Nurturing a habit (2 of 7)

The rainforests of Borneo are exquisite. They hang in tiers, running up escarpments, carrying along the shoulder of a hill, before dipping down to a multitude of waterways winding their way into the interior.

You get lost in fascination travelling through them.

Immensely aged, soaring trees, like cliffs, break through the forest canopy beside a river, shaking out their limbs in exultant here-I-am majesty.

20 or 30 feet below, creepers and hanging vines jacket smaller trees and shrubs, moulding an embroidery of vegetation. The whole effect—kept moist by drifting treetop mist—is a startling production of the richest range of greens you have ever seen. Lime, avocado, olive, shamrock, harlequin and viridian, textured and deepened by shadows, provoking wonder. This is only to speak of the sights—and not the sounds, smells, taste or feel of the jungle, with all its sweat, pattering drizzle and soft to foot-ness.

Rainforests are treasures. So too, are the rivers that permeate them.

We had been on the boat (a giant, open, wooden-ribbed canoe) for several hours. A powerful engine propelling us inland, navigating the various snags threatening to end our journey.

I was particularly impressed, therefore, when one of the two boat operators made his way among the 12 or so passengers on board, carrying a large black garbage bag, collecting our rubbish.

We had bought cans of soda, potato chips, fruit, sandwiches etc.—; and now as the day lengthened bread crusts and general trash were beginning to mess the floorboards.

So the operator, seeing what was happening, left the stern, and masterfully making his way between us, talking to one person and then another, picked up the discarded plastic bags, nutshells, banana and lychee skins, empty bottles, biscuit packaging, crushed cans, and crumpled chip packets, and squirrelled them away in his black bag. Decently done. Or so I thought.

For I had spent more than a year travelling waterways near the capital, grieving. The estuary, the bays and rivers had become thick with pink plastic, floating bottles, nylon rope and every form of human detritus imaginable.

In Southern Africa, travelling to Lesotho, there was a standing joke that the national flower was the Coke can. Black and red tin littered villages and roads. Piles of cans.

But in Borneo it wasn’t just Coke cans: it was a globular mass of garbage, bobbing, like a head of beer, on currents below the high-slung houses of its water villages. Just adding to the filth in the South China Sea.

So I wasn’t surprised (I was sickened), when I saw the man, who had so kindly collected all our litter, taking hold of the bottom corners of his garbage bag and shaking it out over the stern of his boat. Flapping in the wind, he emptied its contents like flotsam into the wake, signalling to me with a smile and a gesture how proud he was to keep his boat so clean. My lack of enthusiasm for his actions flew past him, along with the pink bags billowing down the waterway; his values and respect for the rainforest in sharp contrast to my own.

I have written previously on the impact of curricula on teaching values. It goes without saying that our kids learn their values from the way we treat them and from our interaction with others. They learn from peers, and music, films and other sources, also. But what they learn at school, or take in during formal education, especially when they study the humanities, powerfully shapes their values, too.

A number of values seem to be universal, transcending time and culture. Seven in particular. One of them self-regulation (or to use the old term, ‘temperance’—Latin. Temperāntia: moderation) might have helped the man on the boat, or perhaps its passengers. We should’ve cleaned up our own mess. A little bit of self-control would have gone a long way; but lack of it, with the plastics, alas, went much further.

But it is a second value, or life skill, which I want to touch on. It is universally regarded as critical to a functioning society. It is the virtue of justice (Latin. Justitia).

There are many ways to think about justice, but one of the earliest commentators, Plato, taught that justice was a virtue. Less of a concept, more a habit of the heart. An ingrained disposition that consistently prompts right action.

He made the famous observation that ‘justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as it first resides in the hearts and souls of its citizens.’ In this sense, justice is personal, not abstract. It’s a quality. But what did Plato mean by justice?

Unlike other commentators who focus on deserving (just dessert or reward), or justice as equality, Plato saw justice as a matter of right relationships. A sort of justice as ‘harmony’ or justice as a proper or right balance in relationships.

Notions of restorative justice derive from this view. But the just person, for Plato, is someone who has a passion for orderly relations. Such people knit society together, and are skilled in negotiation and peacemaking. Not the cheap, lazy type that glosses over serious differences or wrongs, but the type that sees the real value of human beings at its core. Plato’s views on justice still shape our own.

The interesting thing about the virtue of justice according to this tradition is that it extends from the social sphere to the personal/individual and environmental. A just person’s life is balanced and ordered; it exhibits both physical and mental fitness (and spiritual, for some).

Similarly, the just person takes the natural environment seriously. They seek to establish or maintain those relationships or patterns that are necessary for human and ecological prosperity.

