LESZEK Kolakowski writing in his famous essay, Modernity on Endless Trial, wrote that: “When I try, however to point out the most dangerous characteristic of modernity, I tend to sum up my fear in one phrase: the disappearance of taboos (Kolakowski, 1997, page13).”
Kolakowski was well aware that taboos could be both good and bad. They can play a positive role or negative one depending on the example and on circumstance and context. However, what he was trying to point out in his discussion of modernity was that ultimately: “Various traditional human bonds which make communal life possible, and without which our existence would be regulated only by greed and fear, are not likely to survive without a taboo system... .”
In other words, there must be some things that we simply do not do, some things that are simply unthinkable to most of us and to those of us who do think the unthinkable, recognise as unacceptable. There must be limits on what we can do, otherwise we lose our grounding and find ourselves pushed and pulled only by the basest of motivations: “greed and fear”. Kolakowski’s argument is that a “domino effect” occurs as things once thoughttaboo are now no longer considered taboo and wither. This domino effect, can be seen in societies that fail to have some kind of railing, some sense of limit and this is connected to “the disappearance of the sacred”.
Kolakowski writes: “With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilisation — the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing... .”
His argument also reminds us that issues of moral education and character development are increasingly important in societies that face the pressures of modernisation. When we think of the problem of character education and how to develop good character through education, we not only have to think of the positive values or virtues that we want to inculcate in our students, but also the limits, the sense of that which is simply unacceptable.
Both sides of the ledger, the “thou shalt” and the “thou shalt not’s” are important in our moral education. If Kolakowski is correct then one of the objectives of character education must be to instil into students a sense of what is sacred, and what is taboo in a culture, what is held in highest esteem and what is unacceptable or beyond the pale.
This, however, presents a problem since it is also important that students maintain a sense of tolerance and open mindedness lest their attitude to moral issues slides into a one-sided bigotry or mindless citation of rules at the expense of thinking and reflection.
Inculcating ethical sensibility and dispositions in students requires avoiding the pitfalls of a sterile one-sided drill and exam-oriented kind of approach to character education and yet develop a solid ethical personality in students that gives them some ability to withstand moral challenges. The ability to both hold on to and draw firm lines and understand what is simply unacceptable, as well as the ability to reason and make informed and critical judgements is the key.
The question is: how we advance the aims of character education based on reiterating some firm boundaries as well as help develop a student’s critical thinking and ability to make contextual judgements.
Here we face the problem of adapting the right pedagogical and philosophical method to our approach. The problem of character education relies on understanding the problem of ethical content, the problem of pedagogical method and the issue of broader cultural context.
Developing an approach to character education requires an understanding of how it can succeed with consideration to these critical issues.
Kolakowski, however, reminds us that the capacity to critically reason, which is an important part of character education, must be grounded in firm principles rather than modernity’s “illusions”. The sacred dimension to the argument over character education is foundational. Thinking this through and how we relate it to pedagogical method and the development of critical thinking capabilities is the challenge.
James Campbell is an independent writer and researcher based in Melbourne, Australia. Email him at [email protected]