READING GUIDE TO: Durkheim, E.  (1961) Moral Education, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc

There is an excellent introduction by Wilson which summarises the main themes in the book.  For me those main themes are the paradoxical nature of individuality and its deep connection with social rules and social constraints.  However, all the main sociological concepts are invoked, from types of solidarity to the work on suicide [not so much on religiosity, although the general outlines of a secular sociology of religion are important].

This book is a collection of Durkheim’s lectures given to would-be teachers at the Sorbonne (remembering that schoolteachers are often pretty high powered academics in France).  As a result, they are excellent examples of clear exposition and argument, taking on some common conceptions about children, and offering detailed advice about how to run classes as well as summarising sociological themes.  They are refreshingly non scholastic.

 The task of managing this paradox of individuality is the central one for the education system.  Reading it fairly recently again, I was struck by the similarities with Dewey, despite the rather different philosophical backgrounds involved.

Chapter 4

This is where things really get going, after some preliminaries in which Durkheim reminds people that social order is the main issue, and that individual freedom requires social order, even though making that point to teachers looks as if you are supporting traditional formal education.  However, restraint is essential if the personality is to develop, and rules are required so that we can master ourselves—without discipline and the control of desire we will never be properly happy, because we will never attain our goals.  As a result: ‘The rule, because it teaches us to restrain and master ourselves, is a means of emancipation and freedom’ (49).  In particular, educators must help children establish realistic unattainable goals, and ‘the important thing is to discover a goal compatible with one’s abilities’ (49).

There is an argument that human nature itself requires constraint, since it is only through constraint that we can possibly achieve satisfaction of our desires.  As societies progress, the capacities of their citizens also increase so that ‘The normal boundary line is in a state of continual becoming’, and no abstract morality can fix it (51).  Nor can discipline simply be imposed or left to develop automatically.  Of course, progress can come through deviants.  Initially, we can think of the essence of morality as not so much content but form, and it follows that moral action is action that is not directed to the immediate gratification of the individual.  This is a point against utilitarians in particular.  It does not take long to realise that ‘Moral goals, then, are those the object of which is society.  To act morally is to act in terms of the collective interest’ (59).  It can’t be anything else because there is nothing else except human individuals and groups.

However, if societies are to act as moral agents, they cannot just be seen as groups of individuals.  They must be seen instead as sui generis [entities in their own right] .  This is a practical point supporting Durkheim’s theoretical arguments.  The qualities of societies emerge and cannot be reduced to back to those of individuals—‘a combination of elements presents new properties that do not characterise any of the elements in isolation’, with the example of tin and copper producing bronze (61).  When human beings get together and interacts, new ideas and feelings emerge—‘everyone knows how emotions and passions may break out in a crowd or meeting’ (62).  And of course societies outlast individual members, and so do propensities for particular social activities such as ‘crime…  suicides, marriage, even…  comparatively low fertility’ (63).

Chapter 5

An empirical argument appears—for people have always considered action directed towards others to be moral, and ‘Egoism has been universally classified among the amoral traits’ (65).  Societies have moral functions, and must appear as different from individuals.  Here, ‘society [is] a psychic being that has its own particular way of faults, feeling and action, differing from that peculiar to the individuals who compose it’ (65) [odd 'group mind' stuff?].  It has a collective personality, just as organisms develop lives of their own even though they are comprised of cells.  However, social goals must relate to individual goals if individuals are to respond to morality: it is not just a matter of societies being useful to us.  Human nature requires that we become involved in society.  When we are not involved, suicide rates increase – '[a man] [male nouns and pronouns throughout as was common in those days] destroys himself less frequently when he has things to concern him other than himself’ (68).  Egoists make a mistake when they try to abandon social obligations—‘it is from society that there comes whatever is best in us, all the higher forms of our behaviour’ (69) including language, religious ideas, and science.

There are three actual groups to which we belong, the family the nation and humanity.  ‘There is no necessary antagonism between these three loyalties’ (74) [conservative functionalism, and identity thinking, where the nation and society are equated].  It emerges that the most general of these—mankind—is too abstract to be a realistic active group, and that ‘The state is actually the most highly organized form of human organisation in existence’ (76), although even larger formations may exist in the future.  As it is, the nation should be the focus of our efforts, and we should get it to commit itself to more altruistic goals.  This expanded notion permits a broader notion of patriotism.

