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Teaching and Values

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Updated March 2, 2016

College professors are paid to teach, and at times, when appropriate, render opinions on thorny questions or ideas that they ostensibly have pondered and given due consideration. In that vein, a persistent question that always comes up in both graduate and undergraduate courses concerns whether values can be taught, and if so, whether it should be the intention of schools to consciously teach them. It is a curriculum question that has few easy answers. The answers, such as they are, to these questions are perhaps not so much about truth as they are about opinions, preferences, and wants and needs.

Elsewhere on the ADPRIMA site is a short piece about the function of the social studies and why they should be part of the curriculum. Here is part of that article:

"I believe social studies should be part of the curriculum for the purpose of helping students understand human interactions that occurred in the past, are occurring now, and that are likely to occur in the future. The reason for these understandings is to help students develop and nurture values that will make it more likely that they will be able to determine for any situation what the right thing is and do it, especially when doing the right thing is hard to do. It is about decency, respect, and honor. This is not a difficult idea to understand, but it can take a lifetime to appreciate."

Recently, the people of the world have been exposed to a value system that has at its core a preference for a way of life and a world view that is hateful, envious, rigid, and intolerant. The political "isms" of the 19th and 20th centuries pale in comparison to the religious "isms" that seem to be emerging at the present time. I chose the word preference for a reason, and that reason has to do with the creation of this page as part of the ADPRIMA education site.

The problem with "teaching" values is not so much about which values are important, but rather about the intrinsic nature of values. I have struggled a long time with developing some useful, pragmatic way to think about values that goes beyond the obvious. All one has to do to find out opinions on values is to enter the term in any of the large, comprehensive search engines such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing. Google alone shows over thirteen million pages that contain the word value.

So for what it's worth, here is my take on values.

First, I believe that although there are values that most people agree upon, there is also a personal dimension of values that is virtually unknowable, and perhaps even indescribable. This is because in the end, values are ultimately intensely internal, and therefore personal.

For me, the most useful definition for a value that I know is that a value is a condition that a person prefers to the extent that he is willing to make sacrifices if necessary to obtain that condition. A value, by definition, is important. I believe that for a person to have internalized and accepted a value, that person must, of necessity have some experience, even vicariously, of the absence of the conditions suggested by the value. This of course does not imply that values are either "good" or "bad."  People may value conditions that others, even a vast majority of people consider "bad."  It follows that some people are quite willing to make sacrifices in order to obtain conditions that others consider repugnant, evil, and so on.

For example, if a person values "cleanliness," it means for me that the person prefers a condition of cleanliness, and further, that he has some experience with conditions of uncleanliness. It is the preference that is important, and the willingness of the individual to make some sacrifice to obtain it.

As human beings, we all value safety. Regardless of what that word means on an individual basis, it is obvious that we prefer conditions where we feel safe. The meaning of safety was reinforced on September 11, 2001, when most people saw the effects of terrorism. The awful images and sounds gave them a vicarious experience with the opposite of safety. Recent warnings about the possibility of biological or chemical attacks, and the death of individuals resulting from exposure to anthrax have heightened this awareness. The vast majority of people living in the United States did not see the actual horror of the results of the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings, but they could easily imagine them. We all value safety now more than before because we have in a limited way "experienced" its opposite.

So we talk a lot about teaching or not teaching values. Regardless of where you come down on this, it is obvious that values are learned. They are not passed on from parents to children in the form of DNA. However, it does not necessarily follow that if they are learned, they must have been learned as a result of deliberate teaching. The consequences of our value systems are not understood in abstractions but in deeds. Everywhere we look, the consequences of our values surround us. To remind us of them, and to chronicle them, they are chiseled in marble and inscribed in historical, civil, and religious documents. They are a part of education and are infused into the culture, and all are not positive. We all hold that honor, trust, integrity, justice, freedom, honesty and duty are among the important values for children and adults to have. However, there is no way to know for sure whether anyone has a particular value unless there is some observable evidence of an action or deed that exemplifies the exercise of the value. Just asking someone if he values honesty is inadequate. Of course, who would dare say he does not value honesty? But saying you value honesty and actually being honest are very different things.

Values are intimately connected to motives. These connections are complex and ultimately personal, and therefore not completely understandable. They are connected to our sense of wants and needs, and I believe that they need not be justified to be valid. For example I want a red car because I want it. I do not have to go any further than that. Needs are derived from wants. Values are the context, the cognitive and emotional matrix that is different for each human being, but which provides enough generality to have universal applications. I believe that each human being, touching another through common values, can change, and even improve the world. However, when values and value systems collide, the worst potentials of man are often realized.

I am of the opinion that we can't really "teach" values as we do other parts of the curriculum, but we can and should help our students develop values through our own behaviors and modeling. The purpose of this is the belief that a clearly defined and meaningful set of values will help them, in the years to come, to do the right thing, especially when doing the right thing is hard. When they have the values they need, they will understand that there is a cost associated with them, and they will be prepared to pay it. They will know what to do and have the ability to do it.

For now, I am through. I am practicing what I preached in the piece on what social studies is for. A value -- brevity.

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