by Amy Ng and Valerie Tang
“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis
The year 2012 was mired by a multitude of scandals involving high-profile figures and public officials. This, along with the Ministry of Education’s plan to place more emphasis on values and character, could explain the sudden spike in assembly talks and reminders centred on morals and discipline.
Certainly, “Character is higher than intellect” and we do not doubt the wisdom in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words. Although the frequent lectures and reminders are somewhat jarring for students who feel that they are perfectly capable of making moral decisions and doing the right thing, it is heartening that the school is concerned with building our characters and morals. Educators have both the responsibility and opportunity to positively reinforce students’ character developments since students spend much of their time in school. Also, no small number of RI students end up being in positions of power and importance. It is vital to ensure that students develop the right values. Additionally, with many of the abovementioned scandals involving ex-Rafflesians, it is no wonder that our school and teachers are trying so hard to shape us into good proper citizens.
Character Development in RI
Apart from the occasional lecture, the school’s strategy in the war against immorality and delinquency boils down to two things: the carrot and the stick. The carrot refers to rewards such as yellow slips, FIRE awards and glowing testimonials you may get for displaying desirable character traits and behaviour. Meanwhile the stick refers to punishments like white slips, suspensions and euphemistically written recommendation letters one will receive for misbehaving and showing character flaws. In order to regulate the distribution of carrots and sticks, the school makes use of weapons called rules.
Of course, since students should go beyond merely following rules, community involvement programmes are important and more carrots will be given to those who participate and organise these programmes.
At first glance, this seems like a perfectly valid strategy. The rules outline certain expectations that the carrot and the stick encourages them to adhere to and the students’ character is developed as they become used to living up to these expectations on a daily basis. Meanwhile, students will learn to have a heart of giving through CIP and community work. Hopefully, once the habit of following these expectations and being charitable becomes ingrained, students will never deviate from them even after graduation.
The idea that rules help students to cultivate habits and thereby build their character is sound and that the school has recognised this is a step in the right direction. However, it is the carrot and the stick approach towards character building that seems to have more grounds for objection.
The fundamental problem with the carrot and stick approach is that it teaches students a sense of morality that is based on personal consequences. At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong with this as it is widely accepted that people must bear the consequences for their own actions. Cheating in exams will get you suspended from school. On the other hand, waiting for 30 minutes to help load an old man’s groceries onto a taxi could get you school-wide acknowledgement. Good conduct is rewarded while bad conduct is penalized.
Indeed, to some extent, the utilitarian thinking developed from the carrot and the stick largely works well in encouraging good behaviour and preventing misbehaviour. However, the limitations set in when people think that they can get away with the consequences. Take for example the missing cups in the canteen. We all know that we are not supposed to leave them lying around after we leave, but some students do it anyway. Why? It is because there is no one to catch them doing it and they think that someone else would come along and pick it up anyway. In such a case, there are no personal consequences for them to bear.
Additionally, what the carrot and stick does is that it attaches a personal interest to what was previously an issue purely concerned with what is right and wrong. Consider the common scenario of being late for class. Arguably, most would agree that being late for class is wrong because it is disrespectful to the teacher and disrupts lessons for everyone.
However, with the added threat of punishment, students are punctual not because they have a strong sense of respect for others, but because they are afraid that an additional white slip will lower their conduct grade or ban them from participating in external competitions. They are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Hence, consequence-based morality fails when people think that they can get away with the consequences and when they do the right thing only because of the wrong reasons. Students should be taught to do the right thing for the right reasons. That way, even with the power to get away with misdeeds, they will do the right thing. That is true moral fiber.
Behaving VS Being
Additionally, the stress on rule-following in the carrot and stick approach may sometimes blind us to other virtues of compassion, kindness and charity. Basic courtesy like voluntarily taking the stairs so that the cleaners, teachers and injured students can use the lift is not written in any rulebook nor awarded in any certificate. Yet these little things are the ones that we should take note of even beyond rules and beyond the carrot and stick system. After all, morality or ethics should be something that is part of our daily lives. It should not, as the American psychologist Barry Schwartz states, be tied up “into a little package with a bow and [consigned] to the margins as an ethics course.” Moral deeds should be inspired by our innate values and not defined through lectures of morality or through carrot and stick systems.
Think about it: if the carrot and stick are removed completely, what will the school be like? Will students disrespect teachers, vandalize school property and ignore their homework assignments just because these actions have no impact on their future career prospects? Or will they still listen to lectures because learning brings them joy, continue to do community work because they have a heart for giving and show respect for others because they are aware that basic human decency is not something that merits a reward?
Therefore, the carrot and the stick can help differentiate between the well-behaved and the misbehaving – – but that is all. It is not enough that students do the right thing. They have to do the right thing for the right reasons and it is not the wrong reasons that should be emphasized and used to control the students’ behaviour. Rules and regulations can outline certain expectations and cultivate habits and it is good that the school has acknowledged this. However, they must take the backseat after that if proof of moral worth is what is needed. Character exhibited under a regime of rules and regulation is not true character and is a mere illusion. It is only meaningful if the students achieve it with no strings attached. Rules and regulations are not a proof of moral worth.
At this point, a cynic might scoff at our naivety and point out that in real life, there may be some students who are too self-centered and who will not do the right thing on their own accord so the carrot and stick system is the only effective way to get them to even demonstrate passable behaviour. While it is true that changing the mind-sets of such students could be difficult, it must also be recognized that the spontaneous assumption that students have no initiative to do the right thing is a dangerous one which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, the air-conditioners in classrooms are programmed to be automatically turned off when students have break times. This begs the question as to why students are not allowed to control the use of air-conditioners in classrooms since some students may wish to stay in the classrooms during breaks. The common response is that students are not trusted to take responsibility and turn the air conditioners off by themselves and this will lead to energy waste. From an environmentally-friendly perspective, this is perfectly acceptable. However, it can have the unintended consequence of perpetuating the cycle of students never taking responsibility for such things as they get into the habit of never needing to consider them in their daily lives. What will happen whenever these students do need to switch off air conditioners by themselves is another story altogether. If one immediately expects poor behaviour and values from students; that may be just what one gets.
Ultimately, the flaws of consequence-based morality must be recognised. The carrot and stick system is a good starting point for maintaining discipline and positive behaviour, which are stepping stones towards morality. However, if true character is the aim, it seems insufficient and lacking.
Towards Minister Heng’s Vision
Character should be shaped by learning and interacting with the people around us. It has to be felt through actions and not merely spoken through words. Perhaps we should start morality and character building from the ground-up, with the students to spread values like compassion through both words and actions. The school can then facilitate this spread through informal dialogues and conversations between students on what’s right and wrong to question the status quo and clarify doubts and dilemmas as a community.
Top-down lectures on morality may be well-intentioned, but they could have the reverse effect of instigating belligerence at being told what we should or should not do. As put by teacher Hau Boon Lai in a recent Straits Times article, “[some] teachers seem to believe the only way to respond is to pontificate on right and wrong. Those who take the holier- than-thou approach often do so with the best of intentions but students say these teachers are the first they tune out”.