bias, even when they believe that’s the right thing to do.

Bringing people from different races closely together can make a huge difference, but the key word here is closely. Eberhardt makes it very clear that simply living in close proximity, but not gaining detailed knowledge of each other by frequent and meaningful interaction, can serve simply to reinforce prejudice:[22]

Science has shown that intense relationships across racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries can quickly undo fundamental [negative] associations that have built up slowly over time.

Her words toward the end of her book particularly resonate with me:[23]

. . . The capacity for growth comes from our willingness to reflect, to probe in search of some actionable truth. . . And there is hope in this sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.

I have explored many times on this blog how the power of reflection, especially when allied to the process of comparing perspectives Bahá’ís call consultation, can help us resolve even the most intractable of problems. There is perhaps another core principle of the Bahá’í Faith relevant here as well: the independent investigation of truth. Bahá’u’lláh exhorts us to ‘see with [our] own eyes and not through the eyes of others,’ and ‘know of [our] own knowledge and not through the knowledge of [our] neighbour,’[24] if we are to be truly inspired by justice and fairness in this world.

We may have a long road to travel but there is evidence that we can effect even such massive changes in the way our society and culture work. Even relatively simple steps can make a difference. Oliver, for example, quotes a study by Kang of loving-kindness meditation. He ‘found that participants who had undergone a course in loving kindness meditation had reduced intergroup bias. In particular, they were less likely to stigmatise homeless people compared with participants who were simply taught about the value of the meditation technique not shown how to perform it.[25]

I am well aware though, from reading Goleman and Davidson’s book on The Science of Meditation, that the road from transient state of mind to enduring trait of character requires long and sustained effort over months and years. Oliver is also aware of this same evidence and how effortful bringing about such fundamental changes will be.[26]

That’s no reason though not to keep on trying.

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 170.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 141.
[4]. From the Tablet of Ahmad.
[5]. Biased – page 63.
[6]. Biased – pages 66-68.
[7]. Biased — page 104.
[8]. Biased – pages 74-75.
[9]. Biased – page 84-5.
[10]. Biased  – page 108.
[11]. Biased – page 240.
[12]. Biased – page 123.
[13]. Biased – page 192.
[14]. Biased – page 193.
[15]. Biased – page 282.
[16]. Biased – page 291.
[17]. Biased – pages 296-98.
[18]. Biased – page 231.
[19]. Biased – page 281.
[20]. Biased – page 282.
[21]. Biased – page 239.
[22]. Biased – page 289.
[23]. Biased – pages 301-02.
[24]. Arabic Hidden Words – No 2.
[25]. The Self Delusion – page 225.
[26]. The Self Delusion – page 158.

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COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. My recent republishing of the sequence on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation seemed an appropriate trigger. The posts have been interwoven with the Rifkin sequence.

What do we do?

We have looked at the plight of children. We must face the truth. We are all responsible and we all need to respond to the challenge: we must all do everything in our power to change this situation for the better. The same message already quoted from our world centre states:

Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Obviously the whole problem cannot be fixed overnight but we have to start somewhere. This need to do what we can sustain over a long period, however small a step that may seem, has led to a concerted attempt to provide classes for children in as many localities as we can using all the resources currently at our disposal, though these are as yet inadequate to the task that faces us:

Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

Young people, on the threshold of independence, have comparable needs which we are seeking to learn how to meet:

[We] assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

. . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. . . [and] the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

Character building and society building are inextricably linked. The positive results of doing it properly are beyond dispute.

But how do we do it?

The House of Justice seek to define the qualities a community should possess:

An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them – these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline,  the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

It is perhaps worth dwelling a little on what they might mean by discipline and hardship, not positive ideas in many people’s thinking today.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal. These are: disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive.

Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship. Without boundaries and the management of frustration that these require children to learn, it is hard for them to develop the kind of impulse control that the work on emotional intelligence suggests underpins a successful life in society. All too often childhoods are  seriously warped by indulgent neglect, though it is the cruelty of an abusive background that more often hits the headlines.

More recent work highlights the way our schools are increasingly focused on preparing our children for the competitive employment market place, and neglecting other important elements of character-building. Speaking of the American system, John Fitzgerald Medina, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

He is not the only one to have concerns about the direction the American education system has been heading. An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

A recent article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

Researchers also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting. The Bahá’í view goes further even than this:

An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

The current state of play within our schools suggests that Bahá’ís and others have a crucial role to play in supplementing the deficiencies that are crippling our educational system.

The Needs of Young People

They describe the special needs of a sub-group of young people:

[Those between the ages of, say, 12 to 15] represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mould their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

[a]n effort to endow youth with the capacity to conquer the word and unravel its meaning both for their own spiritual upliftment, and as a basis for social action. The work with Junior Youth broadened beyond efforts for SED to become a fourth core activity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

. . . parents . . . bear the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct . . . . ..

Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support children’s classes provided by the community.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

For Bahá’ís the message is clear. In capital letters on page 99 of Paris Talks we find the quotation at the head of this post:

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

The words immediately above that are:

Let your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly civilization! I ask for you the supreme blessing, that you may be so filled with the vitality of the Heavenly Spirit that you may be the cause of life to the world.

There’s really nothing else that anyone can add after that and it seems to me that it applies to everyone, Baha’i and non-Baha’i alike, each in his or her own way inspired by the purpose of God in this age which is to make us all act upon the realisation that we are one family — the human family.

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

Read Full Post »

COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. Recent events across many countries again makes it seem timely to revisit this sequence. This is the last post.

What do we do?

We have looked at the plight of children. We must face the truth. We are all responsible and we all need to respond to the challenge: we must all do everything in our power to change this situation for the better. The same message already quoted from our world centre states:

Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Obviously the whole problem cannot be fixed overnight but we have to start somewhere. This need to do what we can sustain over a long period, however small a step that may seem, has led to a concerted attempt to provide classes for children in as many localities as we can using all the resources currently at our disposal, though these are as yet inadequate to the task that faces us:

Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

Young people, on the threshold of independence, have comparable needs which we are seeking to learn how to meet:

[We] assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

. . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. . . [and] the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

Character building and society building are inextricably linked. The positive results of doing it properly are beyond dispute.

But how do we do it?

The House of Justice seek to define the qualities a community should possess:

An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them – these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline,  the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

It is perhaps worth dwelling a little on what they might mean by discipline and hardship, not positive ideas in many people’s thinking today.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal. These are: disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive.

Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship. Without boundaries and the management of frustration that these require children to learn, it is hard for them to develop the kind of impulse control that the work on emotional intelligence suggests underpins a successful life in society. All too often childhoods are  seriously warped by indulgent neglect, though it is the cruelty of an abusive background that more often hits the headlines.

More recent work highlights the way our schools are increasingly focused on preparing our children for the competitive employment market place, and neglecting other important elements of character-building. Speaking of the American system, John Fitzgerald Medina, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

He is not the only one to have concerns about the direction the American education system has been heading. An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

A recent article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

Researchers also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting. The Bahá’í view goes further even than this:

An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

The current state of play within our schools suggests that Bahá’ís and others have a crucial role to play in supplementing the deficiencies that are crippling our educational system.

The Needs of Young People

They describe the special needs of a sub-group of young people:

[Those between the ages of, say, 12 to 15] represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mould their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

[a]n effort to endow youth with the capacity to conquer the word and unravel its meaning both for their own spiritual upliftment, and as a basis for social action. The work with Junior Youth broadened beyond efforts for SED to become a fourth core activity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

. . . parents . . . bear the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct . . . . ..

Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support children’s classes provided by the community.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

For Bahá’ís the message is clear. In capital letters on page 99 of Paris Talks we find the quotation at the head of this post:

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

The words immediately above that are:

Let your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly civilization! I ask for you the supreme blessing, that you may be so filled with the vitality of the Heavenly Spirit that you may be the cause of life to the world.

There’s really nothing else that anyone can add after that and it seems to me that it applies to everyone, Baha’i and non-Baha’i alike, each in his or her own way inspired by the purpose of God in this age which is to make us all act upon the realisation that we are one family — the human family.

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

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A group of seventh graders learning about preparing orchard plots for planting crops as part of the SAT program in Honduras

A couple of days ago an inspiring piece appeared on the Bahá’í World News site to which I was alerted by a friend on FB. Given all the gloom around at the moment it seemed a good idea to try and spread about something more positive, concerning a new approach to learning that will help create well-rounded community-conscious human beings rather than cogs for the wheels of industry and capital. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

WASHINGTON D.C. — In the last twenty years, remarkable strides have been achieved in providing access to education for children around the world. However, research in the field of education is showing that increased schooling has not automatically led to increased learning. The United Nations estimates that 250 million children are not able to read, write, or perform basic math, whether they have been to school or not.

Addressing what it calls a “learning crisis”, the Brookings Institution — a major think tank in the United States-started an initiative in 2015 called “Millions Learning“. The study sought to identify educational interventions where not only access to schools was improving, but also learning itself.

One of the programs featured in the report is the Baha’i-inspired initiative Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (SAT, or in English, the Tutorial Learning System). Since its beginnings in the 1970s in Colombia, SAT has expanded across Latin America to reach more than 300,000 students, and it has been accredited and recognized by a number of governments.

The “Millions Learning” report highlights 14 educational programs that show increased learning outcomes through innovative approaches to schooling. A major criterion of the study was that these programs could be scaled up in size and implemented in other settings in a sustainable way.

According to Brookings, SAT is “catalyzing an education revolution” by “transforming how education is conceptualized, designed, and delivered.”

“SAT is radically different from the traditional secondary school and high school model, and it is cutting edge in so many ways,” said Jenny Perlman Robinson, author of the case study for the Brookings Institution. “It focuses on skills that are beyond the traditional academic skills, such as moral and character development, and it conceives of learning as something much broader.”

