The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values.
– William S. Burroughs
In the 1970s and 1980s I recall reading and re-reading sections of a small text on values education. I know that I was incorporating some of its content into my secondary English classes in public schools. I also recall that sections of the book involved approaches to teaching literature and history in a way that student participation rather than lecture or exposition moved content forward. Last night I rooted around in my boxes of books to see if I could lay hands on this volume. No luck. It is odd how something that so affected me could have been tossed out or put to rest on a shelf in a second hand store. My personal actions that led to misplacing this book, perhaps permanently, reflect some level of disregard for something that affected me deeply for a decade.
Communities also express how things are held in regard through our corporate actions. How important things are, what they are worth, how useful we believe them to be in our community life – these are all expressed in the decisions we make, or fail to make, in communities. Over time, these expressions of our values constitute our standards. We show what we believe as a community to be important in life.
As graduation season is upon us and as the University of Wisconsin system is involved in hand-wringing and temper flares, we hear many mentions of values. In classrooms across the world, teachers engage students in processes that initiate them into the rules and underlying principles of civil society. As the young people’s ability to apply these principles to hypothetical and real situations grows, we believe their preparedness to participate in adult society grows as well. We launch them into new community roles with hopes that they have gained some judgement.
Debates persist about the role of schools in society in the teaching of values. The argument that first comes to mind regards sexuality education. Neither side of this debate denies that parents can or should be primary educators of sexuality education for their children. One side, however, observes that parents frequently cannot or do not do their job in this arena.
While these arguments have gone on for decades, boundary lines drawn and redrawn about sex ed class content, little attention is paid to what is actually teaching values about sexuality in the void created by our inability to agree. For that matter, We pay little attention to what is teaching values about education, honesty, integrity, civil rights, access to goods and services, or civility. We are teaching young people about the relative position of all of these issues to gold and silver standards of sorts. The standards? Greed and celebrity.
Decisions to gut education while lining pockets of the super-wealthy in sweet deals using taxpayer dollars and public land to build arenas tell young people loads about their importance, their worth in society. When we entertain the notion that public school teachers need not hold a post-secondary degree so costs can be more readily contained, we devalue young people. They know it. They sometimes make decisions about their lives that limit their future life options. We then blame them for their dubious judgement.