As the sad cases of teacher-pupil affairs show, abandonment of traditional morality leads us to tragic incoherence

Pupils having affairs with their teachers is not as uncommon as you might think. There has been a film on the subject called Notes on a Scandal in which Cate Blanchett plays a teacher having an affair with a fifteen year old boy. Currently the news media are covering another case, where the fifteen year old is a girl. One has heard of other cases where youngsters have had affairs with teaching staff or their spouses. Today’s Daily Telegraph carries a personal testimony from a woman, who, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, had an affair with an older man who taught her. The affair led to a pregnancy and an abortion. You can read what she says here. 

The story in the Telegraph makes very sad reading, and I hope that all who read it, whether they are religious or not, will agree on this. Girls of fourteen and men of twenty-five, thanks to the disparity of age, are a tragic combination, and the disparity of status is also worrying, not to mention the way that the pupil-teacher relationship must be compromised, indeed destroyed, by a love affair.

What can be done?

The intervention of the police and the courts comes usually only after the harm has been done, when the affair has come to an end. At this point, one feels, it is already too late. What needs to be done is to prevent these affairs happening in the first place.

One reaction one often hears is: “Where were the parents?” This is understandable, but probably mistaken in many cases. Few parents would ever encourage such behaviour, indeed no one rational should. But to imply that teenagers have affairs with adults because of a failure of parental supervision, is not really to the point. Of course, parents must supervise their children, but they cannot lock them up, and they cannot be with them all the time. In the end, teenagers have to exercise self-control, which is more effective than parental control. It is the job of the parents to teach their children self-control.

But here we really hit the big problem: how do you teach self-control to children in a society which is very much about self-indulgence? In the amatory sphere, desire is seen so often as the only arbiter of right and wrong. If I want it, it must be right for me, and no one has the right to stop me. Personal choice is, it is claimed, the only criterion of morality.

Well, it isn’t. Personal choice in fact comes quite low in the pecking order of what makes something right or wrong. It is overshadowed by the objective nature of the act itself; and it is simply not true that acts have no objective nature, and are only right or wrong in so far as we give them meaning. Pupil teacher relations of this sort are wrong of themselves: but how are we to convince either the adults or children involved of this, when both adults and children live in a society which constantly mocks the idea of a pre-established moral order?

At present these sorts of affairs are illegal, and can lead to the adults involved going to jail. But if the girl is sixteen, and past the age of consent, legal intervention would be on shakier ground. But if truth is told, that something is illegal is not much of a deterrent. What deters us from doing wrong and misguided things is our conscience – the inner judgement that tells us that something is to be avoided, at all costs, because it is incompatible with good.

One remembers the fifteen year old Lydia Bennett, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a girl who has no conscience at all and no consciousness that her actions are wrong, damaging to herself and to her family. But Lydia had no excuse, as she lived in a morally coherent world. Contemporary fifteen year olds are in a different ethos, one where our abandonment of traditional morality leads us towards tragic incoherence.