Everyone's moral dilemma

If children are to be taught values, shouldn't we all have a view? By Antonia Feuchtwanger A coterie of experts should not dictate educational values, argues Antonia Feuchtwanger
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The Independent Online
Never mind the alleged death of God. Never mind the trouble John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant had in cobbling together a set of moral principles based on reason instead of fear of hellfire. Never mind the little difficulties created by people like Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, even before we reached the awkward questions of the 1960s. The 159-member National Forum for Values in Education and the Community knows What We Believe.

Give or take a norm or two, our shared values are as follows: we value "each person as a unique being of intrinsic worth" and potential, with responsibility for living according to a moral code; we value "relationships and the mutual respect, honesty, trustworthiness and loyalty that we find lived within them", which entails respecting the beliefs, life, privacy and property of others; and we prize "respect for truth, human rights, the law, justice for all, collective endeavour for the common good" along with the family in particular "as a source of love, care, permanence and support". The environment gets a category of its own because of the "physical support and aesthetic and spiritual inspiration" it gives us.

It's a weighty list coming from a group which included the editors of Cosmopolitan and Just 17, bibles of the sex-and-shopping school of human fulfilment - but then, neither of them made it to the forum's meetings. Last week those who did attend - teachers, journalists, worried parents, Muslim leaders, rabbis and clergy and an assortment of others - agreed a framework for the moral code to be taught to the next generation. They had been asked by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to look at whether schools were promoting the spiritual, moral and cultural development of pupils, as required by the 1988 Education Reform Act

"Could do better" was the near immediate verdict. The harder task was to agree on the values, attitudes and behaviour that should be taught. Their final report will go to the curriculum body next month, which, after a consultation period, will slap it on the desk of the Education Secretary in the form of recommendations for inclusion in a compulsory curriculum.

Such a grandiose project would seem to need thorough public support. And, with no disrespect to the teachers, teacher trainers, youth workers, school governors, magazine editors, church people and, it seems, anybody the curriculum body's officials could think of who was interested, should not the names of those charged with restoring moral certainty to a nihilist world have been announced with a bit more pizzazz?

The most surprising thing about last week's leaked draft report was the news that the forum had, more or less, agreed on a set of values, no mean feat with competing ideologies and divinities. First to go, then, was the idea that there could be agreement on the source of authority for moral rules, whether divine, cultural or otherwise. Then there had to be some fancy footwork around such areas as the customary position of women in certain societies - such as Islamic ones. Were these values or cultural details? If members were to agree a common list of values they would have to be the second. Full marks, however, for not retreating into the popular relativism that rejects talk of right and wrong in favour of being "non-judgemental" about "subjective preferences".

Baroness Warnock, the moral philosopher and former headmistress who chaired the 1985 committee of inquiry into the ethics of assisted reproduction, is delighted. "After all, there is a sizeable number of human values which are shared. There's that great Kingsley Amis remark in Lucky Jim that 'Nice things are nicer than nasty things' - and cruelty and violence are among the nasty things. Whether you are from Asia or the Caribbean or wherever, you can agree with that.

"I'm not too bothered that there are people who have different sets of values. It's the people who look at you amazed if you even think of making a distinction between right and wrong who concern me."

The Rt Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, currently worried about the Tories' "Blairelzebub" poster campaign, is pleased too. "It's possible for people to agree about morality up to a point, whether they have a religion or not and there is no doubt society is ripe for a debate about moral values."

A debate maybe, but an authoritative (and compulsory) wish list of values? Is this a job for schools? There will certainly be resistance from teachers both punch-drunk from the last set of National Curriculum changes and accustomed over years to being neutral and non-judgemental about "life- style choices". Even the forum seems uncomfortable. If its list shapes the curriculum, teachers are going to have to say out loud that benefit fraud, for example, or tax fiddling, is wrong, even though sitting in front of them are children from families where such behaviour is a way of life.

And, the forum points out, parents and society have frequently failed to support teachers' promotion of values.

Mary Warnock does not accept this ."It has always been a teacher's job to inculcate tradition and values. That is not a new task. If you go into teaching you have got to be prepared to take this responsibility to display and insist on certain virtues."

That has to be right. Of course families have the first responsibility for instilling values, but everyone is agreed that many families fail to do so. Everyone, from Hillary Clinton to The End of History man, Francis Fukuyama, to the latest "communitarian" thinkers, is stressing the importance of institutions in transmitting standards of behaviour. But don't expect cheers from the staff room.

The fault, maybe, is in the question - what values should we teach our children? - which the forum has answered by dividing them into bland categories such as "values in the context of self" and "values in the context of relationships". Who would want, or be able, to teach that? Much more inspiring might be to consider the characteristics we should encourage in children if they are to live good lives - honesty, compassion and self-discipline.

There is considerable help for teachers here. During teacher training, an introduction to how to think about ideas of right and wrong by looking at the approaches of Kant and Mill would give teachers the intellectual weapons without which morality lessons will be just expressions of woolly prejudice.

Talk of virtue and vice may sound specifically religious but its usefulness was newly rediscovered by moral philosophers in the 1980s. In After Virtue, for example, the neo-Aristotelian Alasdair MacIntyre suggested identifying the dispositions that good people generally have. Inculcating virtues also helps get round knotty questions such as "Is it ever right to lie?". It's hard to formulate rules that work for all cases but people able to argue why truthfulness and compassion matter will have a better chance of doing the right thing than those who have learnt a list of values.

"We need old-fashioned moral stories - fables where virtue is rewarded, or perhaps Robert the Bruce and his spider, or Florence Nightingale for her persistence, although unfortunately she was otherwise a horrible person," says Ms Warnock.

Fiction, surely, could yield good teaching materials - look at the struggles of Elinor in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility or Dorothea in George Eliot's Middlemarch to live according to their principles - stories now hugely popular in filmed form.

As for contemporary displays of virtue, children themselves say they look up to athletes. Despite Olympic disappointments, that's a cue for applauding determination and self-sacrifice - and condemning greed and cheating. Nelson Mandela's long struggle makes him, unusually, a global hero but one powerful motive for good behaviour is the thought that anything else would be a betrayal of what your family, community or nation stands for. As Michael Sandel, American author of an acclaimed republican-communitarian book, Democracy's Discontent, points out: "The love of humanity is a noble sentiment, but most of the time we live our lives by smaller solidarities." We need local heroes, British ones, too.

Parents who care about what their children are taught should be involved in this debate, rather than leaving it entirely to self-styled experts and their lobbies. Despite its claim to work "bottom-up" rather than prescribe "top-down", the forum's existence was, until last week, a secret to most people other than its members. Here, then, is the address: c/o School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Newcombe House, 45 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JB. And it needs to hear what you think.