The point: the virtue of justice ripples out from the self, to others (society and culture), and to nature. It is a habit of the heart that cares for well-being in general.

While the man on the boat no doubt had a deep concern for himself, his family and his passengers, he perhaps failed in relation to the rainforests and waterways of Borneo. His sense of justice was not fully orbed or not ‘earth directed’!

Things might well have changed. But, either way education, while not a panacea, can go far in addressing the problem of environmental degradation and justice. Social studies, history, literature and the humanities seem particularly suited to teaching values. The study of justice is core business to them; whether it relates to the murder of Old Hamlet or Cordelia, or more existentially to civil rights, ethnic cleansing or snippers shooting children.

EdTech supercharges this. Just as parental controls create a safe place for kids to explore and grow—a place with boundaries where they learn communication, social interaction skills and to be decent digital citizens—so parental controls can help them reflect deeply on issues of justice (age specific). EdTech, using a range of social media, brings an immediacy to justice issues through TV, browsers, desktop and mobile apps. Poignant, crisp, well-devised videos are creating an impact in compulsory and tertiary education: their quality and profile will only increase as their availability becomes more widespread, and the criteria for evaluating them (and their producers) more subtle.

And issues or values such as justice won’t only be a focus for the humanities.

That was another thing I learnt in Borneo. One of my closest friends from Malaysia was monitoring the Islamification of the math curriculum (checking things like the interest rates, etc.—in its standards and exemplars). As parents, communities, state and federal governments make decisions about the values they want the next generation to hold, they will pay close attention to Common Core, curricula and standards. Surprisingly, not just in the humanities, but in math and science as well.

I tend to like things simple. I also think the past can teach us something, and passing forward the ‘best that has been thought and said’ has its merits. Plato is one of the cleverest writers I have tried to read. I like his take on justice. Yet whether we see justice as a virtue or a matter of dessert, etc.—, it seems to be something important to us, and very, very likely our children’s future, too. EdTech will progressively become a powerful venue for the exploration and teaching of justice. And in itself it promises to be a ‘just’ solution to some of the problems haunting education, as it equalizes opportunity for excellent learning through high quality instruction, media and assessment.

Take away points: Common Core, standards, curricula and teachers reinforce a set of values. Some educators prefer the term virtues to values because virtues suggest a way of behaving grounded in who we are. They become intrinsic to us. (Remember Groucho Marx’ quip: I have my values, and if you don’t like them I’ve got others). Two values that seem universal are self-control and justice. EdTech can reinforce these. As more quality video and streaming technology comes on line, especially in humanities-based subjects, parents and teachers will have a wider set of tools at hand to explore and highlight what they value.

Research: One in a superb series on theories of justice. Highly recommended. Here Michael Sandel moves from Plato’s justice as virtue to Aristotle’s conception of justice as dessert:

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Commentary:

A typical set of values; thin on virtue, but probably correct when it claims ‘Every decision relating to curriculum and every interaction that takes place in a school reflects the values of the individuals involved and the collective values of the institution.’ But we might add ‘in relation to the values of those who authored the Common Core or (National) Curriculum or their country equivalents!’:



  1. Very interesting piece. I wonder, can you contrast the mindset of the man who owns a raft, that was polluting the river in Borneo against that of safety engineers working for large oil and gas corporations. The driving motivation for so many engineers engaged by a large corporation is the bottom line leading them to neglect the safety of their operations resulting in catastrophic accidents. Take the recent Deepwater Horizon accident (BP) of the Gulf of Mexico that discharged 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. One of many incidents, overseen by large western run multinational corporations. I feel you make this article even more relevant by contrasting the actions of the villager with the actions of large western run multinationals both of which have a direct impact on the environment that we all treasure. Western run multi-national corporations continue to disregard their civic duty to the environment. Perhaps the individual loses his personal view of justice when he enters a larger corporation driven by profits? I have no idea, it’s just a thought. The tone of this article seems more like the criticism of the third world while the first world continues to pollute their environment at a scale that is orders of magnitude more significant.


    • Thanks, Peter, for the comment. As always, a delight to hear form you. Well-stated! No intention to bag the ‘third world’, more a reflection of a particular experience. Daniel Bell elaborates on the point you make in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: thrift, honesty and delayed gratification creates real wealth, but, arguably, when profit becomes an end in itself it risks eating away at honesty, thrift, delated gratification, etc.—, as you suggest. That said, just as I am sure not every boat owner in Borneo chucked rubbish into rivers without a second thought, I am also sure not every multinational disregards its civic duty to the environment! Cheers.


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