Value education: what do we mean by it?

October 22, 2014

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.