Values fruitful

Recent statements by government leaders accusing their own schools of ‘values neutral’ education demonstrate clearly how out of touch they are with teaching and learning in the nation’s classrooms. ‘Values neutral’ education, if it ever had any support in schools, was a partner of the very deficient and long superseded ‘values clarification’ programs of the 1970s. Most teachers and educators now understand that it is an impossibility.

Values are different from attitudes which can change with seasons. Values have a permanence about them. A value is something precious, of great worth, something for which one is prepared to suffer, make sacrifices, even give up one’s life. Values give meaning. Like the rails that keep a train on track, they provide direction, motive and purpose. They are the non-negotiables in our society, under girding our various ‘bottom lines’.

While in the past, values education was seemingly the poor cousin in school curriculum, such is not the case today. Government and private schools have worked to enunciate clearly the specific values
they wish to teach and promote. There would be agreement between both systems about the need to teach what has been termed ‘traditional’ values:respect for the dignity of every individual; the importance of honesty and the need to search for and adhere to the truth; the value of hard work and achieving high standards; the mutuality of rights and responsibilities; the protection of human life at every point along life’s continuum; safeguarding the neediest in our community. These values have an enduring lighthouse quality about them and, as such, the term ‘traditional’ does not do them justice.

It is important then to recognise that not all values are equal. For simplicity, we can reduce them to two levels—instrumental values, those which enable us to achieve various ends or goals in life, and intrinsic values—those which are valuable in themselves in whatever conditions of life, in and out of season. Often the two are confused. A healthy economy, despite political argy-bargy, is simply an instrumental value, an important means to achieving a higher intrinsic value affecting people’s quality of life. A healthy economy will facilitate the promotion of intrinsic values in schools outlined above.

In many non-government schools, because of their particular spiritual ethos and tradition, intrinsic values will very often adopt a religious hue. Christian schools, for example, will source their values in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. While this will be a source of difference between the government and independent schools, it should be remembered that both systems espouse intrinsic values, values that have a permanence beyond shifting tides of  fashion. ‘Values neutral’ education was simply a fad that went by the wayside when serious teaching of values was developed in all schools during the 1980s. Our politicians have failed to keep up.

Author and University leader Jill Ker Conway once referred to these enduring intrinsic values as ‘true north principles’—permanent values which, like true north, remain unchanged despite changes in our standpoint and perspective. Such values, Max Charlesworth once told a university audience in 1988, are ‘true whether we think so or not; are good whether they suit our interests or not; are just whether or not they run counter to what we immediately want; are beautiful whether we happen to like them or not; are sacred whether we are willing to recognise them or not.’

Any teacher worth their salt would understand that ‘values neutral’ education is an impossibility. Assertions of this kind undermine the crucial role of teachers in our community. Teachers must be armed with all sorts of values. If they are passionate about their subject discipline, and good teachers are passionate people, they will hold dear what is precious in its content and method. Committed to the value of their own teaching subjects, they will be too discerning about the truth, too constrained by time and the demands of examinable curriculum to promote modish ideologies of the kind raked up in politics recently. A brief reflection on the teachers who shaped our lives will frame people who communicated a love for their subject, who made it clear where their values lay without imposing them,  who emphasised that an opinion is only as good as the evidence supporting it, who demonstrated that not every opinion or option is equally valuable, who showed us the difference between the questions ‘is something right?’ and ‘do I feel comfortable with this course of action?’

The fourth century theologian St. John Chrysostom, wrote of teachers: ‘What is a greater work than to direct the minds and form the character of the young? I hold with certainty that no painter, no sculptor, nor any other artist does such excellent work as the one who moulds the mind of youth.’ Teaching is too important a vocation in our community, too fruitful in promoting right values, for us to allow politicians to associate it with passé trends like ‘values neutral education.’ 

Christopher Gleeson sj is the Director of Jesuit Publications and former Headmaster of St Ignatius Riverview and Xavier Colleges.



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