For centuries, moral education has been an element of curricula; moral sense has informed laws and governance. Debates about whether schools should implement stricter anti-bullying programs or whether to include comprehensive sex and sexuality education programs as part of the curriculum are common. Due to WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and other daring muckrakers, another form of ethics is emerging regarding political issues—one that bends the rules to communicate the truth to others and spur change, one that governments like the United States are currently fighting.
I am a passionate advocate for anti-bullying measures in schools, for example, and I applaud my home state New Jersey for its latest tough public school measures. But is a rule-based moral education always the best teacher? Should we teach children to accept society’s rules at face value, or should we encourage them to learn about those rules in depth and critically consider their benefits and drawbacks?
In the brightest, bravest episodes in U.S. history, many of those who ignored the law and challenged society and authority won praise and made progress toward a better nation. As a high school English student, I was a bit miffed at Henry David Thoreau’s overly zealous defiance of national laws, but drastic improvements to civil rights in America are due in large part to heroes like Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Mother Jones, Martin Luther King Jr., and all the brave souls who stood up for their convictions and refused to accept unjust laws.
In the media and blogosphere, an older generation of activists occasionally complains that our generation does not appreciate the significance of earlier causes and civil rights victories, like the Black and Brown Power movements or the Roe v. Wade decision. In an opinion piece called “Are WikiLeaks and Anonymous All We Have Left?” Joshua Holland writes, “The most recent Household Survey of Adult Civic Participation [sic] four in 10 Americans said politics were ‘too complicated to understand,’ and a similar number believed, not incorrectly, that their families ‘had no say in what federal government does.’” We know perfectly well that people around the world nowadays are increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo and with their governments, so why aren’t there more marches on Washington? Why aren’t there more acts of civil disobedience? Why are we cutting funding for educational programs that teach children to think about and respond to today’s challenges as well as yesterday’s? How can we expect them to become better decision-makers than their parents if they don’t care about the outcome of their decisions or understand the important factors in making them?
I believe that an approach to both governance and education is necessary that utilizes and encourages informed decision-making and critical thought instead of strict adherence to norms and rules.
One of my favorite bumper stickers simply says, “Question authority.” I want to welcome the Class of 2015 and encourage you to continue Wesleyan’s tradition of activism, not only here on campus but on the national front and in your own communities. Our professors and fellow students encourage us to challenge and improve upon notions we learn about in and outside of class. Let’s not just accept the education we’re given–let’s act on it.