With corruption seemingly spiraling out of control in Uganda, there is a growing chorus of voices calling for the introduction of ethics and integrity in school curricula as a mitigating intervention. But as to whether virtue, chastity, morality or ethics and integrity can really be taught and learnt in classroom settings is anyone’s guess.
It was Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher, who once said virtue cannot be taught. And, I partially agree. A course on ethics and integrity is not like a polio vaccine. We cannot hope to inoculate youthful Ugandan students who have been inclined toward unethical behaviour for the past so many odd years against corruption by simply giving them classroom knowledge. Tangible results can only be realized when those students can correctly apply that knowledge. That means the conditions for the proper translation of that knowledge into practice must exist, in the first place. And this is where the problem is.
I can vividly recall how, during my formative primary school days, our teachers would never tire of reminding us about the primary healthcare imperative of washing our hands before and after eating anything and also after every visit to the toilet. Notwithstanding the mastery we had acquired of these basic hygiene-promoting facts, we rarely behaved and acted as expected. Nor did our enthusiastically devoted teachers! We failed to have our newly acquired knowledge reflected in our daily behaviour and actions for several reasons. First; because the school failed to regularly provide the requisite wash basins, water and soap for us to be able to wash our hands as advised. Secondly; as children, we were motivated to study basic hygiene not because we genuinely wanted to push our degree of compliance with these critical hygienic requirements to a higher pedestal, but more because we merely wanted to pass class tests. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, our teachers turned up to be poor role models since they too were not practicing what they were “preaching”. In other words, all what our teachers left behind for us to emulate was a negative “demonstration effect”. These three shortcomings constituted the key “missing links” in our primary school’s basic hygiene initiative.
In the same way, the teaching and learning of ethics in schools is not likely to yield the expected behavioral improvements among the beneficiary students. Why? Because I see a couple of “missing links” in this proposed initiative too. To begin with, it would be gross naivety to expect such improvements to occur in an environment where calamitous corruption (open fraud, kitu kidogo, sex for marks, “holy” water/rice sales, opportunistic legislation, vote buying, money laundering, sectarianism/tribalism, hegemony, etc.) is overtly being orchestrated by the current crop of crooked parents, politicians, government officials, business executives, school teachers and even religious leaders. All these would be role models are, in effect, “damaged materials” who are bequeathing to the young population a largely negative “demonstration effect” to build on! Hence, the cyclic pattern of intergenerational transfer of a culture of corruption and impunity in the country.
In addition, a good number of Ugandan students choose to study a given course or subject combination principally because they just want to get a paper qualification that will subsequently earn them paid employment. Rarely is it because they are authentically interested in upgrading their intellectual or technical proficiencies. That is why a student teacher will most likely abandon lesson planning immediately after graduation; a trainee doctor will trash the underlying logic of the Hippocratic Oath soon after completing internship; and a newly qualified vet doctor will controversially clear for sale the carcass of a cow that died of foot and mouth disease for human consumption!
So, rather than just expend a lot of time lecturing students on the fundamentals of ethics and integrity, we need to seriously address the “missing links” that would help to translate the knowledge so gained into tangible learning outcomes. Among other things, our leadership ought to be mindful of the “demonstration effect” of their management styles. Government additionally needs to build and utilise systems and institutions that minimise the opportunity and temptation to behave unethically. And students need to be mentored to embrace principled decision-making as opposed to opportunistic reasoning.