The art of discovering values

A contradiction lies at the heart of liberalism, one that generations of theorists have struggled with: should a liberal society, with its definitive commitment to the value of tolerance, tolerate the intolerant? Fear of the intolerant, of those who resort to violence in their resistance to others’ ideas, is one of the main motives behind the new regime of ‘values education’ in Western societies. But can these societies impose their ethos of tolerance on citizens who would reject it, without at the same time contradicting that very ethic? I think not. But the contradiction can be avoided if children—and adults—are taught the art of discovering values for themselves. The process of doing so, of listening to and accepting or rejecting other people’s ideas, instils the respect for others that underpins tolerance and so democracy.

As is happening elsewhere in the West, there are moves in Australia to introduce ‘values education’ in schools. The wider aim is to counter a perceived lack of moral moorings among the young; the more urgent and focused aim is to discourage the kind of extremist—sometimes fundamentalist—values that can lead to antisocial or even terrorist tendencies. In Australia, the values being championed by federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson have been set out on a poster and distributed to schools. This poster advertises ‘nine values for Australian schooling’: care and compassion; doing your best; fair go; freedom; honesty and trustworthiness; integrity; respect; responsibility; and understanding, tolerance and inclusion.

On the face of it, the idea of values education sits uncomfortably with our Australian commitment to liberal democracy, because liberalism is premised on tolerance for a diversity of values across society. However, because ‘values education’ is advocating, by and large, the values of liberalism itself—revolving around a moral axis of tolerance and respect for social and cultural diversity—perhaps its apparent contradiction with liberalism can be avoided. Whether values education is the way to allay fundamentalist tendencies is another matter.

An attitude can be described as fundamentalist if it is underpinned by values or beliefs taken in a literal way and held inflexibly. Fundamentalists have not thought through their values or beliefs, or subjected them to any kind of evidential or rational test. They are, in other words, beliefs or values accepted uncritically from some text (scripture, for example), person (parent/teacher/leader) or institution (church/school/state).

So it is not the content of specific value-beliefs but the way we arrive at them, via conditioning or indoctrination, example, that makes them fundamentalist. This means that there can be fundamentalism about liberalism or democracy just as there can be about Christianity, Islam, human rights or environmentalism.

So teaching the values of tolerance and respect for diversity from a state-sanctioned poster, revamped school motto or other text means teaching democracy or liberalism in a basically fundamentalist fashion. Moreover, such values teaching is likely to encourage precisely the passive submissiveness to authority that leads to people becoming susceptible to extremist positions; surely not an effective antidote to fundamentalism.

How then are our children to acquire the shared values that are the necessary basis for social life if the kind of self-defeating processes of indoctrination being proposed under the rubric of values education are ruled out?

I suggest that rather than teaching children codes of conduct, we teach them how to discover appropriate values for themselves. Through inquiry children—and adults—develop skills of reflexiveness: the capacity to reflect upon their own experience of life and to seek the best possible answers to questions that arise from it. Such practices already exist in our education system. Under the name of philosophy for children, or philosophy in schools, collective inquiry encourages children to discuss, in small groups, issues of the playground, issues of the day, or even issues arising from the human condition. A facilitator (teacher) helps these communities of inquiry explore these issues at their own level, just as they see them. This gives children a chance to try out new and received ideas and see how they stand up under the scrutiny of their peers. Children are surprisingly good at this activity.

Even more important than this first-hand exploration of ideas are the protocols that define the community of inquiry. Children are asked to listen attentively and patiently to their classmates; they discover that it is through this listening, and the unexpected differences in perspective it reveals, that their own perspectives take shape and evolve. To discover this is in effect to discover, and take possession of, their own thought process and hence their own authority. This sets them well on the way to winning a sense of their own autonomy or power of self-determination.

Discovering their own authority in relation to ideas tends to free children from literal-minded attachment to specific ideologies or sets of value-beliefs; they start to discover the essential fluidity and open-endedness of all ideas. Then they will understand that they do not have to accept everything their classmates in the community of inquiry say. They will realise it is possible, for themselves and their classmates, to try out ideas in a tentative and exploratory fashion, and that disagreement with someone’s view in no way implies rejection of that person. On the contrary, considered disagreement is evidence that one has listened carefully to what the other person has to say and taken it seriously enough to engage with it. Each child explores the others’ ideas in the knowledge that their own ideas will be explored in turn: everyone is expected to open their ideas out to others in this way. Some ideas will be enlarged or elaborated or adjusted by the group. Some might be discarded.

A child whose idea is discarded by the group need not discard it herself; she might have to give it more thought. She can do so secure in the knowledge that to her group she is not identified with any particular idea or view, but is rather, again, seen as an author of ideas: the community of inquiry is simply a safe space for her and her classmates to try out different possibilities and develop their own reflexive capacities.

This practice of collective inquiry helps children discover they do have something of their own to say about issues in their community. Children who discover this will also feel that one day they will be capable of making worthwhile contributions to debate in society. It will give them the confidence, as adults, to take responsibility for society.

So children who have been through the developmental process fostered by the community of inquiry, or similar practices, will have no need of Brendan Nelson’s ‘values education’. The experience of having their peers listen attentively to them on issues that matter will have validated their perspective. The experience of listening attentively to their peers will have revealed to them that others have perspectives as alive and complex and deeply felt as their own; it will have taught them both respect for others and appreciation for the diversity of others.

Discovering the way their own thought is stimulated into unexpected and creative life through dialogue with others will have enabled them to take charge of their own thought process, thereby becoming self-determining individuals, with all the sense of self-worth that follows from this. Won’t such children have every chance of growing into tolerant individuals with a robust respect for themselves and others, and able to make responsible  value judgments? Children who become such independent thinkers will be well equipped to respond appropriately to future situations that could not be anticipated by any present code of conduct.

Individuals who have not been offered such practices, but have been asked to swallow a state-sanctioned nine-point code, will have no way of truly divining or inhabiting the values prescribed by that code, and will likely end up as ‘fundamentalist’ apologists for a democracy they have no way of putting to the test.

Indeed, a publicly enforced code of respect and tolerance for difference poses a real danger that people would cease to be accountable for their beliefs and values; they could adopt any set of beliefs and values, however absurd or fanciful, and demand these be given as much respect (uncritical acknowledgment) as those with sound foundations. Mutual critique across belief systems would be ruled out.

Such a regime of extreme relativism could clearly impoverish our knowledge systems to the point of knowledge breakdown—and hence economic and social breakdown. Moreover, the massive failure of engagement across discourses it would entail would tend to fragment society into its discrete belief and value constituencies. So the consequences of a regime of enforced uncritical acceptance of different belief systems, in the name of values that betray their own meaning by being imposed in a dogmatic and authoritarian fashion, might be at least as dire for society as those of a regime that tolerates no diversity at all.

Freya Mathews is associate professor in philosophy at La Trobe University.



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