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Values in Education Mini-Summit

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 3 May 2000
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen.

Three years ago, the Listener published an article by Carl Sagan, the author and astrophysicist, which he began by saying that the 20th century will be remembered for three broad areas of innovation: our unprecedented means to save, prolong and enhance life; our unprecedented means to destroy life, such as to put the whole of global civilisation at risk; and our unprecedented insights into the nature of humanity and the universe. And he concluded: "Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the 20th century will be the most profound challenge of the 21st."

Understanding, wisdom: qualities of the mind and of the spirit, with the first even being dangerous without the second. Our ability to manage our knowledge so as to ensure the very survival, let alone the advancement, of humanity, depends not only on technical skills, but also on our perception of who we are and why we are; not just as individuals, but as members of a family, a community, a nation, a world. There is a Maori saying that expresses this perception very succinctly:

He kopu puta tahi, he taura whiri tatou
Whiringa a nuku, whiringa a rangi, te whatia e.

Issue of one womb, we are a plaited rope,
plaited on earth, plaited in heaven, we will not be severed.

The horrors in what was once Yugoslavia, the more recent general destruction in East Timor, the callousness and brutality on display still in so many parts of Africa, South America and in other parts of the world, are all reminders that we have a long way to go before mankind can claim the understanding and wisdom so simply expressed in that saying. But to pursue that goal, to help our fellows, and especially the young, to grow in that wisdom and understanding, must surely be the ceaseless task of all civilised people.

I confess to have been a little alarmed to find that I am the only solo speaker today, and that much of the rest of your time is to be spent in dissecting what I have said. And so a disclaimer: I am not an educationalist, or a moral philosopher, just an ordinary New Zealander, but one privileged to have seen a very broad cross-section of New Zealand life. So all I can do is offer my own thoughts and leave the rest to you.

As you may know, this gathering follows the Values Education Summit held in Wellington in 1998, at which I spoke in similar vein to today. That Conference was prompted by the Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century, titled "Learning — the Treasure Within". For the report of an international body, it contains some very unusual observations, and presents some quite dramatic challenges. At its heart is the realisation that economic growth on its own will not secure our future, whether in terms of social equity, respect for the human condition or preservation of the environment. Just as important as economic growth, as scientific and technological advance, and probably more so, is the fostering of respect for the individuality, the needs and the rights of others, of mutual understanding within and between nations and peoples. People must be helped to develop awareness of themselves and their environment, and encouraged to play their social role at home, at work and in the community.

And then there is this very interesting point: "Often without realising it, the world has a longing, often unexpressed, for an ideal and for values that we shall term 'moral'. It is thus education's noble task to encourage each and every one, acting in accordance with their traditions and convictions, and paying full respect to pluralism, to lift their minds and spirits to the plane of the universal and, in some measure, to transcend themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of humanity depends thereon." The International Commission then, disagreed with the type of materialism that Marx advocated, and with the materialism that is so common with consumer capitalism.

The Report highlights four pillars of learning. The first two are traditional, unquestioned, educational objectives: learning to know and learning to do. The other two, on which this Mini-Summit is to focus, are learning to be, and learning to live together. They necessarily raise questions of values and if only for that reason, as educational objectives, they have not always been accepted or approved.

And so for many people, the very title of this gathering must be intriguing: 'Values in Education'. Some will say that it's redundant: education is primarily about values, you cannot separate the two. Yet others will say it's almost an oxymoron, a contradiction, because education has nothing whatever to do with values: the two are quite separate. Indeed, some say, education in values is impossible because the whole concept is too vague to be taught, or because there is no such thing as a set of values that can be taught.

The first view is of course age-old. The teaching of values was for centuries, in almost all cultures, and in almost all still is, part of the formal instruction of the young. But in more recent times, that view has been supplanted by another, by the philosophy of moral relativism, that morality is subjective only, that objectivity is a social construct or a myth, so that there are no absolutes, and that what is 'right' and 'good' is merely what is right and good for me.

I have more than once quoted what is I am sure an extreme illustration of this philosophy, but I think it's worth repeating, because it shows us what a mess we can get ourselves into.

