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Values Education Summit

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 25 March 1998
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mr Chairman, Your Worship, ladies and gentlemen.

Early last year 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 the spirit. Our ability to manage our knowledge so as to ensure the very survival, let alone the advancement, of humanity, depends not on technical skills, but 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 ongoing horrors of what was once Yugoslavia are but one reminder 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. Hence, this Conference.

As you doubtless all know, today has grown from a Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century. For the report of an international body, it contains some very telling observations, and presents some quite dramatic challenges. At its heart is the realisation that all-out economic growth will not on its own 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 advances, if not 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, unusual I am sure for an international document. "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."

So much of the Report applies to us all, but the particular emphasis is on the young, our children and youth, and here 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 Conference focuses, 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 the Conference must be intriguing: Values in Education. Some will say that it's tautologous: education is primarily about values, you cannot separate them. 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, education in values is impossible 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, privatised morality; the view that there are no absolutes, that what is right and good is what is right and good for me.

I have more than once quoted what is hopefully an extreme illustration of this philosophy, and 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, either born or reared with an acute sense of civic morality. But we are not. We are born with wills and personalities that have no moral or social predisposition, and are therefore moulded by external influences, be they good or bad. And bad is usually much more exciting, certainly less challenging and more hedonistic.

A consequence of this individualisation of values is the Me Generation, which asserts self-interest and self-gratification as the chief ends of life. "That which I want to do, it is my right to do. If I fail to achieve it, it is someone else's responsibility. Someone must be held accountable. I have no responsibility to others. They must accept responsibility for themselves and for respecting my rights." Their rights tend to be lost on the way.

Let me not be misunderstood. I firmly believe in the rights of the individual. The law protects those rights, even enshrining them in a Bill of Rights. But the law has always insisted that with rights goes responsibility. 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 your own thing, you must take reasonable care to avoid injuring others.

I heard a rather telling tale the other day. It was about two explorers out in the jungle. They suddenly realised that they were being stalked, slowly and deliberately, by a tiger. They could just catch sight of him now and again in the long grass. 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, only you." You might think we've had too many people in running shoes in recent years.

It is easy to embark on a lament, cataloguing the sins and the imperfections of the Me Generation, recalling how things were in the Good Old Days. I don't propose to do that. This Conference is not a sort of post mortem on the generation of the eighties or of any other generation. Rather, its purpose is to reaffirm that there are 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 responsibility to home and family is really to be irresponsible.

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 potential, but also to take their place in the community, to become part of the civil 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 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.

On several occasions in the past year or so, I have spoken about values and virtues and our need to give them much greater emphasis. I have had a very positive response from all around the country. But as well, there have been the cynics, the sneerers, newspaper columnists, frequently posing the question, "Whose values, what virtues?" And, themselves answering the question, they say, in derogatory vein, "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 obsessed with sex. Certainly there is sometimes reason for that assumption. But, the reality is that Western civilisation is built on the Christian world and community view, and so that view can hardly be irrelevant or risible, and it seems perfectly natural for us to be reminded of that from time to time.

There is nothing outdated or irrelevant or peculiar to that faith in the Christian view of social values. They are much the same as those of every religion, indeed of every society and every civilisation. There are certain values and virtues that are fundamental to any human society, 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 society, but they cannot be subtracted from, if our essential humanity and our social order are to be maintained.

You may know the story, said to be true, of some naval manoeuvres. One night the weather was heavy, visibility was poor, with patchy fog. On the lead battleship, the captain stayed on the bridge to be directly in control. Soon after dark, the lookout on the bridge wing reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow." "Is it steady or moving astern?" the captain asked. The lookout answered, "Steady, sir." That meant they were on a collision course. The captain called to the signalman: "Signal that ship: 'We are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.'" Back came a signal: "Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees." The captain ordered: "Send, 'I'm a captain: change course 20 degrees.'" "I'm a seaman second class," came the reply. "You had better change course 20 degrees" By that time, the captain was furious. He spat out: "Send: 'I'm a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.'" Back came the flashing light: "I'm a lighthouse." The battleship changed course.

