Education and Values

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John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center

Education necessarily promotes and replicates values and does so in many ways. Often, teachers and administrators use the asymmetrical power relationships inherent in most educational settings to deliberately promulgate their own set of values. Even when not done deliberately, values are communicated. Yet, neither the conscious nor the implicit promulgation of values is typically designed with thought to the appropriateness of these values for the future. This does not imply that newer values are always “better” than older values; but clearly at least some values of the past must to be re-thought in the light of huge global populations, diminishing natural resources, and the danger and ultimate futility of armed conflict.


To avoid simply having students parrot platitudes without deep understanding, an approach to values education has been proposed that uses moral dilemmas for discussion and encourages participation in communities where conflicts and resolutions will be a natural outgrowth (Nucci & Weber, 1991). While the issue of values in education has always been important, our contemporary context raises its priority.

The world is changing at a rapid pace and many of today's implicit "values" are counter-productive to a viable future (e.g., judging an individual's worth by the size and power of their automobile; believing that a child must live constantly in an environment kept at 70-72 degrees Fahrenheit; that authority is always right and must be obeyed; that the way to success is to follow the crowd). Indeed, many values promulgated by society are contradictory. For instance, American society encourages over-indulgence in high fat, high-sugar foods and simultaneously insists that only people with perfect bodies are worthwhile. While children may be taught during an hour-long health class that too much fat and sugar are bad for the body, this hardly constitutes a sufficient antidote to thousands of expertly designed advertisements that say just the opposite. The capacity of adults to wreak great havoc on others is at an all-time high. Ethical decisions have always been crucial, but the consequences of unethical behavior have taken on even greater signficance.


Children normally develop morally as well as cognitively as they mature (Piaget, 1964; Kohlberg, 1989). Ideally this comes about through acting in the social world, observing consequences, and interacting with peers. Turiel (1983) pointed out that children develop judgments in two separate but inter-related domains, the conventional and the ethical. The appropriateness of clothing is a question of convention that varies from society to society and from setting to setting. The appropriateness of killing is an ethical issue in every society. However, disregarding a recognized convention (e.g., appearing nude in inappropriate circumstances), can cause sufficient disruption and discomfort to raise genuine ethical issues.

Education is often thought of as a process that helps individuals gain knowledge (vocabulary, rules of syntax, geographic locations, events of historic significance) and skills (parsing sentences, doing research, organizing results, writing, typing). While this is true, education also necessarily promotes values. Values are involved in curriculum choices, the materials chosen within that curriculum, how the material is presented, and the range of “correct” answers. For example, primarily focusing history studies on the history of one’s own country promotes the value of chauvinism. Moreover, placing emphasis within that history on presidents, generals, wars, and victories (with little to say about changes that arise from and affect people in general) promotes the values of authoritarianism and militarism. Material focuses on white Christian males promotes racism and sexism. Presenting subject material using a lecture style with little chance for debate, discussion, or dialogue, further reinforces the value of authoritarianism. Evaluating student progress based primarily on the ability to recite specific known facts, also promotes the value of authoritarianism.

A study published in the American Psychologist a few decades ago showed that the best predictor of college grades in introductory psychology classes was not high school GPA or SAT scores but the degree of agreement in values between instructor and student. An interesting case study of the degree to which values are inherent even in so-called “objective” matters comes from the Ph.D. dissertation of Evans, a student of Minsky at MIT. Evans built an AI program to solve multiple choice “figure analogy” problems. A:B::C:D1, D2, D3, D4, or D5. The program found relationships mapping between A and B and then tried to apply those same relationships mapping C to each of the possible D answers. His program worked. In fact, his program worked too well--all answers were correct. In order to make the program pick the same answers as the test developers, he had to inculcate his program with the same value priorities as the test developers. For instance, according to test makers, it was (implicitly) more “elegant” to rotate a figure within the 2-D plane than to rotate out in 3-D space.

The inculcation of values is pervasive and subtle. Much of the value indoctrination that occurs in schools is unconscious. Even when conscious attention is given to values, there seems to be little appreciation of the extent to which children are subjected to much more powerful indoctrination via paid advertisements in print, TV, radio, games, and movies.


Educational institutions, individual teachers, parents, concerned citizens and children themselves must work to uncover and understand the values that are being taught as well as to design the entire educational experience to foster those values that will help make for a sustainable and healthy future. For a “whole school” approach to values, see

In addition, a constructivist approach to education, while arguably important for deep understanding in topics as various as science and mathematics to poetry interpretation, such an approach is particularly vital to values education, and especially when values of the past may have to be re-thought for their appropriateness to the future. Examples: &

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Even when not pursued deliberately, education promotes and replicates values. Yet, the propagation of values is typically not designed with the appropriateness of these values for the future in mind. Educational institutions, teachers, parents, concerned citizens and students themselves must work to uncover and understand the values that are being taught and to design the entire educational experience to foster values that help build a sustainable and healthy future.

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