At a New Jersey high school, a female student found $1,000 in a purse and turned it in. The next day, a guidance counsellor led a discussion of the incident with a group of students. The counsellor asked them what they thought of the girl's action. They concluded that the girl had been foolish to turn in the money. The students then asked the counsellor what he thought of the girl's action. He told them that he believed the girl had done the right thing, but added that "he would not try to force his values on them". He later commented, "If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong, then I am not their counsellor."

It seems to me that there is neither understanding nor wisdom in that response. It might be an acceptable response if we were perfect beings, born with a sense of morality and civic responsibility. But we are not. We are born with wills and personalities that have no moral or social predisposition (that is unless we accept the doctrine of original sin), and we are therefore moulded by external influences, be they good or bad. And bad is usually much more exciting, certainly less challenging and more immediately gratifying.

A consequence of this denial that there is any such thing as objective right or wrong must be a pervasive self-centredness leading to the assertion that self-interest and self-gratification are the actual meaning of life. "That which I want to do, it is my right to do. If I fail to achieve it, someone else is probably to blame, and should be held accountable. Yet I have no responsibility to others. They must accept responsibility for themselves and for respecting my rights." Their rights tend to be overlooked, as do such a speaker's obligations.

I do not want to be misunderstood on this point, however. I firmly believe in the rights of the individual. The law protects them, even enshrines them, in a Bill of Rights. But the law has always insisted that rights are balanced by responsibilities. Thus the right of property is restrained in its exercise by the principle sic utere tuos ut alienum non laedat - use your own property in such a way as not to injure that of others — while the law of negligence is firmly based on the good neighbour principle: in doing what you want to do, you must take reasonable care to avoid injuring others.

But with that in mind, here is a telling tale I heard a little while ago. It was about two explorers out in the jungle. They kept seeing movement in the long grass, and after a time, realised that they were being stalked, slowly and deliberately, by a tiger. One of them put down his pack and took out a pair of running shoes and started to put them on. "You don't expect to out-run that tiger do you?" the other asked. "No," said the first, "only you." You too might think we've seen many people putting on their running shoes in recent years.

It is pointless of course to embark on a lament, cataloguing the sins and the imperfections of Tom Wolfe's original Me Generation and its descendants, or of recalling how things were in the Good Old Days. I don't propose to do that. This Mini-Summit is not intended to be a sort of post mortem on the generation of the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, or of any other generation. Rather, its purpose is to consider whether there are indeed values that are an essential part of the fabric of our society and which, as a society, we are entitled to insist should be taught to our young as part of their formal education.

There will no doubt be those who, while agreeing that there are certain basic societal values, maintain that the education system is not the place to teach them; that they are the responsibility of home and family. I suppose that depends on our understanding of the nature and purpose of education. But in arriving at that understanding, we must recognise that there are many children who, if they come from families at all, do not come from families where even basic social values are appreciated or practised. School is the only place where they have any hope of picking up anything worthwhile. So to leave the sole responsibility to home and family is really to be irresponsible. Even when the responsibility is discharged there, there is still a reason for teaching values at school, and that is that lessons received from more than one source tend to be more quickly and better learned.

And so what is education? Is it any more than a process of imparting knowledge and developing skills? But that very question invites another. What for? Why impart knowledge and develop skills? Surely the purpose of education is to prepare young people for life; not just to be efficient workers, and not only to achieve their full income-earning potential, but also to take their place in the community, to become part of humane society, to make their individual contribution to it. How can that preparation be adequately undertaken unless as part of that education there is instruction in the values, the qualities, the ethics, the virtues, that underpin society, that give it its character, that are generally accepted by its members? And unless there is instruction in these, it is not just the individual who is short-changed. The whole community is deprived, and if the short-changing is widespread, the whole community suffers, and indeed can be endangered. So it is not only individual character that is shaped by acceptance of the classical virtues, but the 'character', the tenor, of society as well.

On several occasions in the past few years, I have spoken about values and virtues and our need to give them much greater emphasis. That view has received a mostly positive response. But as well, there were a few cynics, even a few sneerers, who posed the question, "Whose values? What virtues?" And, themselves answering the question, they said, their horror clearly apparent, "Christian values, virtues".

