Educating for Values

The truth is that we have quite a bit of expertise in the field of learning. But our expertise is limited to mainly scholarly learning, particularly the acquisition of facts, concepts, formulae and organized bodies of knowledge.

This kind of expertise we have is badly limited in three respects: (a) We know how information is acquired but know far less about how it is being transformed by the solo learner and by a team of learners into meaningful knowledge. Only recently have we come to realize that information is not knowledge and that the acquisition of the former is hardly a necessary and surely not a sufficient condition for the latter. (b) We know even less about ways of turning knowledge into usable, rather than inert knowledge. (c) Most importantly, though, is the fact that we know how intellectual stuff is learned, but we know far less about acquiring human values and learning to live by them.

There is expertise out there about the acquisition of values through authoritarian indoctrination, on the one hand, and on the effects of life-long socialization, on the other. However, the former counters our own democratic values while the latter is not in the hands of educators. So, no wonder that the domain of value education is not one in which we have enough expertise.

It is quite obvious that the first two shortcomings mentioned above need to be addressed as soon as possible. But addressing the third is less self-evident. Indeed, it may well be the case that value education is a less developed area of expertise simply because it is of lesser importance nowadays. In a world where economic growth depends on the accumulation of knowledge which is then used in merciless competitions for survival and domination, thus, a world in which information, skill and knowledge reign supreme, what role do values play and what need is there for value education? In light of such questions, do we really need expertise in the field of value education? There is no question about the gruesome and inhumane nature of the September 11 events, but should they need to arouse a new concern for and interest in value education? The answer ought to be a clear and loud "YES!".

We have created a most sophisticated and complex culture and a technology that far exceeds in its demands of us our built-in capacities. Our brain is still mainly that of a reptile (or, if we are to be more generous - that of a horse) with a very thin layer that makes us human. The parts that deal with emotions and values lag behind the intellectual ones. In the absence of social values we are like walking computing machines which are great in problem solving and poor in dealing with feelings, stress, and other human beings.

No wonder therefore that the very success (if success it is) of the Western society and its economical system contains the seeds of its own troubles, or maybe even - its own destruction. The so-called rational world of globalization, profit-above-all and each one for him/herself, is a world in which Society sheds most of its responsibilities towards the welfare of the individual. You need medical insurance? Go buy it! You need fire protection? Go become a customer of a private fire fighting company (however, too small a monthly premium will cover flames no taller than 15 feet). One feels left out by Society to struggle and survive on one's own. And where Society sheds its responsibility and commitments towards its members, the members shed all responsibilities and commitments towards the Society as a collective. The result - as Robert D. Putnam describes it in his recent book Bowling Alone [1] : the loss of social capital, manifested in phenomena like NIMBY, alienation, lack of empathy, and decline in social interdependence. These are among the less welcome bedfellows of affluent societies. Educational systems that emphasize intellectual learning to the exclusion of social values, scholastic achievements at the expense of social commitments, and cognitive development without emotional maturity, do not cause the loss of social values, but they reinforce the social trends of alienation and exacerbate its consequences: Violence, indifference, and a self-serving approach to life.

The way the Americans have suddenly discovered each other and the community to which they belong and which was so badly hurt, attests to the fact that alienation can be replaced by values long neglected. But it sounds a bit sad that we have to wait for major disasters to bring social values back to life. If we knew how to help youngsters acquire socially useful values such as mutual help, caring, shared responsibility, striving for greater equality, interdependence instead of self-serving independence, and their likes, we might see a more humane society, perhaps poorer in monetary possessions yet richer in social capital. Such a society might also show greater compassion for the rest of the world that feels left out, oppressed, and exploited. It is that part of the world that breeds enough hatred to send human missiles into towers occupied by unsuspecting, innocent human beings.

Gavriel Salomon
Past dean and professor of educational psychology
Faculty of Education, University of Haifa, Israel
Co-director of the Center for Research on Peace Education
Israeli National Award 2001 for Scientific Achievements
in Educational Research

October 31, 2001


[1] R. D. Putnam, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000.

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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