There are some immoveables. There are some absolutes that we disregard at our peril. History has many examples of the decay and ultimate destruction of societies that follows from a wholesale disregard of them. They are absolutes in the sense that they are objective values, for they are intimately linked to the objective 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 legislated for. 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 are binding on governments rather than on individuals. Our Bill of Rights Act applies only to acts of the arms of government and to persons performing public functions. The 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 to be a good parent or a good neighbour or to practise the Golden Rule.

Moreover, the law, whether it be in an international document, or a local statute, or the common law as in the case of negligence, can do no more than provide sanctions against breaches of right. It cannot direct people to be good. It can provide a limited minimum level of behaviour, but never more than a basic framework upon which individuals and societies must construct their own standards, their own value systems. It is in the nature and content and effectiveness of that construct 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 (the test of reversibility)? And, secondly, would you want all persons to act this way in a similar situation (the test of universalizability)?

While these may sound pretty subjective, I suggest that it is not difficult to begin to list values that will meet these criteria. Let's start with such things as honesty, kindness, respect, compassion, obedience, courage. The list can actually be quite lengthy. Not long ago I went out to a Wellington suburban school which at the instance of parents, and with full support from trustees and teaching staff, was instituting a values, or virtues, programme. They used the two words interchangeably, and I expect you may do the same at this Conference, although I am not sure they are exact synonyms. Values, I suggest, are the standards we set for ourselves, or that the community sets for its members, the signposts to guide us in our lives. Virtues are the qualities that we show and should strive for individually in trying to reach those goals. I don't suppose the distinction matters - it's just that I rather like the word "virtues". It sounds a bit old fashioned, but it has a certain toughness about it. "Values", like other fine old words, has been prostituted, in this case by being individualised.

Anyway, that's beside the point. I was talking about this particular school's programme. Every week, they will be concentrating on one virtue, explaining it, usually by illustrative story, discussing it, practising it. They had 38 of them. I would like to tell you what they are:

Courtesy; co-operation; excellence; compassion or 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.

They asked me to launch their programme, and they were all very excited about it. I was delighted to accept, because I think it is a quite marvellous initiative. A huge amount of work has gone into the preparation of the syllabus, and I am sure it will be a great success. The school is Paremata School, and if you want to find out more, you will have to write to them. They hope to recover their costs from such inquiries.

This school has responded in a very positive way to the strong concerns of its parents and community. I understand that this simply reflects 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 five years since that was introduced is not a long-enough period 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 this area, inhibited perhaps - and mistakenly I am sure - by the secular clause in the Education Act; but also perhaps because not all teachers shared all these commonly held values; or, perhaps, because some over-emphasised particular aspects to the detriment of others: the understanding of rights, for example, at the expense of an understanding of corresponding obligations.

That we have not always done very well, for whatever reason, is pretty obvious. There are gross disparities in social and economic circumstances. We are no longer the caring society that we once, probably rightly, believed we were. Voluntary helpers are increasingly hard to come by. There is a remarkable carelessness about our environment. 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 alarming rate. Large numbers of children are growing up without the benefit of fathers. 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, marginalised, alienated, with no purpose, often no hope. And there is a disturbing increase in racism, and in polarisation between Maori and Pakeha. 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." The problem is that the total environment is not a particularly good teacher 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 endorses by example rather than by precept, the personal and community qualities that are to be taught. This is a challenge to all in positions 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 demonstrated there? I believe that a much greater sense of responsibility has to be exercised in this regard.

"Learning to be", and "learning to live together". There are exciting possibilities here. And a great challenge. For what is at stake is the future of our nation. Are we to teach skills without 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 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. They must assuredly be addressed in our schools. I can really think of no other place.

I see that the initial flyer that went out about this Conference announced that I would be opening discussions. I don't know whether I have succeeded in doing that. Time will tell. I am sure though, that whether because of or in spite of me, you will have plenty to discuss. I wish you well. The letter that enclosed the flyer asked me to open the Summit. And that I now do.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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