Underlying that answer, there is the premise that Christian values are of no value; and further, there seems to be an assumption that anyone who talks of those values is a religious fundamentalist, someone sure to possess an antique view of the world and who is probably obsessed by anything to do with sex. Certainly there is sometimes reason for that claim. Even so, Western civilisation is built, from the ground up, on the Christian world and community view, or perhaps more correctly the Judeo-Christian view. New Zealand inherited much of that world view, even most of it, and so a Judeo-Christian ethical framework can never be irrelevant or risible, and it seems perfectly natural for us to acknowledge that from time to time.

In any event, this view is much the same as those of every major, long-lasting religion, indeed of every healthy society and every durable civilisation. There are virtues and values that are fundamental to any human community, and it is these that need to be taught in any education system worthy of the name. They are the basic building blocks of a civil society, able to be added to by individual groups within it, but they cannot be subtracted from, if our essential humanity and our social order are to be maintained.

There are, in other words, some things that are immoveable, immutable, absolutes that we ignore at our peril — history has many examples of the decay and ultimate destruction of societies that followed from a wholesale disregard of them. There are values which have something of the absolute about them in the sense that they are objective, that they have a reality quite independent of our individual selves, values intimately linked to the natural rights of others — respect for human life and personality, liberty, the inherent value of every person, and the consequent responsibility to care for each person, and to carry out our basic obligations to society as, willy-nilly, members of it.

Only to the most limited extent can these absolutes be protected by legislation. International documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are declarations of limited enforceability, and even then they are binding on governments rather than on individuals. Our Bill of Rights Act, for instance, applies only to acts of government agencies and to persons performing public functions. Our Human Rights Act goes further, in that it applies to everyone, but it deals only with unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment and racial harassment and disharmony. There is no statutory injunction, nor will it ever be realistic to introduce one, to be a 'good parent', or to be a 'good neighbour', or to practise the Golden Rule.

Moreover, the law, whether it be in an international document, or a national statute, or the common law as in the case of negligence, can do no more than provide sanctions against breaches of minimum standards, so providing a base upon which individuals and societies must proceed to construct their own standards, their own value systems. It is in the nature and content and effectiveness of that on-going task that education plays a pivotal role.

But how are we to know the values that are absolute in the sense I have been discussing, and that can therefore safely be taught irrespective of the religious, philosophical or political convictions of parents and children? I am attracted to the argument that there are two criteria for determining this. First, would you want to receive the same kind of treatment? This is described as the test of reversibility; the second is, would you want all persons to act this way in a similar situation? This is the test of universalizability.

While these may sound subjective, or vague, I suggest that it is not difficult to begin to list values that will meet these criteria for genuine objectivity. We can start with such things as honesty, kindness, respect, compassion, obedience, courage. The list can actually be quite lengthy. Some time ago I visited a Wellington suburban school which, at the prompting of parents, and with full support from trustees and teaching staff, was instituting a values, or virtues, programme. They used the two words interchangeably, although I am not sure they are exact synonyms.

The teachers at this school did not think values too "vague" to teach, as some educationalists are apparently claiming. This particular school's programme, every week, required concentration on one virtue, its explanation, usually by illustrative story, and its discussion and practise. They had 38 virtues in their values curriculum:

Courtesy; co-operation; excellence; compassion or fellow-feeling; friendliness; caring or kindness; work; consideration; honesty or truthfulness; orderliness, reliability, perseverance, justice, self-discipline, responsibility, loyalty, repentance, trustworthiness, respect; courage; honour; joyfulness; faithfulness; contentment; moderation; wisdom; service; tact; patience; cleanliness; forgiveness; generosity; humility; helpfulness; love; modesty; obedience; thankfulness; tolerance.

I was asked to launch this programme, and I was delighted to accept, because I thought and still think it a marvellous initiative.

So that school is one that I know has responded in a very positive way to the strong concerns of its parents and community, and I believe there have been many others. Their concerns reflect those expressed in the responses obtained in the public consultation process on the 1991 Draft Curriculum Statement. There was then what I have seen described as an avalanche of calls for the up-front inclusion of values education in the nation's schools.

