The La Sallian Contribution to Moral and Ethical Education : Character Building

I would like to start with a quote from that famous Chinese writer, linguist and inventor, Lin Yutang. He said,

‘It is not so much what you believe in that matters, as the way in which you believe it and proceed to translate that belief into action’.

To really understand the La Sallian contribution to moral and ethical education let us pause for a while and examine a part of St John Baptist de La Salle’s last will and testament. In it he emphasized unity among the Brothers. He advised them not to get involved in doctrinal debates of the church for which they were not prepared.

Good News for the Poor

However, the founder of the religious order reminded them of the purpose for which they were founded. Their main mission was and still is to become Good News for the poor and the working class through the service of education.

The Raison D’etre

Why did the founder emphasize this particular aspect? St John Baptist de La Salle lived in seventeenth and eighteenth century France. The country was then a hierarchical society with a small upper class and a large under class.

In his time, the French upper class was immersed in a lifestyle of immense wealth, extravagance and splendour. The poor, unfortunately, had no place in this society except as servants to the rich.

The founder wanted to change that initially by focussing on educating the poor and the working class. His goals for education were thus socially motivated. In short, he urged the Brothers to serve the LAST, the LEAST and the LOST.

Brief History

In 1719, there were 100 Brothers teaching in thirty seven educational institutions in France. Sixty years later, at the time of the French Revolution, there were 1,000 Brothers teaching throughout France.

By the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 15,000 Brothers serving in ministries throughout the world.

La Salle Brothers first came to Malaysia 162 years ago. The first school was established in Penang in 1852. There are now forty four schools in Malaysia.

Definition of Character: What Embodies Good Character?

Let us see what the great American president Abraham Lincoln had to say on this matter. He said:

‘Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree. Our character is much more than just what we try to display for others to see. It is who we are even when no one is watching. Good character is doing the right thing because it is wise to do what is right ‘.

Now let us examine three definitions of character.

One dictionary defines character as ‘ the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual ‘. Another says it is ‘the complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person’. A third dictionary says that it is ‘the stable and distinctive qualities built into an individual’s life which determine his or her response regardless of circumstances’. As you can clearly see there are commonalities in all three definitions. As such, character building is a very important part of the total education process.

Compelling Reasons for Character Education

Professor Thomas Lickona who specialises in this field offers us seven compelling reasons for character education. He maintains that it is the best way to make an enduring difference in the life of a student. He believes that if it is carried out properly, it will improve academic achievement. Moreover, he states that many students are not getting strong character formation anywhere else! Professor Lickona believes that it prepares students to respect others and live in a diverse society.

Furthermore, it goes to the root of a range of social-moral problems including incivility, dishonesty, violence, premature sexual activity and a poor work ethic. He also believes that it is the best preparation for the work place. And finally, teaching the values of a culture is the work of civilisation.

What Embodies Good Character?

The Character Training Institute of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma provides us with a range of values that embody good character. These include the following: creativity, decisiveness, deference, dependability, determination, diligence, discernment, discretion, endurance, enthusiasm, faith, flexibility, forgiveness, generosity, gentleness, gratefulness, hospitality, humility, joyfulness, justice, loyalty, meekness, obedience, orderliness, patience, persuasiveness, punctuality, resourcefulness, responsibility, security, self-control, sensitivity, sincerity, thoroughness, thriftiness, tolerance, truthfulness, virtue and wisdom.

As you can see there is a whole range of values that go into the heady mix of what embodies good character. The challenge for educators in Malaysia is to provide the setting and the example for these values to be absorbed and then internalised by our students in our multi cultural setting.

Fundamentals of La Sallian Contribution

The Brothers and the lay teachers who support them in this noble mission are constantly reminded that their focus should be on the Last, the Least and the Lost in our society. As such, one fundamental is to educate the working class. The next is that the Brothers are seen as elder brothers and role models and not as Masters… the term used to describe teachers in France at that time.

