I have the highest regard for the Dalai Lama who must be considered one of the few truly great men of the present century. He leads by example and precept with kindness and compassion and his teachings are worthy of serious consideration by all of us who are struggling to make sense of a mad world. But even the wisest of men sometimes take a wrong turn and make statements that cannot stand up to criticism. Even the Dalai Lama.
In one of his recent tweets about education we are told that:
Education is the way to achieve far-reaching results, it is the proper way to promote compassion and tolerance in society.
This claim must be considered along with the Socratic claim that knowledge is virtue. Neither claim, unfortunately, is true. History has shown us countless examples from Torquemada to Eichmann of men who were well informed and well educated but who totally lacked compassion and virtue — regardless of how the latter are defined. Socrates equated virtue with knowledge (or at least Plato did, it’s never easy to distinguish the two from one another) because he was convinced that if a person knows what is the right thing to do, they will do it. Aristotle made short shrift of this claim in his Ethics and he was right: virtue is not a matter of knowledge and education in the usual sense of those terms. Virtue is a disposition, as the ancients would have called it, a matter of character, which is the result of early training and habits. We can try to teach ethics to a 30 year-old thief, but if he is inclined by habit to steal he will continue to steal. And how on earth would one begin to teach compassion? Knowledge and education can make it possible for people to think more clearly about right and wrong, but it will not lead them to do the right thing if their character is already formed and they are disposed to do the wrong thing.
In this vein, the Dalai Lala contends that education will make people more compassionate and tolerant, but these are things that can only be instilled in young people by their parents and teachers by example when the children are very young. Clearly they are qualities that we would all like to see more in evidence, but we cannot expect our schools to teach these kinds of things along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. The focus of education must be on training the mind. We can only hope that good character, qualities like compassion and tolerance, are already present — at least in raw form — before the child ever enters school. Once in school these qualities can be reinforced by exemplary teachers, but the teachers’ training and focus must be on the minds of their students: that’s what education is all about.
We make a huge mistake when we simply turn our kids over to the schools and expect our overworked and underpaid teachers to teach the kids to be virtuous along with helping them learn the mental skills they will require to succeed in a complex world. Virtue must be taught at home and it is a matter of character which is formed early, we are told — perhaps as early as five or six years of age. It must not be piled on the backs of overworked teachers who are paid a pittance and already have too much to do and too little time to do it.