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Students aren’t the only ones who need an education

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Last column, I wrote about Occupy Wall Street. This time, I want to address an issue much closer to home, but one which – as I will show – actually has everything to do with what Occupy Wall Street is all about. I’m referring to Article 2.13 of the Newfoundland and Labrador Eastern School District’s Administrative Regulations Policy on Assessment and Evaluation (October 5, 2011). It states that “any attempt by students to gain (or assist in gaining) unfair advantage (i.e. cheating) shall result in the student not receiving a grade on that particular assessment.” Further, it states that “an alternate and appropriate assessment shall be arranged within a reasonable time frame. The student’s mark shall be derived from a second assessment”.

The policy caused some controversy which seems to have subsided quickly. That’s unfortunate, because it returns us to a problem that’s been around since antiquity: what is the role of education in the life of the community? The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association has objected that eliminating consequences for cheating undermines the social aspect of education, which I take to be that of the ethical formation of individuals.

The Eastern School District has defended itself with the depressing claim that this policy is consistent with others across the country, and that it demonstrates a “serious” attitude about cheating: punishments like suspensions may in fact be “more serious” than receiving a zero on the assignment! Furthermore, parents must be notified in cases where cheating has occurred—surely this can’t be innovative, though. The District’s CEO/Director of Education says that the policy is an “attempt to ‘separate student behaviour from learning to give us a true picture of what the student knows.’” An anonymous editorial from Queen’s University’s The Journal also defends the policy: “knowledge must be favoured over punishment in order to prevent students from facing long-term intellectual inadequacies.”

The question of education: an ethical problem

One might charitably say that these arguments are misguided. I think they’re stupid, lazy and dangerous. So is this policy. It does not separate student behaviour from learning. It’s impossible to do that. All you can really do is ignore the intrinsic relationship between them. Any true picture it offers has to include the future behavioural transformations it will induce not only in educational system, but also in the province’s culture as a whole. Further, to produce individuals who dissociate “knowledge” from the question of how to conduct themselves is to inflict a long-term intellectual inadequacy on them and on everyone around them. It will impede processes of ethical formation for our young people and corrode the freedom of everyone immediately or remotely subjected to it.

The claim that the business of education is the ethical formation of individuals probably induces anxiety for some people, as it should. Does it mean that we indoctrinate children to just obey authority? No; simple obedience has nothing to do with ethics. On its own, indoctrination demands nothing but orthodoxy; but acts of conscience often demand unorthodoxy, even if it means sacrificing your very sense of identity. Indoctrination is incompatible with conscience, which is what ethics calls to action. Indoctrination is therefore incompatible with ethics and with real education.

Ethics involves the ability to engage with rules, norms, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves in such a way that we can decide for ourselves when to obey, when to disobey, and to account for the decision. The notion of ethics is by no means exhausted in this description, but ethical formation involves cultivating that ability. Education requires that we impose rules, but it also requires that we make room to wrestle with them. Ethical formation is harder to practice when education strays too far in either direction.

A good habit is hard to beat!

In this column, I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of looking at ourselves from the perspective of habit. In ancient Greek, the word for “habit” is “ethos”, which is the root of “ethics”; it can also be roughly translated as “disposition”. When I wrote about Marshall McLuhan, I wanted to interest people in how technological forms affect us essentially at the level of our habits, which elude our awareness roughly insofar as we don’t work hard to notice. Individual actions are immersed in milieus of habituation not just at the level of individual dispositions but also at the social level; our horizon of what’s possible to think, say or do is to some extent formed by and within those milieus. This is also true of ethical formation.

Habit doesn’t altogether compel one, but mainly when one is taken unawares; for however habituated you are, given time to ponder you can go against a habit.
-St. Thomas Aquinas

This policy will change peoples’ habits: it will affect the environment in which dispositions are shaped. It isn’t enough to argue that we can substitute other punishments for consequences that follow directly from cheating. Students who are disposed to cheat will see fewer reasons to avoid it. Students who are disposed to put in a real effort will see fewer reasons to do that. Lastly, teachers will have fewer reasons to bother giving students reasons to think about whether or not it really is wrong to cheat. Why bother, when they can’t impose penalties that have an obvious relation to the transgression? Eventually, the question of when to obey and when to disobey will become uncomfortably difficult to pose. The possibility of ethical formation will have been weakened, because the relevant distinctions will have been flattened out.

Someone might object here: it’s not really the school’s job to be involved in ethical formation: that task falls to the family. That’s superficially plausible, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny. There’s no doubt that family life is crucial to ethical formation. But we can’t avoid concluding that it operates in conjunction with the educational system.

Fundamental for the whole family

There are many positions a parent could take up here, but let’s consider two that I think are probably common. Take, on the one hand, a parent who feels that the school should continue the work carried out at home. On the other hand, take a parent who feels that it isn’t the school’s job to contribute to a child’s ethical formation, and that the teacher should stay out of the way. In my view, they want the same thing: that the basic behavioural expectations a child finds at school are consistent with what he or she finds at home. Either way, the Eastern School District’s policy fails. Its negative effects will impinge on the social aspect of the family, not just that of education. If parents expect, or are expected, to be solely responsible, they’ll nonetheless send their children into an environment that habituates them otherwise—six hours a day, five days a week, 9 months a year, for thirteen years! The best parents in the world would be hard-pressed to counteract that: how can you effectively discipline your children if it has little relation to the world where they spend most of their waking lives?

If I were a parent in Newfoundland and Labrador, I’d be fighting the Eastern (and Western) School District over this policy and I’d want its author to be unemployed, post-haste.

I wrote that this policy will undermine the freedom of everyone subjected to it. I don’t mean freedom conceived as the license to do what you like, within the limits of the law (and if you have the resources, you can have your way with those limits). The notion I prefer finds a nice articulation in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762): “the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to the law one has prescribed to oneself is freedom.” This notion of freedom has been repeatedly promoted in various forms by every seriously conscientious thinker since Plato, and probably since before him too.

Freedom so understood arises with ethical formation. But freedom understood as the license to follow “the impulsion of mere appetite” can never distinguish itself from unexamined habit, in the end. It can’t distinguish between coercion and “obedience to the law one has prescribed to oneself”. It’s only practiced by rejecting whatever thwarts our impulses and affirming whatever enables them. It can never involve the considered negotiation of when to obey and when to revolt. It can never be ethical.

What does this have to do with Occupy Wall Street? Occupy Wall Street represents the first wave of a backlash against precisely the kinds of cultural shifts that gave rise to a time when financial speculators could almost bring down the global economy and then walk away from it; a time when many people would shrug their shoulders and say “Well, I think they paid the money back – didn’t they?” Occupy Wall Street is an attempt to escape a distinctly unethical time, a time when you only face consequences if you’re inconsequential. If this policy stands, it will help produce an environment just like that right here in our home, which we love. How could anyone obey that?

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