Julian Baggini: Questions of Value

by Julian Bagini, this article appeared in a previous edition of Humanitie magazine.

Let’s start with some basic revision. The problem with education is that it is a Very Important. Good Thing, but indoctrination, including religious instruction, is terrible.

The kids’ choir in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) were only half right: they don’t need no thought control but as their grammar reveals, they certainly do need some education. And that is where all the problems start. For where exactly is this line between education and indoctrination? The most obvious answer is to say that education should restrict itself to imparting factual information and leave children to make up their own mind about questions of value.

Nice try, but it scores an F.

Does anyone really believe that schools should not offer instruction on any values?

Violent little “thrashy” Marcus believes that conventional morality is a veneer, proclaims “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger” and goes around beating up other kids and taking their sweets.

Sweel Rugenia Terre’Blanche thinks that people should look after those they are more closely related to first and so shuns the black and Asian children in her class. Any headteacher who thought values were none of the school’s business would be gravely mistaken.

Of course education has to embrace a set of values, most fundamentally the value of education itself. One such value is people should be taught to think and judge for themselves. But while almost everyone would agree this is a good thing, no one really believes children should be able to choose everything for themselves. We carefully choose the range of options we present to children and how we describe them. Their final choice must be free, but our presentation of the options is not impartial.

Furthermore, the school timetable is infused with values. It sows which subjects are valued and which are not. Values are to be found within subjects. Does history focus more on battle and rulers or the lives of ordinary people? Does geography place more emphasis on natural resources which are market commodities than those which are not? Does music dare to suggest some works are better than others or does it leave all aesthetic judgement to taste? Education is steeped in values.

The idea that we can teach people in a value-neutral way is a pernicious fiction which blinds us to the real challenges of negotiating just which values we are prepared to assert. A more realistic ideal is the same one that governs liberal democracy.

We have to agree of a core set of common values, but we should, whenever possible, avoid including in this core anything which depends upon a contestable, substantive vision of the good life. These values need to be agreed among atheists, agnostics and religious believers. We seek real common ground, not a mythical neutral one.


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