The result was the 1993 New Zealand Curriculum Framework. In its social sciences section, it states that "a broad understanding of society is essential if students are to take their full place within it as confident, informed and responsible participants." (My emphasis). Students will be helped to understand their rights, roles and responsibilities as members of a family and as citizens in a democratic society. It continues with a definition of values: "Values are internalised sets of beliefs or principles of behaviour held by individuals or groups No schooling is value-free. Values are mostly learned through students' experience of the total environment, rather than through direct instruction The school curriculum, through its practices and procedures, will reinforce the commonly held values of individual and collective responsibility which underpin New Zealand's democratic society. These values include honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, tolerance (rangimarie), fairness, caring or compassion (aroha), non-sexism and non-racism."

The seven years since that was introduced may not have been a long-enough period comprehensively to assess how effective it is. I don't know what the Curriculum said before this, but I have a fair idea that whatever it said, schools were often reluctant to get into 'values', as such, inhibited perhaps — mistakenly — by the secular clause in the Education Act; but also perhaps because not all teachers shared all these commonly held values; or, because they thought particular values were over- or under-emphasised

That we have not always done very well in teaching values, for whatever reason, is pretty obvious. We are no longer the caring society that we once, I believe reasonably accurately, believed we were. Voluntary helpers and community workers are increasingly hard to come by, and not only because of the time pressures of modern life. We can be remarkably careless about our natural environment when we believe that others will bear the costs of any lack of care. Dishonesty is rampant, both in its blatant forms of theft and fraud, and its more subtle forms such as tax evasion. Welfare organisations are badly short of money, while huge sums are spent on gambling. Marriages fail at an unprecedented and alarming rate: large numbers of children are growing up without the benefit of a father. Youth crime, especially crimes of violence, is of worrying proportions. So is the extent of binge drinking and teenage suicide. There are a lot of lost souls out there, so many of them young, marginalised, alienated, with no purpose, often no hope. We are still a wonderfully energetic, innovative and talented society, but all is far from well.

These negatives lead me to emphasise one particular sentence in that Curriculum definition of values. "Values are mostly learned through students' experience of the total environment, rather than through direct instruction". This could, I suppose, be used as a cop-out, an excuse for minimising direct instruction — although I am sure that no good teacher would use what I understand by "direct instruction." If the Curriculum is talking about the total school environment, I agree. Just the other day the Herald ran another article in its series which argued that schools influence children's values less by direct teaching than through the impact of their culture. In other words, the values that are taught must be seen to be lived out in the school, otherwise they become a mere academic exercise. But if the Curriculum is looking to the environment beyond the school, the problem is that the total environment there may not be a particularly good teacher at all of the kind of values we are talking about. This means that the role of the school becomes much more important than the Curriculum would give it credit for.

Moreover, if our schools are to embark on a programme of values education, it is crucial that the community at large also endorses by example rather than by precept, the personal and community qualities that are to be taught. This is a challenge to everyone, particularly people in any position of influence, be they community leaders, sports people, employers or media writers and programmers. The role of television in shaping values is, I am certain, a major one. What values are portrayed there? I believe that a much greater parental sense of responsibility has to be exercised when it comes to TV viewing, and some school evaluation and informed criticism of TV content would, surely, also be useful.

"Learning to be", and "learning to live together". There are exciting possibilities here. And a great, even a very great, challenge. For what is at stake is the future of our nation. Are we to continue to teach skills without at the same time seeking an accompanying responsibility? Are we to allow our young to keep their sights fixed on material gain without regard for the beggar at the gate? Is the pursuit of pleasure and personal satisfaction to be our national and consuming ambition? Are we destined to live in conflict one with another, wealth against poverty, privilege against deprivation, colour against colour, race against race? These are fundamental issues, bedrock issues on which societies may founder. They must assuredly be addressed, again, in a higher percentage of New Zealand homes. But they must just as assuredly, be addressed in New Zealand schools. The combined effort of home and school may then have a better chance of being heard above the clamour of all the other voices our children hear, advocating, implicitly always, and often explicitly, that only 'Me, me, me' is of any importance, and never 'You'; and that the future does not exist, rather only the here and now, and the pleasure of the moment. Really, we know otherwise. Now, we must act on that knowledge.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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