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Whose Values? -- Values Education in the 21st C

Steve Maharey
21st July 2000 Speech Notes

Whose Values? -- Values Education in the 21st Century

Opening Address, Quality Public Education Coalition (QPEC) Conference on Values Education, Massey University, Palmerston North, 21-23 July 2000.


Thank you for the invitation to be with you this evening. I should acknowledge that the invitation was originally extended to the Prime Minister who was unable to accept. I am more than happy to be the stand-in on this occasion.

Given the way politicians are perceived by the public, not just in this country but worldwide, it may seem odd to have a politician opening a conference on values. But it is education and the democratic process that I want to talk about this evening.

In one sense the democratic process is in a period of triumphal strength. More and more governments around the world are opting for, or being pressured into, at least some form of electoral check on their powers. Even when authoritarian governments remain in power, their authority is being challenged to a greater extent than ever before.

Yet, in the Western industrialised nations where elected governments have long been the norm, the culture of democracy is in the doldrums. This is not because of authoritarian threats but because of a pervading apathy and distrust.

Not only politicians but politics itself seem to be increasingly seen as inherently suspect. Voting has gone from a democratic duty to a chore, and to have the temerity to do anything more than simply vote is to mark you as a careerist. The idea of 'public service', it is held, is simply a transparent smokescreen for self-advancement.

In this environment, the conception of a democracy as being a community of individuals who work together for the common good is considered quaint at best and deliberately disingenuous at worst. Nonetheless, it a conception that I believe in and one that has motivated my activities over the last decade or more.

And I believe that this active conception of democracy – as something we achieve together rather than something we have done to us – is essential to a well-governed and inclusive society in the 21st century.

I do not deny that the behaviour of political parties and individual politicians – in this country and others – over last few decades or more has had a considerable role to play in the disengagement from democracy by a large proportion of the population. This Government has tried for its part – by being a manifesto-driven government, by under-promising and over-delivering --to rehabilitate politicians and by implication politics.

But I also believe that the problem goes deeper than that. The disengagement has in many cases preceded, and in some ways contributed to, the poor behaviour by politicians.

In many ways this is because people are no longer being brought up to be democrats.

By this I do not mean that people are growing up to actively espouse anti-democratic values – although I note with a chill that in the latest Massey University New Zealand Study of Values, 40% of New Zealanders preferred that "experts", not governments, make the decisions about how the country is run, and 17% thought that we should have strong leaders who didn’t have to bother with Parliament and elections. Anti-democratic values were also clearly present in the Fiji coup and its aftermath, and, perhaps even more disturbingly for us, amongst those New Zealanders who excused or justified it.

For the most part though, I am talking about New Zealanders who assent to democracy but are not really involved in it. This is not a matter of selfishness, although individualism and insularity are modern phenomena that have helped to undermine a civic culture. However, somebody can be overflowing with human compassion and still not believe in, or even think of, communal action as a means to accomplishing something.

Fundamentally, the point is that nobody is born a democrat. The mere existence of democratic institutions is not enough in itself to ensure that people automatically become democrats and appreciate the values of democracy.

Democracy needs to be taught.

For me this is the vital core of anything that might be called values education. It is the prerequisite for a revitalisation of our political culture. It is therefore crucial to our ability to build an active and engaged democracy, which is what everybody on all points of the political spectrum says they believe in.

However, I do feel that the teaching of democratic values is especially necessary for the approach to democracy that this government is taking, which is one based on subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is an approach that recognises that society consists of a range of groups, communities, organisations and spheres, and that each of these has a valid and important role to play in the society as a whole and in fulfilling its members needs and interests.

This provides both an opportunity and an obligation on the part of the state towards devolution and decentralisation. This can be manifested in different ways. It can be seen in a more regional approach to Work and Income services, which reflects the character and concerns of a local community. It can be seen in a partnership approach to relations with local government. And it can be seen in an emphasis on Maori management of matters Maori, and supporting the capacity of Pacific peoples' communities.

In a society like this, therefore, it is imperative that there is a flourishing civil society, rather than just a barren wasteland of atomised individuals with the market on one side and the state on the other. Equally, it is imperative that the 'subsidiary' organisations of civil society, and the individuals within them, have an orientation towards engagement with national democratic institutions.

If this is to be achieved then we have to move on not just from the last fifteen years in which market values have dominated view, but also from the previous Muldoon era which saw the domination of a different kind of value set. The Muldoonist stance subsumed civil society to the imperatives of the state, which in practice meant the often very divisive prejudices of one man. The Rogernomes, and the Richardson/Shipley bloc that followed them, rolled back the state, only to unleash upon civil society the onslaught of the market.

In both cases, the value focus was concentrated at a single pole, with opposing values silenced or just ignored. The values we need to embrace for society are a pluralist set which in turn accept the co-existence within society of often very different value systems.

This returns us to the role of education. Democratic values or habits can be gained only by education. This goes back to those ancient Greeks who held that it was through the repetition of habits that virtuous behaviour was formed. It has been said that,

. . . the most powerful factor . . . contributing to the stability of constitutions, but one which is nowadays universally neglected, is the education of citizens in the spirit of the constitution under which they live.