Chapter 6

Societies are made up of we individuals, even though it transcends us.  Societies therefore must symbolise morality [and again there is a dangerous identity between society in this sense and the nation state—‘if one loves his country, or humanity in general, he cannot see the suffering of his compatriots—or, more generally, of any human being—without suffering himself’ (83). Social ills such as alcoholism or suicide  require social treatment, ‘the collective organization of welfare’, which is also a moral duty (84).

Both personal discipline and collective ideals are part of the same interest in morality, ‘two aspects of the same, single reality’ (85).  Morality is in fact made by society, although much of collective life is invisible to us. Again, historical comparisons showed this to be the case, that ‘the morality of each people is directly related to the social structure of the people practicing it’, and ‘each social type has the morality necessary to it, just as each biological type has a nervous system which enables it to sustain itself’ (87).  Collective beings exert a compelling collective authority, a powerful morality, which exerts pressure on individuals—‘a voice that speaks to us, saying: that is your duty’ (89).  This is not God or any other transcendent being: ‘When our conscience speaks, it is society speaking within us’ (90).  This must be the case, because only authority rising above individuality, immune to individual action, becomes authoritative.  The fact that certain beliefs and sentiments appear to be compelling arises because they are ‘closely bound to the very core of the collective conscience’ (91).  There are genuine social forces underneath what appear to be abstract rules and systems, and the best creative religious individuals have simply identified themselves with these forces [back to the point about creative deviants].  There is a connection between what is good and what is necessary.

Without this understanding, concepts like duty and morality remain entirely abstract.  As a result, they are unlikely to affect children in particular.  Education should not just rely on emotional involvement, but should proceed through reason: ‘if one limits himself to repeating and elaborating in emotional language such abstract words as duty and good, there can only result a parrot- like morality.  The child must be put in contact with the concrete and living realities, which such abstract terms can only express in the most general way’ (94).

Chapter 7

It follows that moral education requires ‘Education through direct experience’ (97) [here, the school becomes a moral community, possibly in an identitarian way].  It is not enough to stress mere duty, nor merely what is good as a basis for morality—both are connected together, ‘two aspects of one and the same reality’ (99).  Historically, one impulse or the other might come to the surface, however.  In the current circumstances, where ‘collective discipline in its traditional form has lost its authority’, we must try and ‘sustain this feeling for discipline in the child’ (101), but by developing morality, involving people in collective ends.  New ideas of justice and morality may emerge, but in the meantime ‘we have to develop a spirit; and this we have to prepare in the child’ (103).

We have to develop a rational commitment to morality, dispelling with Gods and other myths, and we can use all the normal techniques of rational education to do so, as a ‘simple scientific and logical enterprise’ (105).  There need be no eternal and unchangeable laws, especially in fluid and complex societies.

Morality is based on something real, as Kant argued.  Morality must triumph over individual will, but not by squashing individual freedom.  Morality constrains us because we can only deal with immediate individual interests, but we can only see this through the use of a reasoned will.  Once we realise this, we can become rationally committed to morality.  Kant’s mistake was to attribute this kind of applied reason to a transcendental realm, a ‘metaphysical conception, which can only mislead us in our thinking’ (110).

Chapter 8

Because it is complex, moral elements look external to our will, and that looks like a form of dependency.  There must be rational grounds for moral obligations.  Left to our own devices, we would pursue ‘individual, egoistic, irrational, and immoral ends’ (112).  This is seen best in the development of real autonomy.  Sciences liberated us from many of the constraints of nature.  We need to liberate ourselves from our own nature as well.  ‘Conforming to the order of things because one is sure that it is everything it ought to be is not submitting to a constraint.  It is freely desiring this order, assenting through an understanding of the cause’ (115).  But if we understand the reasons for morality, doesn’t this strip it of its authority?  Not necessarily, because we can still recognise the [transindividual] need for constraint.

We can understand why we act in the way we do, and this is the only realistic autonomy.  We are social creatures.  Morality does exceed our individual will.  We need to have a wide understanding of this and how it affects our conduct.  In this sense, we can come to freely desire the existence of social rules—‘willing acceptance is nothing less than an enlightened assent’ (120).  [Compare with Althusser on this] We must explain this to children in schools.  Of course this would be a secular morality, denying any unknowable elements.

Morality consists of essential ideas, although ‘morality has its own realism’ (123).  That is it is based in social reality.  Children need to be able to understand social reality in order to play their part in social life.  This position reconciles individual interest and social duty—‘it is in submitting to rules and devoting himself to the group that he becomes truly a man’ (124).  Teachers must be interested in this complex reality.  Morality cannot be reduced to a formula or to a series of myths.

