Schools should teach values

Susan Reimer

April 06, 1997

WHEN MY OWN personal middle-schooler entered a behavioral slump, particularly in his relationships with substitute teachers, I went to the principal of his school and asked for her help.

"He's tuning me out," I said. "Do me a favor and scare him to death."

My own personal middle-schooler is a member of the privileged class -- kids who believe good grades excuse them from routine rules and chastisements -- and I only wish I could have seen the look on his face when he was sent to the principal's office.

I'm guessing shock and mortification.

After the principal's firm but not unpleasant lecture on the leadership expected of his privileged class, my own personal middle-schooler's relationship with substitute teachers improved.

And I learned something Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has long believed: Parents need schools to help them teach their children the values that make good citizens.

"It is unfair to ask parents to raise kids all by themselves," says Townsend.

"I have four children, and I can tell you they were not born good. A greater community is needed to reinforce good behavior and discourage bad behavior.

"That is so important now, considering the outside influences on our children."

Because this is important to its lieutenant governor, the state of Maryland has received a $1 million, four-year grant to examine various models for values education and test those models in schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George's, Frederick and Calvert counties.

Townsend believes values education can improve everything from test scores to teen pregnancy rates, but her enthusiasm is not universally shared, and this program has its critics.

Some believe that values cannot be taught apart from religion and therefore have no place in public schools. Others believe that values are subjective and determined by one's culture and that the state has no place drawing up a list of values to be taught.

And others believe values education should be left to parents, if for no other reason than that the state would screw it up.

ZTC "There was more resistance 10 years ago," says Townsend, who has been writing on this topic for more than a decade.

"But the rhetoric is changing. There is a growing recognition of the debilitating effects of teen drug use, teen pregnancy and violence. Necessity has bred more acceptance of this."

We are indeed addressing drugs, violence and pregnancy in our schools, but we are doing it without a moral context. These lessons are most often presented in terms of smart vs. dumb, not right vs. wrong.

Our kids are told it isn't smart to smoke, drink, do drugs or have unprotected sex, because of the health consequences. And they are given interpersonal strategies to avoid peer pressure to make these unhealthy choices.

We are uneasy presenting sex, drugs or violence as having any meaning beyond their possibly unpleasant side effects. Life is taught as if it were a board game instead of a matrix of respect for self and others and an unflagging pursuit of what is right.

Values education is not the province of only religious conservatives, because you don't have to go to the same church, or even believe in God, to agree that all children should be orderly and kind. We don't have to agree on pre-marital sex to agree that all children should respect themselves and others and not resolve conflicts by fighting.

And we don't have to agree on abortion or the right to die to agree that all children should tell the truth, not steal, and take responsibility for their actions, that all children should listen and speak calmly.

Values education is not the agenda of only political conservatives because truth, honesty and justice are not political questions but the building blocks of citizenship. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of public education, believed virtue could be taught -- must be taught -- because only a virtuous citizen would reject private gain for the public good.

Townsend is searching for a way to integrate values in early education because she believes that, although didactics have a role in character development, these lessons can't wait until a high-school philosophy class.

"Character is not simply an intellectual enterprise, it is a habit," she says. "Only if it is a habit, can you call on it under pressure.

"It can't be just the topic of an assembly every November. The teachers, the staff, even the lunch-room staff, have to be involved because one of the ways children learn is by how they are treated.

"And it has to be taught in elementary schools and middle schools because if we wait until high school, it will become a debate because that is what teen-agers love to do.

"We have to have a vision and faith that it can happen. Sometimes we don't believe kids can do better. If we don't, they won't."

Too often the privileged class, of which my own personal middle-schooler might be a member, believes values education is something other people's children need, especially the children of the poor. If they are taught the right values, it is reasoned, they will not make the choices that will perpetuate their poverty.

We are wrong to think that way. Values do not come any easier to children of a certain class. If anything, children of privilege are more likely to believe that they can choose the rules they obey.

We must expect more of these children -- all children -- than to distinguish smart choices from dumb choices. We must urge them to search for good -- in themselves and in others.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.