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Elementary school classroom

Elementary school classroom

After publishing the first article in this series concerning implicit racism on the Greater Good Website I thought it was worth following it up with a link to this second equally important post by Jeremy Adam Smith. At some point in the near future I will be revisiting the issue of racial prejudice, particularly at one point in the context of education in America, because this is an issue of major importance for the future of our society, and this sequence of articles will, I feel, help me achieve a more informed take on the matter. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

This article is the second in a series exploring the effects that unconscious racial biases have on the criminal justice system in the United States. The first is “Can We Reduce Bias in Criminal Justice?”

Two students. One is black and the other is white. On Tuesday, they both refuse to complete the math worksheet. On Wednesday, neither will stop talking during lessons.

Same behavior. Will they receive the same punishment?

A new Stanford University study predicts that the black student will be punished more harshly. Why? Not because of overt racism. Rather, harsher discipline might be the result of unconscious partiality to the white student, a phenomenon called “implicit bias” by psychologists. The study also finds that the bias might be just as likely to come from a black teacher as a white one.

The significance of the finding isn’t confined to classroom walls. When students are suspended or expelled, it becomes much less likely that they will graduate or go to college, and much more likely they’ll get arrested, go to jail, or even die in the hands of police. Many studies suggest that implicit bias, not white supremacist intentions on the part of individuals, plays a role at nearly every stage.

While the lifelong impact of school disciplinary policies can affect all students, black ones are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, according to a 2012 report from the Department of Education. A study published in the January American Sociological Review found that the damage of high suspension rates goes beyond those pushed out of school, generating “collateral damage, negatively affecting the academic achievement of non-suspended students.”

While these big-picture disparities are well documented, the Stanford study is the first to experimentally suggest that unconscious bias might play a role in classroom discipline, an accumulation of individual decisions that sweep thousands of students out of school and into jail over the course of their lives.

“What we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when black and white students behave in the same manner,” write Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt in their paper, published in April by the journal Psychological Science. (Eberhardt won a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” fellowship for her work on implicit bias.)

It’s a pattern that might provide insight to interpersonal bias in criminal justice. “Just as escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by Black students might feed racial disparities in disciplinary practices in K–12 schooling, so too might escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by black suspects feed racial disparities in the criminal-justice system,” they write.

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COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. The post below dates from 2009: I have updated it in places with new information. 

What do we do?

We have looked at the plight of children. We must face the truth. We are all responsible and we all need to respond to the challenge: we must all do everything in our power to change this situation for the better. The same message already quoted from our world centre states:

Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Obviously the whole problem cannot be fixed overnight but we have to start somewhere. This need to do what we can sustain over a long period, however small a step that may seem, has led to a concerted attempt to provide classes for children in as many localities as we can using all the resources currently at our disposal, though these are as yet inadequate to the task that faces us:

Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

Young people, on the threshold of independence, have comparable needs which we are seeking to learn how to meet:

[We] assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

. . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. . . [and] the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

Character building and society building are inextricably linked. The positive results of doing it properly are beyond dispute.

But how do we do it?

The House of Justice seek to define the qualities a community should possess:

An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them – these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline,  the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

It is perhaps worth dwelling a little on what they might mean by discipline and hardship, not positive ideas in many people’s thinking today.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal. These are: disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive.

Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship. Without boundaries and the management of frustration that these require children to learn, it is hard for them to develop the kind of impulse control that the work on emotional intelligence suggests underpins a successful life in society. All too often childhoods are  seriously warped by indulgent neglect, though it is the cruelty of an abusive background that more often hits the headlines.

More recent work highlights the way our schools are increasingly focused on preparing our children for the competitive employment market place, and neglecting other important elements of character-building. Speaking of the American system, John Fitzgerald Medina, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

He is not the only one to have concerns about the direction the American education system has been heading. An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

A recent article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

Researchers also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting. The Bahá’í view goes further even than this:

An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

The current state of play within our schools suggests that Bahá’ís and others have a crucial role to play in supplementing the deficiencies that are crippling our educational system.

The Needs of Young People

They describe the special needs of a sub-group of young people:

[Those between the ages of, say, 12 to 15] represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mould their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

[a]n effort to endow youth with the capacity to conquer the word and unravel its meaning both for their own spiritual upliftment, and as a basis for social action. The work with Junior Youth broadened beyond efforts for SED to become a fourth core activity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

. . . parents . . . bear the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct . . . . ..

Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support children’s classes provided by the community.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

For Bahá’ís the message is clear. In capital letters on page 99 of Paris Talks we find the quotation at the head of this post:

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

The words immediately above that are:

Let your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly civilization! I ask for you the supreme blessing, that you may be so filled with the vitality of the Heavenly Spirit that you may be the cause of life to the world.

There’s really nothing else that anyone can add after that and it seems to me that it applies to everyone, Baha’i and non-Baha’i alike, each in his or her own way inspired by the purpose of God in this age which is to make us all act upon the realisation that we are one family — the human family.

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

Read Full Post »

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