The fact that this author was Aristotle and that he was writing almost 2400 years ago tells us that this factor has been neglected for some time!

Nonetheless, the point remains that it is only by gaining an understanding of the civis or demos in which we live, how it functions and how we can engage with those functions, that an ability to participate in a democracy can be gained.

These sentiments are not new to New Zealand education. In many ways our greatest educationalist Clarence Beeby was motivated by it when he and Peter Fraser undertook the reconstruction of education in this country. Beeby was, after all, much influenced by John Dewey and Percy Nunn, both of whom were concerned about the role of education and democracy in reinforcing one another.

Of course all of this has been put at risk in more recent years. Educational debate has become focussed on means rather than ends, and over the last ten years the market and its dictates have been asserted as ends in themselves. What should be taught, it has been assumed, is what market demand calls for there to be taught. I do not share these views at all.

I believe that education, like other key areas of public provision, has to be fundamentally shaped by our agreed priorities as a society. This does not rule out the strategic use of market mechanisms where they can serve those purposes. For example, resourcing will always need to reflect the fact that some costs increase as student numbers go up. Nonetheless, the fundamental driving force behind education should always be our priorities as a society, and these must include instilling democratic values.

The importance of this was picked up by the Dearing Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education in the United Kingdom. In its report the Dearing Committee stressed the role of tertiary education in promoting in its teaching and research activities, the values that they feel characterise tertiary education:
 respect for evidence;
 respect for individuals and their views; and
 the search for truth.

The report then goes on to add:

Equally, part of its task will be to accept a duty of care for the wellbeing of our democratic civilisation, based on respect for the individual and respect by the individual for the conventions and laws which provide the basis of a civilised society.

This duty is one that needs to be shared by all levels of the education system. Education needs to prepare our young people to become active citizens, able and willing to contest ideas in an atmosphere that tolerates opposing views.

A democratic culture has to be one where alternative views are heard and respected. However, I fundamentally reject any notion that we must accept a relativist position, which holds that all truth is relative to an individual, that there is no such thing as truth independent of us, but only truth-for-me, truth-for-you, or at best truth-for-us.

This is, quite frankly, nonsense. It is certainly wrong to say there are no common values. However diverse a society may be, our common humanity and our common need for a peaceful society inevitably mean that there are many values that we share.

While we talk about alternative views we also need to assert what we have in common. That means we need to sort out exactly what it is that we have in common. As you will all know, this is a major area of debate in our society, and it is a subject on which a lot of people are anxious and confused.

This includes schools, which have come under a great deal of pressure to cater to what are often quite traditionalist interpretations of our common values. Educators know that they are being asked to step into a minefield, in terms of differing parental expectations, without very much guidance.

Parents, too, are struggling to find their own role in equipping their children with a coherent framework to make judgments in a complex and changing world. At the same time, they are often uncertain whether what their children learn and experience at school and play is reinforcing or undermining their efforts.

Let me say, for my own part, that I do not believe that the Living Values programme in schools is providing, or can provide, an answer to these dilemmas. This pilot is being tested in 20 private and public schools with the support of the Independent Schools Council and Fletcher Challenge. The programme is based on schools and communities identifying their values and developing strategies to promote them within the school.

This is a recipe for developing the individual character of schools in response to the particular makeup of their community. That is valuable -- up to a point.

But what we really need are values that unite us, not values which divide us. These will have to be values that are common across our society, not specific to the religious or ethical framework of a particular community.

Three things seem to be central to values education that can address this need.

Firstly, I think it will require a positive approach to values. I don't think the answer is going to be found in "do not" values, prohibitions against certain sorts of behaviour.

We have to articulate common values in ways that are inspirational. Much of this is actually about having teachers who live the fact that they value their subject.

Secondly, this needs to be allied to a critical stance. Values are crucially about being able to discern what is valuable from what is not. If we don't want an education in values to be learning to repeat by rote what your parents and teachers tell you values are about, then training people to think critically is the vital complement to any dialogue about values.

In this context, it is my belief that we need to think seriously about the role that the teaching of logic can play in our education system. This role cannot be confined to maths and science – it has to inform the full range of the curriculum.

The third and final key component to the development of an education in democratic values is the encouragement of self-discipline. Once again this is not merely a matter of teaching people their "do nots". Self-discipline is about focus, and it is about having our practice following our principles. We come back to the Greek view that virtuous behaviour is formed through the repetition of habits. Self-discipline is a necessary trait to learn in order to reach a level of success in either our physical, mental or moral endeavours.

I do not underestimate the difficulty entailed in developing an educational approach that is founded upon our common values as a society, that is positive and inspirational in orientation, that encourages a critical stance, and that fosters self-discipline.

But nor do I estimate its importance. It is crucial if we are to have a vigorous democracy in the future. This in turn is crucial if we are to have an active civil society engaged with the crucial decisions of the age, rather than having everything decided by government experts or marketing gurus.

Therefore, I am very pleased to be able to open this conference, and I wish you well as you grapple with the issues that in a very real way will determine the kind of society that our children create.


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