Which is preferable: values or virtues? The question might appear overly academic and of little relevance but how it is answered has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on Australia’s education system and our way of life.
One approach is best illustrated by a flier titled Values for Australian Schooling that was circulated to all schools when John Howard was prime minister. The impetus for the flier was the PM’s belief that students needed a more explicit moral and ethical framework to help decide right from wrong.
The values promoted were: care and compassion, doing your best, fair go, freedom, honesty and trustworthiness, integrity, respect, responsibility, understanding, tolerance and inclusion. The impetus to teach values is further evidenced by the publication in 2005 of the National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools and, more recently, the way values education is incorporated into the national curriculum.
Three of the general capabilities informing all subjects from the preparatory year to year 10 are personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. All involve identifying and teaching politically correct values such as respecting diversity and difference, tolerating other cultures, caring for the environment and being good global citizens.
Like motherhood, the first thing to note about the aforementioned values is that they are uncontroversial and, on first reading, appear worthwhile and beneficial. Freedom, honesty, respecting others and being a responsible citizen are all commendable. While such values can be criticised for being self-evident and bland there is little to disagree with.
On a closer examination there is cause for concern. Respecting others, being inclusive and acknowledging diversity and difference should never mean tolerating the intolerable. Some cultural practices and some forms of behaviour are morally offensive and unacceptable.
Those who migrate to Australia, for example, should accept and abide by our laws and way of life and not import unacceptable customs such as female circumcision and child brides. Cultural relativism leads to societal fragmentation and what Geoffrey Blainey once called the danger of becoming a nation of tribes.
A further criticism, notwithstanding the widespread use of values as denoting what constitutes an acceptable moral and ethical framework, is that values’ attributes are vague and insubstantial.
They lack an explicit, clear and compelling moral underpinning. Iain T. Benson from Australia’s Notre Dame University argues using the term values is misleading and dangerous as it is a ‘vague term that introduces subjective confusion into moral claims’. For all the talk about values, whether in education, politics or the world of business, Benson argues that it is impossible to advocate or defend values without evaluating the underlying ethical and moral framework.
Benson goes on to argue ‘the language of values obscures reality’ and its widespread use is being employed ‘to drive religion and its moral language to the margins of culture’. In a secular, supposedly post-Christian age where cultural-Left theory prevails, employing the language of values undermines Christianity in an attempt to banish it from the public square.
In opposition to values Benson mounts a case for what he terms virtues. He argues ‘values and virtues are utterly different creatures’ on the basis that ‘Virtues are thick and entailed and have a content and long traditions spanning countries, philosophies and religions: values are thin, unentailed and, well, whatever you want them to be’.
Drawing on the Christian faith Benson cites the cardinal virtues as an explicit, enduring and compelling description of a moral and ethical framework that is closely associated with the history and evolution of Western civilisation and Australia’s cultural heritage.
The virtues listed include ‘justice, wisdom, moderation and courage’. Added to this list are what Benson describes as the theological virtues of ‘faith, hope and love’. Virtues, by their very nature, stipulate a strong and consistent moral code not based on personal feelings or capable of changing from day to day depending on the situation.
Significantly, given the politically correct national curriculum we now have where relativism and subjectivity prevail, Benson refers to John Dewey the father of progressive, new-age education when explaining the prevalence of a values approach. Dewey who was a strong secular advocate argues there is no place for Christianity in what he describes as ‘the realisation of the democratic ideal’. His views on education underpin much of the current progressive approach; one that argues the curriculum must be contemporary, immediately relevant and based on the world of the child.
In Thinking Christian Ethos published by the Catholic Trust Society in London a strong case is also put for ensuring that virtues as opposed to values are centre stage and that they underpin what is taught and how schools are managed and organised. The authors, drawing on the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, describe a moral virtue ‘as a settled disposition to react in the right way and do the right thing, to do what promotes the true flourishing of human persons’. Such virtues are listed as ‘courage, temperateness, justice and good sense’. Education, by its very nature is inherently moral and as argued by Thinking Christian Ethos it should involve ‘the cultivation of the moral and intellectual virtues, for the good of the person and for the common good of society’.
Given the prevalence of values in education, made worse by the impact of cultural-Left theory involving a heady blend of neo-Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, deconstructionism and gender and post-colonial theories, it’s understandable why what is taught is so superficial and lacking in moral substance and integrity. The curriculum no longer inculcates justice, wisdom, moderation and courage.
Even worse, because education no longer deals with virtues, increasing numbers of students lack a moral compass and leave school with an ego-centred, narcissistic sense of self and their place in the wider world.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of How Political Correctness Is Destroying Education (Wilkinson Publishing).