Chapter 9

The child psychologist Sully has developed some useful insights here, especially about how scientific rationality develops in children.  There is an argument that these stages can be detected in ‘early man’ as well (131)—fleeting interests, ready emotions, lack of discipline and so on.  Children’s emotions temporarily disable their rationality, especially anger.  The trick is to encourage progressive development of rationality.  Luckily this is possible because children are creatures of habit and open to suggestion (134).  We must build on this ‘great receptivity to suggestions of all sorts’ (139), and hypnotism can help us understand this—children adopt a passive stance in front of the teachers, while the mind is relatively unformed.  Later on, the ascribed authority of the teacher becomes decisive.  [A strange experiment is cited, that looks rather like the Asch conformity test, teachers authoritatively deny the correct answer and persuade children to agree, page 141].

Chapter 10

Natural predispositions of children have to be reinforced by the organization of the school.  School develops the work begun in families, and make it more abstract and impersonal.  School rules are not just a matter of excessive regulation imposed on children for the teachers benefit: ‘It is [should be?] the morality of the classroom’ (148).  [The whole discussion here reminds me of Parsons’s account, based on his pattern variables, that suggests that the school was the first place that the child encounters the values of industrial society—specificity, universalism, achieved status and the like].  The role of the teachers to maintain such discipline to prevent immorality, and its excess: ‘A class without discipline is like a mob’ , and ‘genuine demoralisation sets in’ (151).  On the other hand, the conscientious discharge of obligation ‘is the virtue of childhood, the only one in accord with the kind of life the child lead at that age, and consequently the only one that can be asked of him’ (151).

Children themselves welcome discipline—‘Each one is in his place and finds it good to be there’ (152).  The absence of discipline means childish confusion [anomie?] —‘one no longer knows whether this is good or bad, whether this should or should not be done, whether this is permitted or as illegitimate.  Hence a state of nervous agitation’ (152).

School discipline should be extended but need not be universal, for example, it should not excessively control ‘bearing, the way they walk or recite their lessons, the way they do their written work in their notebooks, etc.’ (153).  This would only compromise the moral authority of the teacher, while instant submission ‘destroys all initiative’ (153).  Teachers should therefore restrain themselves in the name of moral education.

Teachers are needed who are decisive and authoritative, but they must really feel they are acting in the name of moral authority.  They should not rely on fear, and nor should ‘arrogance, vanity or pedantry’ dominate (155).  Teachers should convey the impersonal nature of their authority, rather than seeing it as a personal quality.  They should make it clear that they are also subject to rules and obligations.  This is a difficult view to uphold, but essential.

Chapter 11

Personal conviction underpins moral authority, and this can transmit itself to children [in a kind of amplification spiral, rather like religiosity, page 159]: ‘the effects act on the cause and intensify it'.  There need be no regimentation, but discipline should not be buried beneath ‘a sugary facade’ (160).  ‘Everything in life is not beer and skittles; the child needs to prepare himself for exertions and hardship…  It would be a calamity to allow him to believe that everything can be done as though it were play’ (160), although children need to be introduced at this idea carefully and gradually.

Should there be punishment in schools?  Not if it is aimed just at preventing misbehaviour, or takes the form of revenge or expiation.  It must have a moral function, designed to uphold the inviolability of morality, to buttress conscience.  To this end it is important simply that misbehaviour is met with disapproval.

We should not just let misbehaviour run on until it meets its natural consequences, the theory ‘attributed to Rousseau’ (168), although Rousseau says it should apply only to strictly physical education.  Spencer also believed that bad actions should just be left to attract bad consequences—but that depends on children seeing the connections between acts and consequences, and this can be unlikely in complex societies.  Educators must intervene to point out these consequences.

Chapter 12

The trick is to persuade children to accept authority and act out of respect for it.  Punishment has only a limited role.  It is the teacher who is crucial.  Some authorities, such as Tolstoy, see school discipline as artificial and unnatural, and argue that spontaneous curiosity and interest will suffice.  However, this is contrary to history, and will not work in a complex society [hints of organic solidarity here].  It is natural for ‘the milieu’ to react to transgression (181).  Thus the best punishment expresses most disapproval ‘in the least expensive way possible’ (181), to reaffirm obligations.  Thus there is no need for corporal punishment [Durkheim supports love withdrawal, the orchestration of the disapproval of others].  Corporal punishment is ‘repugnant’ (183), barbaric.  Even pre-industrial societies tend to treat their children very gently, and harsh treatment probably emerged first in the middle ages.

