Education for rich relationships

2008-09-30 00:00

Should school education include social skills to help pupils make a better job of life? Anthony Seldon, writer and headmaster of Wellington College in England believes it should, as reported in a recent issue of Oxford Today. Above all else, for Seldon this means learning how to build rich relationships.

But how? The article in question doesn’t give Seldon’s answer, so I set about exploring it for myself, drawing on two main sources and a vital personal experience of Zulu relationship-building. The two sources are African traditional wisdom and the moral philosophy of the great German thinker of the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant. The single word that best captures their views is respect.

Kant gave us an important principle: never treat others merely as a means to our own ends, but also, always, as ends in themselves. This means seeing those we encounter as im-portant and valuable in themselves and never as mere objects that we can use for our own benefit. I think that’s a good definition of true respect.

We all know that ubuntu is central to African ethics, meaning that we only truly thrive together with others who also thrive. Less well known to those whom apartheid condemned to ignorance of black culture, is the belief that respect is the key to how we should manage our relationships with others.

How might parents, teachers, religious leaders and others who influence our children go about helping them develop respect for others in appropriate ways? I think we must begin by distinguishing between an everyday, and a deeper, richer understanding of this key term. The former is largely a matter of courtesy towards others. We see it in the striking difference between schoolboys who lift their headgear and greet adults they encounter, including total strangers, and those who slouch by, hands in pocket, as if those adults don’t even exist.

There is much good in this first kind of respect but it doesn’t build rich relationships. For that we need the other, deeper, kind. This requires that we get to know the other person and his or her story. And it requires the skill of empathy — of coming to feel something of what it might mean to be that other person, including his or her beliefs, values and culture.

Here is how I best learnt what this is in practice. Years ago I wanted a Zulu-speaking academic to talk to my students in a course that included a section on ethics and sexuality. I wanted them — mostly whites in those days — to hear from this man about the way his culture handles the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour. So I phoned him, a man I hardly knew, and put my request to him.

I expected no more than a five-minute meeting in which I’d provide details and maybe answer a few questions. In-stead, I was there a good hour. My colleague told me about his life and family background, where he was born, where he grew up, how he found a career and so on. He took his time, sometimes describing certain key experiences in detail, letting me sense something of the lived reality of such episodes, and then asked me to do the same.

Only then, when the story-telling he’d brought about had changed us from mere fellow employees into the beginnings of a real relationship, did he agree to talk to my class.

That hour with him gave me an enriching experience of empathy and the deeper kind of respect and relationships it makes possible. But how can we, and especially our young pupils, develop empathy? This is something I will explore in my next article.

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