Monday, July 30, 2007

Moral Courage and the Flawed Human Being

As I mentioned last week, one of the excellent keynotes at the New Mexico Summer Institute on Gifted Education, was the very last one: Elizabeth Nielsen and her husband, Dennis Higgins, who gave the presentation on Moral Courage.

Elizabeth is a professor of Special Education at UNM. She is my 'doc' advisor. Dennis is an adjunct professor at UNM, as well as the teacher of a twice-exceptional (gifted/with a disability) program in the Albuquerque Public Schools. They are both national speakers and experts on gifted education. Elizabeth coined the term "twice-exceptional" or 2X, as it is called around here. (My research interest for this doctorate in Special Ed/ Neurospychology is in the area of the neurospychology of visual-perceptual differences in gifted people and gifted people with Autism Spectrum Disorders).

As I said in my post Catching Up!, I saw the Moral Courage keynote before-- last year at the 2006 ALPS conference. But this is one of those rare presentations that is worth seeing several times because the issues it addresses are profound ones for those of us involved in any way with the education of children. At a time when moral relativism has become the norm in the secular education of children, Elizabeth Neilsen's insistence on the importance of teaching moral courage--what it is, how it is made manifest, and the cost to the individual--is an important contribution that, in itself, is a demonstration of moral courage. And more, it is a challenge to us, not only as educators of all sorts, but as human beings, to examine the example we set for each other and for children in our professional, social and personal lives.

The presentation itself consists of three parts:
  • an analysis of morally courageous action based on the work of business ethicist, Dr. Rushworth Kidder (Wikipedia article here).
  • methodologies for teaching moral courage through books, film and music
  • live demonstrations of some of these lessons

But the power of the presentation is really the music and slide shows that are used throughout to engage the audience through real-life examples of moral courage. This is teaching that engages the intellect and the heart and (dare I say?) the soul.

Part of the power of this presentation for me is that it caused me to begin the examination of my own ethical behavior. According to Dr. Kidder, there are five universal core moral principles. They are:

  • honesty (a.k.a. truthfulness, integrity)
  • fairness (a.k.a. justice)
  • respect (tolerance and respect for self, family, others, and respect for life itself)
  • responsibility (a.k.a. self-discipline)
  • compassion (a.k.a empathy, mercy, love, generosity)

In order to behave ethically, a person must demonstrate all five of these. If even one value is not being practiced, a person cannot be said to be ethical in practice. This certainly gives me room for pause. If even one of these is absent? Whoa! I can see that there is definitely room for continual self-examination. Complacency and moral courage appear to be mutually exclusive. And I expect I have some work to do within myself as the Jewish world enters into the month of Elul, a time for reflection and repentance.

Further, to demonstrate morally courageous action, a person must uphold these principles by taking action in the face of significant personal risk. Actions of moral courage, then, are not for the faint of heart. In fact, the very word "courage" comes from the French word "cour" which means "heart" and implies strength of heart.

As I was watching the presentation and thinking about the examples provided, I noticed that one discussion of importance was not made, using the very human examples provided. That discussion was that no person is perfectly ethical all the time. We are, all of us, flawed human beings. In the context of the presentation, this is understandable because the aim of the talk was to present the definition of moral courage most straight-forwardly and in a small period of time, and then to present ways to begin a discussion with children.

But, but, but...!

Popular culture has a really superficial way of dealing with moral absolutes. In the time of my public education, it had become fashionable to dismiss the moral dimension in the historical analysis of individual action because each exemplar was flawed in some way. In plain English, we were not allowed to have heroes. For example, if a student expressed admiration of Abraham Lincoln as 'the Great Emancipator', s/he was told that Lincoln expressed ambivalence about freeing the slaves. That Lincoln was actually discussing his primary responsibility as president to protect and preserve the Union was dismissed as too subtle for us. Or maybe it was too straight-forward?

We see the same kind of refusal to see moral exemplars anywhere in the way people are treated in the press. There seems to be an urge to bring a person down at any cost, almost as if to say that since every person is flawed, there can be no action at a higher moral level. In this way, we can evade our own moral responsibilities. This way of thinking brings the idea of moral relativism to an absolute low. (Sorry, I could not resist the oxymoron).