Chapter 13

Excessive violence in schools in the middle ages probably arose from a culture clash between the educated elite and the masses, or between Europeans and the Colonies.  Cultural superiority produces ‘a veritable intoxication, an excessive exaltation of self, a sort of megalomania, which goes to the worst extremes’ (193).  The culture clash between educated teachers and their charges must not be permitted to develop that way, however, and a tendency to violence must be resisted in favour of patience.  Nevertheless, ‘There is then, in the situation of school life itself, a predisposition to violent discipline’ (195), which is why it is necessary to develop a strong ‘contrary force’—moral opinion, especially when turned into public opinion.  Without this, schools turn into despotism.  It is necessary to prevent schools becoming isolated from wider society, developing a ‘too narrowly professional character’ (197).  We must resist harmful punishments and encourage helpful and effective ones.

Concentrating delinquent pupils into one particular class or stream is also likely to be ineffective, since ‘There always prevails a latent spirit of disorder and rebellion’ (198), and a tendency for teachers just to control.  Punishment always runs the risk of reducing legitimacy, and ‘cannot but to contribute to future lapses’ (199).  The same applies to laws more widely.  Punishment should range across a scale, from disapproving glances to public disapproval, but generally, ‘the higher in the scale punishments are, the less economical they are; the usefulness is increasingly out of line with the loss of force that they entail’ (200).  Punishment should neither be immediate and angry, and nor excessively cold and impassive.

The same problems beset systems of reward, which are designed primarily to reward intellectual prowess rather than moral development.  In the wider society, rewards are not as detailed or widespread as punishments, and so schools need to adopt a similar regime.  It is partly because moral behaviour is simply expected—moral behaviour takes place without any anticipation of regular reward: ‘Were there a price tag on such behaviours, they would promptly acquire a degrading commercial air’ (206).  The true reward for moral behaviour is contentment.

Chapter 14

Altruism is a real force, as widespread as egoism, although they are normally thought of as opposite tendencies.  It is common to see egoism as somehow natural, while altruism only develops with culture and education.  However, there are also disinterested activities, such as ‘the desire to know and understand’ (209).  Hatred can also be disinterested.  Egoism can also be self-destructive.  Some egoism even aims at suffering—such as ‘the taste for melancholy…  What is it if not a certain love of sadness?’ (212).  [Anecdotal or literary examples leading to massive generalisations here].

So it is not the search for pleasure that drives human action in any egoistic way.  We can be driven by personal goals, or by non personal ones, including allegiances to social groups.  There is no abstract difference between egoistic and altruistic motivation, but simply a matter of orientation, whether the action stops with the individual or overflows them (214).  It is a matter of focusing on different objects.  External objects get internalised by representation, as when we get attracted to persons.  ‘Thus, we have egotism embedded in altruism; conversely, there is altruism in egoism.  Indeed, our individuality is not an empty form’ (215).  It is impossible to live ‘a purely self centred existence’ (216).  Thus ‘egoism and altruism are two abstractions that do not expect in a pure state; one always implies the other’ (217).

All this means that children are not necessarily naturally egoistic or selfish, and that they are capable of altruism [homely examples follow, backed up with some from Sully].

Chapter 15

The school environment plays an important role in moral education, especially in acting as the first secondary group, away from the primary intimacy of the family [with more echoes of Parsons—actually the other way around of course].  In modern societies, schools are a crucial intermediary between the family and the state, especially since other intermediaries have now disappeared—‘provinces, communes, guilds’ (232).  This follows given the centralisation of the French State under the monarchy, and then under the Republic.  This centralism produces a moral crisis, since people need to be bridged into collective life.

Schools are a first experience of such collective life.  At the moment, in France, families seem to be the core of life, with a reluctance to join any particular associations.  It is not the same in Germany.  There is only an illusory collective life in the salon.  Groups of the past cannot be revived, so new ones need to be developed.  They cannot be imposed.  Schools play a crucial part here.

Chapter 16

We must revive moral unity through collective life.  The most important duty for the school is to encourage a collective life and to help people enjoy its benefits, including solidarity, mutual aid and comfort, as found in some religious minority groups.

Teachers should always encourage children to think in terms of ‘the class, the spirit of the class, and the honor of the class’ (241).  They should encourage collaboration and discourage ‘destructive sentiments’ (242), and take every opportunity to let children ‘sense their unity in a common enterprise’ (243).  This can include emotional reactions to literature, history, school events, collective proverbs and precepts, collective punishments and rewards, collective responsibilities: ‘for example, the teacher might make an inventory of everything accomplished—good and bad—during the week, sum up notes and observations made from day to day; and, on the general impression that emerges from this summary he could grant or withhold certain rewards from the entire class’ (245).  [Sounds like some American practice I have read about, where points are awarded for particular collective activities, including supporting the local team].

In particular, the school needs to promote rational morality, an awareness of social realities [social forces as Durkheim sees them]. It must combat ‘oversimplified rationalism’, where only the most obvious and self evident impressions perceptions are accepted as valid (250).  Descartes is blamed for this. Reality is much more complex, especially social reality, which people tend to reduce to the isolated individual as the only real object.  The teaching of science is the best way to combat this view.

Chapter 17

We have to reverse the tendency to see the complex as illusory, as fundamentally made up of simple things [and Descartes comes in for some criticism again—he has deeply influenced ‘the French mind’ (253)].  There is a tendency to overemphasise analysis in the very language we use, and to miss the impact of the totality.  The trends are found in French literature.  We want to celebrate rationalism, but without simplification.

Complexity is as real as any other.  It is best understood as a combination of simple determinations—‘there is always a real cause for the apparent complexity; and the effects of the cause are themselves real’ (255).  Combinations of simple elements ‘release new properties which each of the component elements by itself would not present’ (256).  This helps us avoid social atomism.  Of course society has a real existence, because it is able to appear as important to individuals.  It also resists simple attempts to alter its character, as when politicians attempt to tinker with it.

Rousseau can be seen as the theorist who particularly asserted the reality of the individual, and saw societies simply as a combination of the individual wills in the social contract.  The Revolution discovered the problems with that view, and could not see how to forge a social order from individual will.  A proper view of the social is required in order to guarantee social order, and simplifications must be opposed, beginning with the child.  Teaching of science can contribute here, not mathematics, which ‘are simplistic by principle and by  method, but physical and natural sciences’ (261).

Children must see how science has developed from a long process of experimentation and hypothesising.  They must see that science is provisional.  That there is a need for observation and exploration.  That is the only route to link ‘the simplistic workings of our minds and the complexity of things’ (262).  Unexpected findings offer another good example.  Biology can also help in showing that complexity has its own effects, in particular in giving life to complex organisms.  Complexity must not be overdone in case it leads to mysticism and ‘obscurantism’, especially religion.  Is necessary to show that ignorance can be progressively reduced and there is no limit to the growth of knowledge. In this way, science actually encourages morality.

Chapter 18

Teaching of science is far more important than teaching art and aesthetics.  Contemplating an artistic work does help our preoccupation with the self: ‘When we awaken a taste for the beautiful, we open the avenues of the mind to disinterestedness and sacrifice’ (269).  However, we are not investigating reality but ideal objects, and we are operating with feelings and emotions rather than rational inquiry.  There is no resistance from objective reality, and ‘the realm of art diverges from that of moral life since it departs from reality...  We must see people as they are—their ugliness and wretchedness – if we want to help them.’ (271).

Art engages the imagination, it is a game, but ‘Morality, on the contrary, is life in earnest’ (273).  Of course, games and leisure are important, and the values of arts education will help children avoid unworthy leisure: 'In itself, leisure is always dangerous' (274), and art guards against ‘debasing’ leisure.  However, science is far more important, and the better we understand reality the easier is to act morally. 

Then there is social science.  So far this is too unsuitably developed to be taught in schools.  History is much more promising, since it helps children to realise that society 'is real, alive, and powerful' (275), and how contemporary life depends on what happened previously—seeing 'social life inexorably moving in its own direction despite the endlessly changing composition of its personnel' (276).

We must instil in the child 'collective consciousness'—'it is not enough to make him feel the reality of it.  He must be attached to it with his whole being' (277).  Children must be provided with an ‘intellectual and moral framework distinctive of the entire group' (277).  The school must organise this methodically, and in accord with 'the French character' (278), although some aspects must be resisted, especially Cartesian thinking.  We must celebrate the universal ideas associated with French thought, cosmopolitanism intellectualism, and our contributions to the general good of humanity.

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