Value education: what do we mean by it?

In Deccan Herald with a different title

Rohit Dhankar

Almost everyone is convinced that our education system does not inculcate values, it is accused of being all cognitive, as if the issue of values involves no cognition. And that is one of the problems in value education: if values are not a cognitive matter then a mystification begins in their definition, lists and ways of teaching. If we do want our education to help children become morally responsible, then we need a lot of thinking on what values are, how they can be chosen for ‘teaching’ and what methods might work.

Values and moral development

One big problem in value education is that we seem to have an endless list of them, one never know how many or which of them are to be taught, which ones to be preferred over others. One way of shorting them out is to define and categories them.

Values are ideals accepted by people. They act as principles that guide behaviour. Something which I do not understand cannot guide my conscious behaviour. Therefore, values have to be understood first and foremost. The role of cognition has to be central to development of values. But understanding alone does not ensure acceptance of a principle. Duryodhana is reputed for saying in Mahabharata that he knew what dharma is but was not motivated to act accordingly. Therefore, a moral commitment to act according to the principle is necessary; and that goes beyond pure intellectual understanding. Often it is described as emotional investment in the principle; but moral commitment is not necessarily emotional, even if emotions play a part in it. One may understand a principle, may also have moral commitment to it and still may fail to live accordingly. Which means something is missing. What is missing is mental and physical discipline. One who can muster the courage to act as per the principle and control his contrary inclinations to uphold it in thought and action has that discipline.

But the story of moral development does not end here. Values do not only come in conflict with one’s desires; they also conflict with each other. For example, one may be in a situation where commitment to, say, sanctity of human life and compassion may come into conflict; the debate on euthanasia has an element of this conflict. Being able to arrive at a sound moral judgment is the centre of moral development.

We have identified four elements of moral development above. One, intellectual understanding of a principle. Two, moral commitment to a set of principles. Three, discipline of mind to uphold the principle in the face of adversity. And four, ability to resolve conflict between the principles.

Ability to resolve value conflict is not logically possible without having some kind of framework which helps in deciding on hierarchy of values. Such a framework may have some general structure and ways of interpreting its implications in a given context. Therefore, an endless uncategorized list of values will not help.

There are some behaviours which directly affect others. For example being unfair and rude. Principles governing such behaviour can be called social values. The principles governing behaviours that do not have direct effect on others can be called personal values; for example hygiene. However, this division will always be a matter of interpretation and there shall be a significant overlap. The point being made here is that some justifiable categorisation is a must. If we accept this categorisation then one can say that social values must have a priority over the personal ones.

This is just an indication of the method to solve the problem of value hierarchy; in a short piece a fuller explication is not possible. One example for consideration head the hierarchy of values can be quoted from Mahabharata: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness.” I would claim that this principle can be reasonably justifies and can be used for critique of other values.

On pedagogy

If we take moral development in this sense then it has very significant implications for pedagogy of moral development. One can easily see that memorisation without understanding, conditioning in behaving in certain ways, indoctrination into some principles and habit formation will not work. The methods used in and advocated for our schools often fall into these categories.

The practice of chanting any pledges in school assembly is just rote memorisation of some empty slogans like “all Indians are my brothers and sisters, etc”. It is useless unless followed with rigorous examination in the class for meaning and desirability of such an idea. Similarly, role models and bhakti for them is unlikely to help develop one morally. It can work, again, only when a sound and unbiased critique of the role model is allowed. Values necessarily require intellectual conviction and that does not come from paying obeisance to role models. Attempts to commit suicide on politicians defeat, demise or sending to jail is partly a result of uncritical acceptance of role models. What would be required is critical judgement, sensitivity to others’ well-being and courage to face the music for acting on one’s own judgment. That can be developed only through free expression of one’s opinion and arguments and being sensitive to how others respond to them.

Many of our interpretations of aims and pedagogical techniques in teaching other subjects and classroom management also go against healthy moral development. For example the often heard social Darwinism of “survival of the fittest” as an argument in favour of competition. One’s you accept survival of the fittest and the instinctive value of survival the only logical path before human mind is ruthless pursuit of one’s own ends. This is the ultimate principle of selfishness, and totally contrary to the above quoted cardinal moral principle.


8 Responses to Value education: what do we mean by it?

  1. I absolutely agree with you that cognitive skills are integrated and essential for a value based education. It is not cognitive OR value-based, it is AND.

    But further down you say “Values necessarily require intellectual conviction and that does not come from paying obeisance to role models.”, “uncritical acceptance of role models”. etc… In my opinion these sentences are loaded with oxymorons. Let me explain, first the word role model itself denotes some person’s (Say A) intellectual choice and logic for making another person (Say B) a role model . When a third person (say R) says uncritical , blind etc… acceptance , then we are saying that R is not convinced of A’s choice in making B her/his role model. What is uncritical in R’s logical framework many not be uncritical in A’s logical framework.

    This to me is the central dilemma in value/moral education. Hence collaboratively negotiating and agreeing on social values is the first (and ongoing) step (and the most difficult one as it is both plural and dynamic). Pedagogy must facilitate continuous introspection to negotiate one’s own values (personal) in relation to the social values .


