For the past five years I have been teaching a graduate course, entitled Science and Society, at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine
On first reading of the course title, it might be concluded that the course coverage is very broad and even ambiguous, after all, one can speak about almost anything in the context of science and society.
A look at the course outline however will reveal that the course is in fact very targeted. While the course allows for the exploration of a range of science topics — from biomedical concepts and issues related to scientific globalisation to safety issues in science classrooms — during its delivery participants are strongly encouraged to discuss and critique the ethical issues that inevitably hinge on each of the topics explored in each class session.
In preparing course material with this ethical slant in mind, and on reflecting on what I see in the society in which I live, I have been alerted to what I can only describe as a severe ethical deficiency in Trinidad and Tobago, one that continues to worry me with increasing intensity. Each year I am called upon to prepare and deliver the course.
My experiences over the years that I've taught the course to practicing teachers have revealed that I live in a society in which an enormous amount of lip-service is paid to ethics in the way we think about matters, in the way we speak about issues and in the way we act, whether it is at a personal level, in a professional capacity or in the public/national decisions we make, either individually or collectively.
I have realised too, that painfully little is actually done to develop awareness among our students, of the need to apply discretionary ethical considerations and assessment in matters and affairs that confront them every day.
My reflections over an extended period have made it clear to me that so called responsible adults, entrusted with the responsibility to teach by modelling, are not very concerned with ethical behaviour and that once the mighty dollar can be earned, ethics can be discarded at the expense of people's health, their lives and livelihood and the environment.
If we believe that students learn what they see, then any attempt to 'teach' ethical awareness in an academic setting with minimal emphasis on behaviour modeling, will continue to fail, as it has been doing for more than a decade. In other words, unless we practice what we preach, no matter how worthwhile and noble the philosophy is, it will make no impact on students' behaviours, practices and their attitudes.
Furthermore, the theoretical context in which the intricate mesh among science, society and ethics is presented (in classroom settings, such as in this course) to our future leaders, movers and shakers seems irrelevant in a world or a society which is driven by the unspoken yet compelling slogan of "wealth acquisition at all cost."
A colleague of mine recently commented that "society inherits what the school system produces".
Though simplistic in this composition the phrase is potently reflective of the current society in which we live. The influence of media, the glorification of money and power, the portrayal of aggression as socially more valued than nurturing, the acceptance of condemnation instead of caring have cultivated in the cognitive schema of our students the perception that any attempt to weigh matters against ethical positions is light and soft — attributes that are asynchronous with the rough and ravenous disposition of those perceived to be successful, wealthy and socially elitist.
I am of the view that we have already lost a generation and that we are losing the current one. I posit that even if we begin today, with earnest, by changing our attitudes and adopting practices aimed at guiding our students into a realm of ethical consciousness that we will still lose this generation and we will lose the next one as well.
I am hopeful though, that with genuine and sustained efforts honed at curtailing habits and behaviours that contributed to the current ethical deficiency that we may capture the generation which follows the next one. If however, we continue along with our selfish and myopic world view, we will continue to lose generation after generation and eventually we will get to that point beyond which there will be no return.
I end where I started with the suggestion that the change must begin now and it must begin in the classrooms, in the schools, with the teachers and the educators. It must begin with the modeling of behaviour, practices and habits on a full time basis. It must not be a unilateral endeavour, it must be collaborative, collective and multidimensional.
Parents, teachers, policy makers, the community and the elders must unite with a common vision to pull back our children. Corporate entities, social groups, religious organisations and humanitarian cliques must support and work in tandem to offset the current ethical deficiency.
I recognise that the undertaking is not easy one but I believe firmly that it is a necessary one.