Thursday, August 18, 2005

Teaching Values

Should schools teach values? NZ schools soon will, much to the outrage of Libertarians. Knowing schools, I'm sure this programme will turn out to be a patronizing waste of time. But I'm not opposed to it in principle. In fact, I'm of the strong opinion that schools should be educating students about philosophical ethics -- though of course that's a far cry from the obedience training that we're likely to see here instead.

The vast majority of people are not even aware that ethics is an academic field, in which rational inquiry is possible. For example, when a cousin learnt I was studying ethics at university, he expressed bewilderment: "why do that church stuff?" I don't think he's unusually ignorant. But if most people can't tell the difference between "ethics" and "church stuff", then our education system is sorely lacking.

Unfortunately, I don't suppose the curriculum changes are going to address this problem. When they say they're going to "teach values", what they really mean is that they're going to tell students how to behave. (Key values mentioned were "respect, honesty and truthfulness, and responsibility".) Which is all very nice, except I can't imagine why they think the kids are going to listen.

So, rather than trying to order kids around, why not show a bit of respect for their intellectual potential, and really try to educate them about morality instead? Rather than telling them what's right and wrong, how about we inquire into what makes an action right or wrong. Rather than ordering students to be more co-operative, how about we show them why it's important, by discussing the illustrative Prisoner's Dilemma (which may lead to further discussion about the nature of rationality). Rather than telling students to show others respect, how about we get them to examine Nagel's arguments concerning the impersonal badness of pain? Get them to reflect on the nature of their own suffering, and see that "the pain can be detached in thought from the fact that it is mine without losing any of its dreadfulness", and any who truly learn the lesson will be rationally compelled - by their own volition - to show more concern for others.

Don't just tell them to be moral. Show them why it is irrational not to be. Don't just tell them what values they should have. Discuss why those values are better than the alternatives. (And let them argue their case to the contrary -- then gently point out any flaws in their argument.) This is far more respectful to the students, far more valuable for their education, and far more likely to engage their interest and so yield real results.

This would be a wonderful opportunity to clarify ethical thinking in our society. A shockingly large number of people believe in some variation of psychological egoism (the claim that all actions are done from selfish motivations). But this conceptual confusion can be cleared up in a few short minutes by anyone who knows what they're talking about. Critically examine the relation between society and morality, pointing out the obvious flaws in pop relativism. Question the culturally dominant assumption that economic rationality is all there is to rationality. Get students to think about what really makes one's life go well. Let them engage with these most important of questions; let them argue; let them learn.

But, alas, I don't expect we will be seeing any of this any time soon.


  1. Yeah, those are fair concerns. The quality of the teachers would make a huge difference -- and at least for the higher levels they would probably need to be specialists. Or perhaps they could find philosophers or grad students to lead the occasional seminar. Philosophers tend to be quite enthusiastic about their subject, so I expect they could find some willing proselytizers ;). The difficulty might be finding ones who can express their ideas clearly to an audience with no previous philosophical background. I suppose being trained in teaching might prove more important than being trained in philosophy. Does anyone get trained in both? Maybe we'd have to start.

    "I also wonder at what age you think such philosophical training should begin."

    I actually think philosophy should be a part of education right from the beginning. In the early years they could only do fairly basic stuff, of course, but it could still be valuable preparation -- and fun for the kids too. (And at least this level could easily be taught by enthusiastic non-specialists, with some minimal training.) If you're interested in this stuff, I've linked to some resources in a previous post. The Stanford encyclopedia entry especially contains some really interesting discussion about the philosophical capabilities of young children.

    Of course, that early stuff would be more about engaging children's intellectual curiousity (and wanton speculation!), rather than the rigorous pursuit of truth I idealized above. But all in good time ;)

    I think some "values training" could enter into it even at the pre-argument (i.e. primary school) level. Teachers can develop ideas through engaging kids' imaginations, role-playing, etc. Simple "Golden Rule" type reasoning should suffice at these stages.

    Well, those are my speculative answers, anyway. I'm no expert at this stuff though, so other (alternative or complementary) suggestions are most welcome!

  2. I entirely agree Richard and (shameless plug alert ;)may be you should look into the conference being run by

    But anyway in response to Derek I've done philosophy with Kids as young as 11 and I think whether philosophical argument is a tool of inquiry or an intellectual weapon really depends on how you use it with them... But if you as Richard suggests geniunely treat the students with respect then they will respect you.

    I have personally found that university students tend to be much worse in regards to using philsophical argument as intellectual arsenal... And they take longer to break out of it.

  3. Some people rebel - but most don't. Human behaviour will generally obey normal laws of physics where if you apply a force in one direction in the long run you can achieve that result. this is why generally speaking children from good homes grow up to be relitively socially acceptable and children who are brought up by wolves tend not to be.

    > and any who truly learn the lesson will be rationally compelled - by their own volition - to show more concern for others.

    The problem is that morality does have some basis in logic but so too does all sorts of other philosophies many wiht conclusions we would find disturbing and as any philosopher should know - ideas that at times can not be defended and only result in "well you cant convince me of that".
    Anyway - it is in part our own delusions that hold society together.

    Also Education is generally a special case of brainwashing. We should be honest about it. Then we can worry about what we want to do with it.