    • rdhankar says:

      Agree with most of what you say. But role models are not always chosen with critical consciousness. Media and several other factors make unexamined bhakti possible. How critically examined is adolescents’ imitative behaviour modelling film starts, celebrities, etc? It seems to me acceptance of role model psychologically (and intellectually) is accepting the principle “I must do as X does” this is a way of avoiding work, risk and responsibility involved in an informed moral judgment. The usual justification for a choice made on the basis of a role model is not “I must do Y because of reasons/principles a, b, c”. It rather is “I must do Y because X does it”. This seems to be the worst form of accepting authority. Buddha when advising Kalama to think for themselves specifically advised having independent yardstick of “good for all”. Socrates when preaching examined life, was specifically arguing for examining it yourself. Referring to Buddha and Socrates can become ‘role model behaviour’ if there are no independent reasons/grounds to accept their advice, and this hinges purely on their ‘advice’. If what they say can be justified independently of who said it, then using Buddha and Socrates is not really ‘role modelling’ but intellectual appreciation of people who propounded sound principles.


  2. Anonymous says:

    I would add that culture is a huge determinant of values. Should we be respectful to elders? The answer comes purely from cultural training, and no other cognitive/emotional/moral reasoning. If the elder is morally wrong as per my intellectual judgement, what should be my behaviour towards the elder? Once again the appropriateness of my response would come from cultural training. There are hundreds of other such culturally decided value-systems. Can I address an elder by his/her name? Can I step over a cultural icon’s photo? Throw the photo in a dustbin? Step over a grave? Uncover some parts of the body in public (face, hands, legs, torso)? Can I touch another person’s hand? Can I hug another person?

    Notice that there is nothing cognitive about the answer but people can be severely punished for not adhering to such cultural value systems. Morality/ values and adherence to them is one of the most complex systems to decipher, and I daresay we can hardly have a simple appreciation or even a framework to decide the desirability of values.




    • rdhankar says:

      we seem to be usng the term “cognitive” in two different ways. any formation of ideas (both beliefs and concepts) and their manipulation (working out connections and relations between them) is cognitive in the sense I am using the term. if accepted, then all you have said is cognitive as well. “respect the elders” is a prnciples that has to be cognitively understood and one has to arrive at a judgment when to apply it. emotions necessarily involve cognition through evaluative stance.

      Cultural determination needs a bigget discussion. How does culture operates on me? actually ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ determination explains very little.


  3. Anonymous says:

    I am taking the liberty to post here, a passage by Mark Twain, on morals vs intellect of the human (by which he refers to humanity as a whole). A scathing comment on human, who thinks himself (or herself) above animals-

    “We have no respectworthy evidence that the human being has morals. He is himself the only witness. Persons who do not know him value his testimony. They think he is not shallow and vain because he so despises the peacock for possessing these qualities. They are deceived into not regarding him as a beast and a brute, because he uses these terms to disapprovingly describe qualities which he possesses, yet which are not possessed by any creature but himself. On his verbal testimony they take him for every creditable thing which he particularly isn’t, and (intentionally?) refrain from examining the testimony of his acts. It is the safest way, but man did not invent it, it was the polecat. From the beginning of time the polecats have quite honestly and naively regarded themselves as representing in the animal kingdom what the rose represents in the vegetable kingdom. This is because they do not examine.


    However, moralless man, bloody and atrocious man, is high above the other animals in his one great and shining gift — intellectuality. It took him ages and ages to demonstrate the full magnitude and majesty of his gift, but he has accomplished it at last. For ages it was a mean animal indeed that was not vastly his superior in certain splendid faculties. In the beginning he had nothing but the puny strength of his unweaponed hands to protect his life with, and he was as helpless as a rabbit when the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the mastodon and the other mighty beasts came against him; in endurance he was far inferior to the other creatures; in fleetness on the land there was hardly an animal in the whole list that couldn’t shame him; in fleetness in the water every fish could excel him; his eyesight was a sarcasm: for seeing minute things it was blindness as compared to the eyesight of the insects, and the condor could see a sheep further than he could see a hotel. But by the ingenuities of his intellect he has equipped himself with all these gifts artificially and has made them unapproachably effective. His locomotive can outstrip all birds and beasts in speed and beat them all in endurance; there are no eyes in the animal world that can compete with his microscope and his telescope; the strength of the tiger and the elephant is weakness, compared with the force which he carries in his mile-range terrible gun. In the beginning he was given ‘dominion’ over the animal creation — a very handsome present, but it was mere words and represented a non-existent sovereignty. But he has turned it into an existent sovereignty, himself, and is master, of late. In physical talents he was a pauper when he started; by grace of his intellect he is incomparably the richest of all the animals now. But he is still a pauper in morals — incomparably the poorest of the creatures in that respect. The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”



  4. rdhankar says:

    This is ‘moralising’ noth moral analysis. he is lemanting the fact that all humans do not agree with ‘his moral values’. The idea of some action being ‘moral or not’ can be formed only in the human mind. all other animals act according to their instincts; they are determined by their insticts. therefore, are neither moral nor immoral. they simpl are amoral; below the level of moral consciousness. HUmans alone can reach the level of self-reflecting moal consciousness; therefore their actions can be judged morally just or unjust.


  5. Anonymous says:

    I think Twain is saying humanity would not withstand the test of its own moral value system.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: