The Value of Teaching Values


Jeff Passe

I once had a student teacher who claimed that his classroom would be value free. I asked him what the students would call him. He said, “Mr. Smith.” I said, “Oh, so you value formality.” So, he said he’d be called “Bob.” I said, “Oh, so you value informality.”

I asked how he would organize his desks. He said, “In rows.” I said, “Oh, so you value order.” He said, “No, the students will sit in a circle.” I said, “So, you value interaction.” He got flustered and said, “Any way the students want.” I said, “Oh, now you value student input.”

I sound like a smart-aleck, but then, this conversation never really happened. But it could.

Some folks believe there is such a thing as a value free classroom, but that can’t be, just as there’s no such thing as a value free person. Because everything we do reflects our values, every decision is a choice between competing values. If a teacher’s method of evaluation is projects, then he or she may value creativity. If it’s essays, the teacher may value logical explanation. If it’s multiple choice, the teacher may value precise answers and efficiency.

This is not just a humorous point, it’s the essence of my argument. The curriculum has to reflect the values of the groups that prepare it and the groups that implement it. At one time, the curriculum was based on such values as order, assimilation, conformity, and subservience to power. This was how the first schools came to be in Massachusetts in the 19th century. The city fathers wanted the schools to prepare obedient factory workers who followed the laws of the community and the teachings of the Holy Bible. The curriculum reflected the values of the community leaders.

Today, we appear to be divided over our curricular goals. While some prefer the type of conservative curriculum used in the “good o#146; days,” others prefer a more liberating curriculum. Their values tend to favor empowerment, creativity, tolerance, interaction, and problem-solving. Then, there are those who want students to have power, but just a little; they want creativity, but not too much.

What is a curriculum developer to do? How do we satisfy the conflicting values of the public? We can find the answers to these questions by examining the purpose of public education.

If you accept my premise that the primary purpose of schools is to prepare students to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities, then our curricular decisions are clear. We must develop knowledge and skills in communication, in problem solving of all kinds, in cultural and religious tolerance, in caring, and in the issues of the day—which include perennial questions about the nature of truth, justice, and responsibility. These last three questions and others like them are called values issues.

They’re called values issues, but all topics have a values component. The very act of including a topic in the curriculum reflects certain values. When we teach about them, we are telling students, “This is important.”

Moreover, values have always been taught in the schools. When I was a child, my teachers insisted on such values as punctuality, honesty, manners, and responsibility. That hasn’t changed. But today, there are teachers who are such values-zealots that they ruin the educational experience for children. Some students are not ready or able to conform to the values of neatness, order, and precision. Whether you approve of this situation or not, you can’t deny that values are taught in the schools.

The problem with teaching values always leads to the question, “Whose values? ” Everyone wants his or her own values taught, but that’s impossible when individuals and groups have different opinions. Even a couple that is united in matrimony may disagree on a thing or two. How can we possibly expect a public consensus?

Yet, there is a consensus of sorts. Public opinion polls show overwhelming support for the teaching of such values as honesty, loyalty, and kindness in schools. No one could argue that schools should teach children to be dishonest, disloyal, or unkind! There, we have a consensus. Let’s drop the subject and go teach THOSE values!

Not so fast. Sometimes we have what is called a values conflict. That’s when we have to choose between two strongly-held values. Like when Grandma buys a new hat and asks if you like it. Should you choose honesty, saying that the hat looks hideous? Or, do you choose kindness and compliment her purchase? Or, do you dishonestly avoid the issue by complimenting the color or asking where it was bought? Most of us are likely to choose some form of dishonesty. Therefore, it must be okay, sometimes, to be dishonest. Or, maybe not.

My next example is a lot more serious. There’s the case of Oliver North, who ran for the Senate from the state of Virginia. How did he gain his fame and adulation? He lied. After Congress had declared that the United States would not support the rebels in Nicaragua, Col. North led the Reagan Administration’s backstage efforts to supply money and weapons to the contras. When hauled before Congress to testify about his actions, North lied.

Now, in 1998, lying to the American people seems to be viewed as a pretty serious issue, particularly by supporters of Col. North. How did he justify his deceit? He wrapped himself in the value of loyalty, claiming that he lied in order to protect President Reagan, his commander-in-chief, and CIA agents still operating in Nicaragua.

Honesty vs. Loyalty. As much as I disapprove of Col. North and his actions, I’ve come to recognize that he’s no exception. Most people tend to choose loyalty over honesty. Let me ask you, how many of you have witnessed a crime but did not report it? Perhaps it’s a friend or relative who has shortchanged the IRS, used illegal drugs, or cheated in business. Loyalty almost always wins out.

So, do we teach children that it’s okay to lie? I don’t think so. What we can teach children is that choosing between conflicting values is not always so simple, and that the choice needs to be discussed so that each individual can make his or her own decision. That, folks, is called freedom, which is a value that I treasure. The discussion of values, which helps us make up our minds, is another value that I like; it’s called the democratic process.

The democratic discussion of values is perfect for public schools, which by definition belong to the public (a group that cannot always agree on values) and accept all students. Thus, in most communities, each public school classroom is a laboratory for the exploration of values. We have Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics, each discussing value issues from a different perspective. The teacher is merely the moderator who facilitates an honest examination of the issues.

Some people don’t like democratic discussions of values. They don’t want their children exposed to viewpoints other than their own. They are afraid that a democratic discussion may lead their children down a different path than the one they prefer. So, they may pull their children out of public school and enroll them in private school or home schooling to avoid it.

What I love about the democratic discussion of values is that it meets my primary goal of education, which is “to prepare students to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities.” That’s what we do in the political arena: debate our values. So, we need to look carefully at our school curriculum—think about everything we teach and how we teach it—because there’s a value lesson wherever we look.

Let’s take spelling, for example. My experience as a teacher, at just about every grade level, is that students basically know how to spell. They just don’t care about it. (This, by the way, includes graduate students!) Therefore, spelling is more than just instruction about vowels and consonants. It’s teaching students the value of an error-free presentation. It’s teaching them to value correct spelling, and really, correctness in general. But we have to allow students the freedom to conclude that spelling isn’t that important, and for some it just isn’t—not compared to expression, or creativity, or the joy of writing. We can try to persuade them, and remind them of the consequences of poor spelling (and enforce them!), but we must permit dissent. This is democracy.

When we teach about an event in history, we are also making a value decision. By choosing to study the pioneers, for example, we may be communicating that we admire their courage, their perseverance, and their desire for freedom. But, we must also allow students to conclude that some pioneers were greedy, over-individualistic, or even abusive to their families. That kind of discussion is part of democratic life, and public schools are perfectly suited to conduct it. Students who engage in such discussions will be better off for having considered multiple perspectives, learned to tolerate differences of opinion, and struggled to choose an individual viewpoint. What could be better preparation for democracy?

Value issues are rampant throughout the curriculum. Whether the topic is science, music, literature, or mathematics, there’s a value issue that is waiting to be discussed. I am pleased that we have public schools that grant children the freedom to engage in lessons that are so value-able.


Jeff Passe is professor of Reading and Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This article is adapted from a speech delivered at a session of the National Congress for Public Education, which met in Washington, D..C., from September 11 to 13, 1998.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.