There is also recognition that no man is an island. There is an on–going commitment to excellence in teaching. In addition, there is due respect for human dignity and a reflection of faith and it’s relation to reason. There is much emphasis placed on ethical conduct and finally, there is a deep abiding commitment to social justice.

Characteristics of La Sallian Schools

These are some of the characteristics of La Sallian schools.

There is due respect for each student. A healthy community spirit is established and nourished. There is an emphasis on quality education. There is a spirit of openness to all, regardless of race, colour or creed.

In addition, there is support for dedicated teachers who go beyond the call of duty and sacrifice a lot for the students under their care. The teachers in these schools have an understanding and knowledge of St John Baptist de La Salle

La Sallian Measures that Contribute to Character Building

The La Salle Brothers and their lay teachers provide the environment to foster the development of academic, social, inter-personal and professional skills which assist the students to become successful young men. They also contribute their talents and energies to the communities in which they live. As such, the students work towards the following goals:

Specific Goals

To become educated men who possess academic, social, interpersonal, professional and job related skills which enable them to think critically, to assume leadership and to exercise their freedom;

To become cultured men who appreciate the fine arts;

To become patriotic citizens who are prepared to live in and appreciate a diverse, integrated society; and finally

To become men and women who are emotionally prepared to deal with the complexity of life in our changing society.

Range of Extra- Curricula Activities

La Sallian schools, therefore, encourage their students to participate actively in a wide range of extra-curricula activities. These include participation in one or more of the following activities: Boy Scouts movement, Cadet Corps, Red Cross / Crescent Societies, chess, athletics, sports – soccer, hockey, rugby, cricket, tennis, table tennis, badminton, basketball and swimming just to name a few.

There is also encouragement to participate in public speaking events and debates for the upper secondary school students. In addition, it is de rigueur for La Salle schools to organise and host an annual school concert and/or a play or musical event. In some instances, teachers also participate in the school plays or musicals. In such cases, the La Sallian family spirit thrives.

A Range of Benefits that Ensue

As a result of these La Sallian measures and a range of appropriate activities, the following benefits ensue.

Students take a much broader view of their education. By participation in these activities, they learn what it is to be an educated person. It inculcates values and principles of fair play. Students also understand that good sportsmanship is not just about winning but to play the game. They are also taught to show a round of appreciation for a gallant loser in a game or contest.

In addition, there is acceptance and understanding for the views of others. Students also learn to generously share knowledge, skills and experience. They learn to stand up for what they believe to be moral and right. And thorough it all, they are being groomed slowly but surely in leadership. In other words, students are taught to be responsible citizens. At the end of the day, this is what Character Building is all about.

Comparative Perspectives

At this juncture, it will be useful for us to be aware of the approach taken by two premier schools in the Klang Valley. One of the schools is Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur and the other is Assunta Secondary School in Petaling Jaya.

This is the feedback that I received from a former student of Victoria Institution. He is a chartered management accountant by profession and is currently serving as executive director of a public listed company.

Victoria Institution

At this school, rules were rules and they were applied across the board. There were no exceptions made even for sons of royalty, senior civil servants or the rich. The goal posts were fixed… more like cast in concrete!

The teachers here did not engage in private tuition. They were born teachers, for the most part. Teaching was then considered a noble and respected profession.

All Malaysian principals at Victoria Institution were former students or were made fully aware of its rich heritage, history and ethos. On one occasion when a principal made a mistake on a matter affecting the history of the school, he was quickly taken to task by the senior members of the Old Boys Association. The matter was then immediately set right!

There was heavy emphasis on sports and athletics. Teachers were involved personally and often went beyond expectations. Many were prominent sportsmen and a few were Olympians.

All these measures helped to create a strong bond amongst the students. They understood rules, believed in team work and fair play and willingly shouldered responsibility.

Assunta Secondary School

In the case of Assunta Secondary School, I received feedback from a former student who is now a chief executive officer of an integrated communications agency based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

This school was founded and run by Franciscan nuns. She imbibed a Catholicism that prioritized the person over rules.

