Forgiveness education: Has it been (pre-)theoretically adequately grounded?

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Individuals, groups, communities and even total populations and nations have through the ages suffered from injustice and evil to such an extent that they might feel a need to forgive their injurers or to remain forever in a state of unforgiveness and have to bear the consequences of their obdurate attitude. Literature abounds with examples of such incidents and perpetrations. South Africans also have a long history of suffering from various forms of social injustice that are in some cases very difficult to forgive. The time has indeed come for an article dealing with forgiveness and forgiveness education, and more particularly with its pre-theoretical and theoretical foundations.

As the title of this article suggests, the problem on which the article pivots was as follows: Forgiveness education has in the past been given to individuals and groups of people who had suffered various forms of social injury or injustice and hence were deemed to require a deeper understanding of what forgiveness actually entailed, and more specifically how one moved through the different phases of the forgiveness process. In the past three decades forgiveness education has been provided around the world to (young) people in the form of relatively brief but reportedly successful interventions. These projects have given rise to the question whether the interventions had been adequately grounded from an educational-philosophical point of view and whether they should not be still more thoroughly (pre-)theoretically grounded to give them greater pedagogical impact.

The paper is structured as follows to allow the author to arrive at answers to this question. In the first section, an outline is offered of the different reasons why people might feel obliged to ask for forgiveness or to extend forgiveness to those who have injured them in some way. The discussion enters in some detail into injustices suffered by individuals in their personal situations and circumstances; it then also discusses injuries and injustices suffered by groups, communities and even nations. Historical examples are given of social injustices inflicted on nations, some of which later resulted in great enmity and even warfare. The next section contains a summary of a number of projects in the form of forgiveness interventions among groups of (young) people who were angry about injustices that had been inflicted on them in their past, such as children whose parents had divorced, children who had suffered the ravages of civil war, children who suffered at the hands of bullies, children who bear a grudge as a result of the poor conditions in which they were growing up and young people belonging to different ethnic or race groups who had a poor understanding of other groups and their behaviour. This section concludes with the observation that the forgiveness interventions under discussion seem to have been effective in practice in that they helped those involved to understand what forgiveness entailed and also how to extend forgiveness to the perpetrators of injustice.

The final two sections of the article then deal with the (pre-)theoretical foundations of forgiveness as such, and of forgiveness education. The results of this exercise are subsequently viewed and evaluated through the lens of the Social space and ethical function or action theory. This procedure leads to an answer to the question whether the forgiveness education interventions or programmes have indeed been adequately (pre-)theoretically grounded to the extent that they could possess significant pedagogical impact in practice.

The answer is as follows. The investigation revealed that there are in essence three broad approaches to forgiveness and to forgiveness education. The first could be referred to as the Enright type of approach, which is characterised by an effort to be as religiously, spiritually and ideologically neutral as possible in expounding what forgiveness and forgiveness education among all people, irrespective of religious orientation or commitment, might entail. This approach, it is concluded, could be regarded as acceptable by educators who teach forgiveness as a life skill in state or public schools where teachers are expected to refrain from demonstrating any religious, spiritual or ideological commitment.

The second approach could be referred to as a combination of the Enright and the Nussbaum approaches. According to this approach, the educator might occasionally refer to the Holy Books of a variety of religions and to the sagacity of great philosophers regarding why one should ask for forgiveness and extend forgiveness to those who ask for it. It was found that even theorists who follow the first approach discussed above, that is who prefer the non-committal or neutral approach, occasionally tend to resort to such life-conceptual, religious, spiritual points of view to illustrate a particular point without necessarily associating themselves with that particular religion or form of spirituality. It is concluded that this approach could also be suitable for teaching forgiveness (that is, offering forgiveness education) in public or state schools.

If, however, one wishes to ground one’s approach to forgiveness and forgiveness education (pedagogy) in a specific, clearly defined and definite life-conceptual, religiously spiritual orientation, neither of the previous two approaches will be satisfactory. A teacher with this orientation will be content with nothing less than the depth of insight and vision that the Bible offers for Christians, the Qur’an for Muslims or the Talmud for Jewish believers, to mention only some well-known examples. This approach, in contrast to the previous two that seem to aspire to a degree of universalistic validity, is clearly more particularistic in the sense that it would be regarded as satisfactory or adequate for a particular religious group or community only. It forms part of education into a particular religion or life view; it immerses the learner in the tenets of a particular religious or life-conceptual tradition. This approach would be suitable for application only in private schools or parental homes adhering to a clearly articulated religious persuasion or spiritual orientation.

The results of the application of the social space and ethical function or action theory finally suggest that education systems and school curriculums should afford space for all three of the abovementioned approaches. Each and every person should be given the social space and be educated to understand the imperative of behaving in an ethically justifiable manner, to know and understand that care should be taken of the interests of both a sufferer of injustice and the perpetrator of it. Teaching that affords social space for accommodating both the victim and the perpetrator and at the same time promotes forgiveness in a pedagogically sound manner, that is, that leads, guides, cares, forms, develops and unfolds the learners’ capabilities and potential, and is rooted in this ethical underpinning, can be expected to be effective and impactful.

Keywords: approaches to forgiveness education; curriculum; diversity; forgiveness; forgiveness education; life orientation; life skills; social injustice

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Vergifnisonderwys: Is dit (voor)teoreties toereikend begrond?

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