It is precisely because of this penchant that we should talk about the fact that flawed human beings can, with great effort and at great cost to themselves, face their flaws and become determined to act on their moral principles anyway in a situation in which they face considerable risk. In fact, one of these risks is of exposure of one's personal flaws by people who wish to discredit the act of moral courage. It seems to me that a significant part of moral courage is the ability to see oneself as flawed, the examination of one's own moral weaknesses, and the personal resolve to take a stand despite it all.

Certainly, when educating young children about moral courage, we must allow the children to have heroes. And we are likely to present the moral actor in a more unidimensional way e.g. Martin Luther King was a hero because he spoke up for justice in the face of oppression. Period. (He was a hero. He did stand up). But when we are educating older children, we can and should present exemplars with more complexity. This can be done using biography and literature both. For example, Oscar Schindler, who saved lives during the Shoah, had many flaws. He was a shady dealer in business, he was a womanizer, etc. And yet, he stood for the value of life itself at a time when many people who were less obviously flawed remained silent.

By having these kinds of discussions, we innoculate our children against the terrible cynicism out there. The cynicism that tells us not to stand out, not to act, because we are not perfect ourselves. And they give us a sense of hope that, despite our flaws--maybe even because of them--if we have the courage to face our own weaknesses, we can do something important in the world.


Anonymous said...

Oh E...very good post! The ideas you posit are things I often reflect on (particularly in the last 2 weeks!!!!)

Acts of being courageous are so few and far between now. Thank goodness we have some historical figures to label as heroes because leadership today appears to operate more on greed, corruption and power than standing up for what an individual truly believes in.

Your discussion on historical analysis and lens was most interesting. As an under grad, the thinking of the day was through a feminist lens. I had no difficulty attaching my thinking to that framework because I was surrounded by it and because there was no preferable alternative for me. The seminal writers in feminism were heroes - despite not always agreeing with their processes, they stood up for what they believed in. If feminism is about the experience of women, then the core feminist writers of the 60's and 70's certainly stood up for women of that time.

Today at university, there is a framework of deconstructionalist and modernism. Conversely, in circles considered to be alternate thinkers, the matrix of archetypal heroes remains strong: many of these include religious icons, the Arch Angel Gabriel for example.

In therapy sessions I have watched children struggle to recognise a true life hero. They are not subjected to hero type behaviour in their daily life - they are often not surrounded by emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. Instead, they are often told not to stick up for another kid/right/belief because "you're just a kid and who would listen to you."

Actions as such are perpetrator behaviour and rob our kids of developing a moral courage.

Thanks for a great, great read and for stimulating my thoughts away from concentrating on my own hurt.

E we have got to get together.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Dear Megan,

To some extent, don't you think your own hurt is the result of facing personal risk in order to take a stand? You are a voice for the rights of children to be safe and your context is such that you are open to personal attack but your values do not allow you to retaliate in kind. That's courage!

Anonymous said...

Great turn of phrase. I'd certainly like to innoculate my children against the cynicism in their own home!

denise said...

Cool! One of my favorite topics. Those exact streams of thought, points, and issues are what drives my interest in buddhist texts.

Compassion, ethical and moral steadfastness, all outside of the context of society (or what is considered "acceptable" in individual cultures or societies)...all very interesting ideas, but of course in the big picture such an individual challenge. When you put it in context of children; teaching, showing, leading by example, it is even more interesting.

Great points to ponder and keep in mind to reference in daily life.

Stephanie not in TX said...

E ... so beautiful, and so full of truth!


Hanley Family said...

Wonderful thoughts. It troubles me that it seems that children are not allowed to have role models and real heroes. It is ok to idolize some sports star. But look up to George Washington? You'll find out just how much they drank. Or his flirts with Kitty.

It isn't that we should hide these facts, really, but when people put their lives, property and families at risk for a vision...that should count for something, too. And when we see their flaws, can't we take those to see they were human, like us? And that we, despite our flaws, can make a difference as well? If we have the courage to stand?

Thank you for the thoughts!