The Franciscan lens encouraged the students to view others and the world around them more sympathetically. A wider and more compassionate perspective encouraged care of the environment and good stewardship of the planet.

Compassion and respect for the integrity of people of other faiths was fostered. The nuns and lay teachers encouraged a sense of personal empowerment and the ability for the girls to rise to their fullest potential.

Finally, an Assunta education gave the girls the encouragement of independent critical thinking.

As you can see the approach taken by these two premier schools has much in common with the La Sallian values, ethos and traditions.

The Role of the Lay Teachers

No discussion about the La Salle education system can be complete without mention of the key role played by lay teachers in these mission schools. These dedicated teachers played an important supporting role in furthering the cause of the La Salle mission because they chose to be teachers!

Most of them chose to be exemplary teachers. Many of them received their teacher training at St Joseph’s Training College in Penang. This is the very same La Salle college where the Brothers themselves received their formative and teacher training sessions.

Quite a number of these teachers were keen sportsmen and athletes. By their example, they inspired the students to follow suit.

Such teachers in La Salle schools were held in high esteem by La Salle Brothers, students and parents.

The La Salle Brand

The La Salle brand enjoys an enviable reputation for excellence in academic matters, sports, athletics and a host of extra mural activities. It is synonymous with a solid all round education.

As such, the La Salle educators continuing focus on the Last, the Least and the Lost in our society remains undiminished.

Re-positioning the La Salle Brand

There is an on-going move to slowly but surely re-position the La Salle brand in Malaysia. This is necessary because today we are operating in ‘ restrictive spaces ‘.

The challenge before us, therefore, is to work within these restrictive spaces but with a big heart!

The need to work within these confines is partly because of badly framed laws, flip flops in policy decisions, limits on media and failing public services. The good news here is that a La Sallian education provides teachers and students alike the intellectual and emotional tools to navigate these restrictive spaces.

We need, therefore, to remain open to new and equally beneficial ways to implement the La Sallian philosophy and in the process, re-position the La Salle brand in Malaysia.

A Few Proposals

  1. Direct Education Services to the Poor (DESP) was first initiated in Penang by Bro John D’Cruz, a former principal of St George’s Institution in Taiping twenty five years ago. It started quietly as a project amongst a very poor community in Penang evolving over the years into a Community Based Learning Centre(CBLC).

There are currently four CBLCs in Sarawak and one in Penang. There are also Community Based Tuition Centres. At present there are four in the Bau district and one in Kuching, Sarawak. In addition, there are two residential hostels in Sabah. School Based Learning Centres are also sprouting. There is one in Penang and efforts are underway to establish one each in Petaling Jaya and Klang.

There is a need to provide basic training for dedicated volunteer facilitators on an on-going basis at these centres. There is also a need to schedule regular meetings for the volunteer facilitators to exchange ideas and share experiences.

DESP therefore needs to be further expanded and rolled out throughout Malaysia and especially in poor urban communities where the need is greatest. In remote rural areas, there is also a need to provide hostel facilities in order to lessen the burden of the students having to travel long distances to and from school.

  1. There is a need to revive and re-establish the very successful Annual Inter La Salle Schools’ Athletics and Games Competition. This was a winner in the past and produced many outstanding athletes and sportsmen at both state and national levels.
  1. There is also a need to revive and re-establish the Annual Inter La Salle Games for teachers serving in La Salle schools throughout the nation.

As far as items two and three are concerned, they in addition also help to strengthen the bond among students and teachers. These inter La Salle events also help to engender a family spirit within the La Salle community.

( Paper presented by Benedict Morais FIPR, MMIM, Member, Board of Governors, La Salle Brickfields Secondary School and Member, Selangor Regional La Salle Educational Council and Peter Sinniah BA (Hons) UM Geography, Member, Board of Governors, La Salle Brickfields Secondary School and President, La Salle Brickfields Alumni at the 6th Malaysian La Salle Educators Conference held in Taiping, Perak on 15 and 16 September 2014 ).

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