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.


Teaching Religion in Schools: Problems and Possibilities

July 28, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

Published in Deccan Herald, on 28th July 2014;

One often comes across expression of worries regarding lack of moral values in present day education. The teaching of religion in schools is advanced as a preferred solution to this problem. Teaching of religion is also often suggested as a means to reduce tension and strife between followers’ of different faiths.

Basically these claims boil down to two contentions: one, that knowledge of each other’s religion will enhance mutual goodwill; and two, that religion can become a viable basis of moral development in a secular democratic society. Both contentions stand in need of critical examination.

Such examination will require a distinction between ‘religious teaching’ and ‘teaching about religions’. This distinction is often ignored when arguments to introduce religion in curriculum are advanced. ‘Religious teaching’ indicates teaching of the religious dogmas as well as acceptance of those dogmas. For example, teaching Hinduism for a vaishnavite may involve making students believe that Krishna was really an avatar of Vishnu. Teaching Islam and Christianity will respectively involve making the students believe that Muhammad was really a prophet of Allah and that Christ was really the son of God.

‘Teaching about religions’, on the other hand, will limit to helping the students to understand the religious beliefs, but without any commitment to their truth. In ‘teaching about religions’, then, the three religious beliefs mentioned above need to be understood, critically examined; but the students are not required to accept them.

Religious teaching, then, will be incompatible with a secular education system. That leads to the assumption that those who want to introduce religion in curriculum are recommending ‘teaching about religions’.

In principle understanding of each other’s belief systems should facilitate better mutual understanding, and therefore, enhance harmonious living of different religious groups. This should also increase sensitivity and tolerance as knowledge of the others’ beliefs helps understanding emotional importance of those beliefs for them. But in a multi-religious secular democracy there might be serious practical problems in teaching about religions in schools.

Let’s note that one important aim of education in democracies is to develop critical citizenship; as no democracy can function well without constantly watchful citizens. Development of critical citizenship necessarily require independence of judgment and action. Which in turn will demand critical rational examination of all ideas and beliefs. Therefore, if one has to teach about religions in a democratic system what is being taught has to submit to critical rational examination. The study of religions, then, cannot be a “reverential study” as Gandhi along with many other often recommended. It has to be a critical study rationally examining every belief and event in the history of religions.

Critical study of religions in schools is likely to create a practical problem with two dimensions. One, lack of teachers who can deal with religious beliefs and history with respect, without biases and at the same time without slightest compromise in incisive analysis, without compromising on precise expression of the results of rational enquiry; whether they be favourable or unfavourable to religious beliefs. Our system at resent does not have enough teachers who can take up this task. The second dimension is that the very people who are recommending teaching about religion today will oppose it when religious beliefs like avatar-hood of Krishna, prophet-hood of Mohammad and status of Christ as son of God will be seriously interrogated in classrooms across the nation.

This, however, is not an argument against teaching about religions in schools. This is only to indicate that serious preparation will be required before we could do that. We have to prepare teachers and we have to prepare the public to take critique of religions in a rational and mutually accommodating spirit. A beginning in the second could be made in the press by examining religious beliefs and history more seriously than we do at the moment.

The second claim that religions can provide a basis for moral development is based on the false assumption that in essentials all religions meet in perfect harmony. This claim is born out of unduly reverential study of religions and not out of critical study of them. Actually religions are more often in serious confrontation with each other. Claim of harmony is more of a politically correct statement than a substantiated one. This disharmony between different religious belief systems is enough to dash all hope of religions becoming basis of moral development in a secular system.

But there are even more unsurmountable problems. Moral development does not mean memorisation of moral maxims like “always tell the truth”. Nor is it complete even if one is conditioned to act according to such maxims. Moral development necessarily requires ability to make reasoned judgment in the face of value conflicts. There can be no predetermined formula to resolve value conflicts arising in different actual contexts. The religious ethics is essentially a faith based ethics. It depends on the dogma or divine command, and therefore, is not capable of independent rational judgment. Another problem in religious ethics is that it is essentially utilitarian and self-centred. You obey religious dogma or divine command because you want personal favours from the divinity or you want salvation. It, therefore, depends on non-rational uncritical belief; for personal benefit. How does one square development of critical reason for democratic citizenship and uncritical belief formation in the same classroom?

In conclusion perhaps we can say that teaching about religions cannot form a basis for moral development. Though, it could be very important for development of mutual understanding and sensitivity between different religious groups. However, even for this second purpose introduction of critical study of different religious in schools will require enormous preparation and a very cautious approach.