“The most important demand placed upon all education is that Auschwitz [does] not happen again.”
These are the words of philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, a German Jew who gave a famous radio lecture in 1966. His point was that teaching knowledge and skills means nothing if it results in pupils and later adults who undertake acts of racism, violence, persecution and bullying.
He reflected upon German history and argued that educating the child, in particularly in early childhood, was important so they were not hardened and insensitive to the needs of others.
In educational terminology it is called ‘bildung’. This is a word notoriously difficult to translate from German. It can mean learning about the culture to which we belong, so that it becomes an internalised image of our cultural and societal DNA, so-to-speak.
It also means something more: a learning of the moral codes of the culture, including the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable. It is about understanding the importance of relations with others, about learning how to act with tact and respect.
Bildung can become a fluffy concept if it points to some indefinable point in the future and takes attention away from the pressing character of events in the present. The Adorno-inspired moral imperative to prevent the conditions of a new atrocity might also imply placing too much responsibility on the individual, whether pupil, teacher or parent.
When education is about the moral codes of culture it is not enough to merely advocate courses and curricula in citizenship studies – even though these are of course important.
What teachers do each and every day is a longer project; it is a dripping tap and never a one-stop, one fix-it course. It is the daily and continual feedback that adjusts and calibrates the views of children and adolescents as they grow. It is about noticing the important things and acting.
As Professor Mohamad Abdalla, one of Australia’s most prominent Muslim leaders, put it in a recent radio interview, it is the continual need not to allow hate speech in the name of free speech in any context.
Once I travelled to the very north of Norway to offer a day’s professional development for teachers. It was in a small village that looked into Russia and in the distance there was a border that in the past had been patrolled continually. It felt as if my colleague and I were on the edge of the world and about to fall off it. As the host drove us to the small hotel she suddenly slammed on her breaks. She jumped out and told off a group of boys for bullying another boy. It was the evening and the school day had long since finished. Her job was to look after all children, and it was not limited to a lesson or school hours.
Her task was the practice of citizenship. To be a bystander was not an option. It was not thinking without the doing. In the days to come after the terrible events of Christchurch we will all be called upon to do and not simply think.
In so doing, being ethical as a teacher is not a once and for all attained truth; it is an understanding of the daily teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom. Demonstrating sensitivity to others, resoluteness and making a stand are essential.
The teacher teaches the role of the spectator. On witnessing violence and racism in the classroom, on the sports field, in the playground or in society, the child learns that the spectator must intervene.
Teaching children to give voice to an individual and collective sense of respect for others becomes a most important demand upon all education, so what happened in Christchurch does not happen again.