The Blurring of Right and Wrong

10 Nov

The discussion between good and evil peaks at this time of year in India, today being VijayDashami – the day the fabled true King Rama triumphed over the evil Ravaana who had kidnapped his wife in revenge for his sister’s insult. It could have been a complicated story, but the unidimensional characters make it an easy stories for a values based education session. The Ramayana, being one of the traditional epics has been used in schools and reading sessions for years as a salutary tale on the consequences of evil. Leaving aside its Hindu connection (which is difficult given the current saffronised scenario), it is a valuable exploration into pedagogical tools for an exploration of values.


Pitching right against wrong is something we do all the time in our classrooms. At its very simplest in traditional schools, there is always a distinction between the right place to be and the wrong place, between the right chapter and not, the right uniform, the right method to do a sum and of course the right way to greet a teacher and the wrong way. While much of it is imposed by the teacher in order to ensure discipline, some is clearly due to peer pressure and a desire to fit in. Much of the sense of right and wrong is determined by the context and the environment, of course by the rewards and consequences then and there.


Take the case of a young boy being bullied by his classmates, just out of sight of all teachers. Fairly ordinary, right? What is right for the child who has not been taught how to cope with bullying and does not know whom to approach? Is is right to get beaten up? Is it right to respond in kind? Is it right to share with classmates and risk being laughed at, worse, ignored? As we grow older, we become stronger and can deal with such situations, as a child, we may not even be able to see the options. What is the right decision for that child?


Right and wrong are very easy to decide in prescriptive situations because the logic is clear – following the orders and rules is right, anything other than that is wrong. While our schools, and increasingly our higher education institutions are becoming rule bound, this is not what life is about at all. Life does not set rules for us, unless we live in the land of Khap panchayats and zero choice. That of course is not really life, that is a prison.


There are few absolute right and wrong decisions ever, and as teachers, we can but equip our students to judge based on the facts and emotions vested in each situation. How can it be right for them to cheat in an examination because it gets better results and make everybody happy? Can it? Some people seem to behave so. How can it be right to rehearse the lead part in the school play so well that it gets taken away from another and handed to them? How can it be wrong to do so? Is it right for schools to stoke ambition and then preach that greed is bad? Is there a conflict there?


Teaching values in class cannot come out of books and stories. The ‘moral of the story’ is the part that burdens a child with memory without meaning. Values are communicated more by examples and precedents than by rote learning. Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect in an institution, social mores that will help them work in teams productively and fine listening skills are integral to developing strong value systems.


Whether values are a choice or are inherited is an eternal debate that may never be resolved. But being strongly grounded in one’s values without being terribly fixed in one’s beliefs is generally considered a good thing. To be able to choose, knowing in one’s heart that it is right is a great comfort. To be forced to decide in such a way, knowing that it is wrong is a misfortune. To not know the difference between right and wrong is the saddest of them all. To be blind to consequences is true tragedy. If a child does not know how to decide what is right or wrong, then how do they know how to behave?


Behaviour has become part of the international debate in schools across the world – more so than it ever was before. It is not just about students becoming more aggressive to each other and their teachers. The turn of the century has truly brought a shift in the simple line between right and wrong. There are few things that are black and white any more, most of us have to operate in shades of grey.


This is one of the challenges of preparing our children for the future – to hold firm in their values, to hold the line between right and wrong with intelligence and grace, when the whole world is sinking in the mists of grey.


(For those who seek practical answers, I’d say, make them debate freely, help them craft plays)

This was published on October 24, 2012 (Also Dusshehra) in the Times of India Blogs and is linked here and


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