  4. Brainwashing is an imposition on real freedom, decreasing your options by forcing you into one set mindset. Education is (or should be) the exact opposite, increasing one's opportunities by developing cognitive flexibility. It creates more options, not less.

  5. I agree, Richard; I think it's no more of an imposition to teach elements of ethical reasoning in the hope that the students will be able to reason more carefully and communicate more clearly on such matters than it is to teach economics or government with a similar purpose. It's just a part of ordinary liberal education. The Libertarians are right about one thing, though; this is the sort of thing that one inevitably gets with state education.

    On the age for philosophy, I'm on the side of the Aristotelians. To count yourself seriously as a philosopher you do need to have the right temperament, to have the right talents, to have had a long, active life full of experiences, and, in short, to be old, experienced, reflective, and mature. To learn something of philosophy is an entirely different matter; being a philosopher is not for everyone, but learning enough philosophy to improve oneself and one's engagement with the world is.

  6. I agree brandon it is not MORE of an imposition. My point is that society does and should engage in "brainwashing".
    However we should be aware of that because it will help any policy maker to stop and think before they become the monsters they abhore.

    For example - If the aim behind it is to improve individuals engagement with the world then we should choose whatever policy does that. If it is to improve freedom we should look very carefully at exactly how it achieves that and if it is the best way to do it (not sure if it does that better than any of a number of other things that could be taught).

    The secon part relates to how I am rather concerned that philosophy is a bit like religion in the face of science. When philosophy is defeated by science there is no reason for others to divert from habit, this concerns us since our habit is philosophy.

  7. In NZ, do you have the problem with students of “true for you”? When I was teaching philosophy to college freshmen in the US (a few years back), I had endless troubles trying to shake students out of this notion that beliefs are true or not, person by person, based on how strongly they were held.

    While they probably didn’t really believe what they were saying, at least while they were in the classroom their standard response to any effort to get them to engage in a critical enquiry was “well, if they believe it, then it is true for them”. I always figured that this was partly the result of some kind of “cultural sensitivity” training that had made them reluctant to say things (in formal settings) that might offend somebody else’s worldview.

    So, if you are going to introduce philosophy into your schools, make sure it fights that tendency. I suspect that the “values training” you discuss would actually promote the tendency not resist it.

  8. If taught non-philosophically, then yes, such relativism would be a real danger. Philosophy and critical thinking does tend to ward off such foolishness, however. But yeah, I agree it's definitely something to avoid -- hence my noting that school philosophy lessons would be a good chance to "point out the obvious flaws in pop relativism".

  9. Note Sorry to detract from the current conversation.

    To go back to where we started, I completely agree with you Richard values education should be deeper than simply prescribing what to do, when. Don't teach values because you want kids to sit down, be quiet and raise their hand to ask questions. Teach values because it is important to get to grips with the problems of social cooperation. I agree with you in another point too. I am more optimistic that school kids can get to grips with core/basic/intuitive philosophy than others in this discussion. That said, I still have a couple of issues, mostly pragmatic with your suggestion.

    Will get the less important pragmatic ones out of the way. First is the teaching the teachers problem. In order for teachers to teach more than 'tell the truth, and take responsibility for your actions' they have to learn some of the history of philosophy. Granted, probably not too much, but until teachers have a grasp of the aim of why they are investigating ethics, I don't think they'll get it.

    Which brings us to another problem, teaching everyone philosophy. As you pointed out Richard, not too many people realise that ethics is a field of rational investigation. Also, most people in today's world believe in a form of relativism. These two facts will make it really hard to explain to policy makers, school principals, heads of department, boards of trustees and parents that Nagel's (or any indiviudual ethicist's) views should be thought of, instead of others. Because these people need to be convinced, yours will be a tough path to follow.

    The other, more important worry, is that kids' minds are really inquisitive, and will demand answers to the tricky problems that ethics deals with. Now, that, for the most part, is a good thing. But we have to realise that calls for values to be taught in school, is so that they will sit down and behave. If their teacher can't give them a decent answer as to why, this will undermine the strategy. Therefore, we have to give teachers good answers to two types of people. First, the moral sceptic, and secondly the egoist.

    I think there is room to move with the egoist, but I don't think that we will get a satisfactory answer against the sceptic, unless significant time was spent teaching kids the history of philosophy (which of course we can't) To the egoist, we can respond with reference to other people's epistemic and moral positions (golden rule, like you said). We can also point out, that if it can't be really be true for things to be true to particular people, that implies a standard of truth external to people, which means that things could not be true for a particular person.* Anyway, something convincing will need to be thought of for the egoist. The moral sceptic's position is actually much more intellectually challenging. When the sceptic asks “But why should I do that?”, she will receive a normative answer, which prompts another “But why should I do that?”. Because a the teacher cannot answer that himself, I don't think he can answer the question to the kids. This leads us again to the problem of undermining the aim of the programme. If we are teaching kids values, so that they will behave for us, then not being able to give adequate reasons to why they should behave may give them a reason not to behave.

    Perhaps all I have shown is that we should not teach values to kids to get them to behave. But then we really have to give policy makers good reasons to teach kids philosophy. And trying to persuade people into philosophy is just asking for trouble.

    *Does it? I just thought of this, feel feel to destroy faulty reasoning at will.


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