Moral causes, Immoral clauses

Translated by Kaspars Eglitis Association Papardes Zieds, Latvia, Riga
November 2017

In 2015 the Latvian government passed the “morality clauses”, amending the country’s Education Law. These clauses call for virtuous education by obligating schools to protect children from information and teaching methods that could stunt the development of their morality.

These clauses endanger the right of children to receive education on various topics, but it is no secret that not everyone shares common ground when deciding what is moral and what is not.

This ambiguity makes teachers hesitant to talk about topics deemed controversial, yet is essential in educating children. As a result they practise self-censorship in order to avoid problems that might arise when teaching subjects that could be criticised by otherwise well-minded organisations or parents. Many of these cases, as well as the clauses themselves are grounded in a distrust of teachers, a state of affairs that only serves to hinder any attempts to design tailored or engaging approaches to lesson planning. As a result, this stagnates social progress and reinforces the notion that there are taboos which schools must not speak about. The biggest losers are children and youngsters because they will receive a fragmented and distorted image of reality, and thus fail to develop the necessary skills in order to identify threats, react to them and take responsibility for their own actions. The other losers are parents who trust that these skills will be taught at school.

Is there room for swear words in school? What should one do if classmates use offensive language? A teacher gave a third grader homework in which the youth had to explain the historical and contemporary meaning of the word mauka (slut, skank, and whore). He had used this term several times to describe his classmates, hence the teacher decided to outline the meaning, which the child most likely was not aware of. The third grader’s mother, upon finding out about the incident, became irate and reported this to the Ministry of Science and Education. The school’s headmaster has already written an explanation to the Education Quality Service to justify the teacher’s method of fighting offensive language in class. The leadership of the Service have announced that they will assess this situation and, at the time of writing, have yet to reach a conclusion.

A while ago, the poem māja by Agnese Krivade gained notoriety after a literature teacher asked her pupils to interpret the work. Whilst it is true that the poem contains the word bļaģ [1]– a Russian and Latvian swear word – understanding the use of this language is crucial in reaching the goal of this task. The teacher explains: ‘Interpreting text is always just interpreting text – not a suggestion to swear or to act unethically. Self-censorship is the worst that could ever happen to us [teachers].’ Similar cases have occurred in the past: accusations have been levelled against certain Pēteris Brūvers’ [2] poems; concerns have been raised that suggest Rūdolfs Blaumanis’ [3] classic novel Velniņi should be omitted from the syllabus; and there are even efforts to delete jokes about pastors from textbooks. The Latvian Language and Literature Teachers Association pointed to the clear bias towards accommodating parents’ views on the syllabus. The historian, high school textbook author and teacher Valdis Klišāns formed a discussion about whether Latvia was really annexed by the USSR or whether it voluntarily became a part of the Soviet Union in 1940.[4] In order to effectively interrogate this issue, the teacher played the role of devil’s advocate by posing as a Russian chauvinist, employing arguments commonly used by those who support this attitude. Klišāns intended to demonstrate to the students that there are different opinions about historical facts and narrative developments, thus outlining the necessity for critical thinking and argumentative skills. The evening after the discussion the teacher received numerous letters from agitated parents. These included accusations that he was teaching a false, anti-nationalist version of history and threats that parents would file complaints with institutions monitoring the education system. It was evident that these parents never questioned why this method was chosen or sought to discover Klišāns’s objective. Do not allow censorship in schools! The ‘morality clauses’ hinder teachers’ ability to do their jobs; degrade the Latvian education system; prevent children from obtaining real facts; and, frustrate their ability to gain the skills necessary to take responsibility for their actions.

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[1] A Russian derogatory term, frequently used by Latvians as well. It is equivalent to f**k, when used as an interjection.

[2] A famous poet and translator (1957 – 2011); a prolific translator of poetry who has been granted numerous awards.

[3] A celebrated Latvian author (1863 – 1908); he has written several plays and novels that stimulated Latvian culture during his lifetime and they are still frequently studied with great rigor.

[4] For more information – read this article by The Museum of Occupation of Latvia.

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