Photo/Illutration Moral education textbooks for elementary school pupils are shown at the education ministry in Tokyo on March 24. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

“Dotoku,” or moral education, is a tough subject to teach at school. The purpose is to “nurture morality that will form the basis of living a better life,” according to the education ministry’s elementary school curriculum guidelines.

Greek philosopher Socrates (circa 470-399 B.C.) said just before he died, "The really important thing is not to live, but to live well.” Moral education is about tackling humanity’s eternal theme: how to live.

However, not even the faintest hint of such profound philosophy can be detected from the recently disclosed results of the education ministry’s screening of moral education textbooks for elementary school students.

On the subject of “the attitude of respecting tradition and culture and loving the nation and the local community,” some textbooks were required to amend “regional tradition” into “tradition of Japan and its regions.” And in quoting a maker of “anko” sweet bean paste, a line that was added goes, “I want to keep alive the taste of Japan for posterity.”

When mulling over the concept of tradition in moral education, a helpful aid is the book “Doitsu no Dotoku Kyokasho” (Germany’s moral education textbook), which is a Japanese translation of a German textbook on practical philosophy. The book defines moral principles and customs as being “capable of changing with time.” In short, tradition is not immutable.

A teacher of ethics and philosophy I interviewed in Australia told me: “It’s beyond me to try to give meaning and purpose to our existence, or to define something like goodness, truth and beauty. But my students always keep the classes lively, and it is so rewarding teaching them."

True, active debate is part and parcel of moral education classes.

There are no right answers to the questions, “Where are we going, what is important, and how should we act?” And you definitely don’t learn anything by sitting in a classroom where you only open textbooks that have passed the education ministry’s screening and memorize the model answers they give.

What with the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, various value systems around the world have been shaken in recent years.

This is an era of wars being declared in the name of misguided “justice.” I want moral education to be a school subject that comes to people’s support when they feel lost or troubled.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 29

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.