A version of this essay was publishedin educational Horizons Spring 1994.

©1994 Edward G. Rozycki

Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice, 
or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature,
or in what other way?-- Plato, Meno

reedited 8/17/11

See also, What Is Worth Knowing About Values?



Meno's question still awaits an answer, despite the fact that so-called "values education" is a part of almost every public school's curriculum. A long-pondered theoretically complex relationship between behavioral dispositions, e.g. honesty, courage, preference, prejudice, etc. and the behavior evidencing them has been reduced in vulgar educational parlance to talk about "values."

This sure makes for easy problem-solving for those remote from the classroom. Just as "education", plain and simple, was the panacea for late 19th Century social ills such as homelessness, decay of the family, and youth crime; so today, we are promised, will the curriculum magic of "values education" alleviate ethnic conflict, lack of student scholastic interest, and school violence.

The tenuous relationship between values and behavior is hardly better illustrated than by the horrific example of Adolph Eichmann, a major perpetrator of Hitler's Final Solution who nonetheless was said to be an above average scholar of Judaism, fluent in both Yiddish and Hebrew.

The basic fallacies of values education are the assumptions that:

a. the relationship between values taught and values acquired is relatively simple; and that

b. the schools have sufficient resources to inculcate the desired dispositions.

One of the few times I ever found myself agreeing with William Bennett was while I watched a videotape of him arguing with a member of the New York City School Board about whether schools should attempt to teach values. They were talking past each other. By "value" Bennett was invoking a millennia-old concept of deep-seated disposition to action. By "teaching values" the School Board member was referring to developing a tolerance of certain topics for classroom discussion.

Bennett was quite correct that "value" in its traditional sense is not inculcated without dealing with students in ways that are beyond the jurisdiction of the public schools. Within the confines of his neologistic conception of "value" the School Board member was correct in suggesting that values (in Bennett's sense) can be made vulnerable to change by bringing up for discussion what might otherwise be seen as taboo in the home, i.e. by "teaching values" a la mode. The point at issue in their discussion is not important here. However, the question about the relationship between a disposition and behavioral manifestations of it remains a difficult one, no matter what some educational entrepreneurs are ready to assure us.

If, instead of talking about "values" in the abstract, we look at items real people value or could value, both positively and negatively, we can begin to understand the obscurity of the linkage between value-dispositions and behavior. Let's start with fairly simple dispositions such as: preferring coffee to tea, liking Jay Leno, disliking chocolate. These are somewhat morally trivial compared to good citizenship, courage, moral responsibility or devotion to truth, the sorts of values one would imagine schools should occupy themselves with. But even with something as trivial as, say, preferring coffee to tea, identifying behavior that counts as evidence for such a disposition is problematic.

But this difficulty is part of our common, everyday knowledge and requires no doctorate in psychology to recognize it. For example, suppose we hypothesize that Harry prefers coffee to tea. None of the following behavior need count as evidence against the hypothesis:

1. Harry is not drinking coffee now (or at any particular time.)
2. Harry is drinking tea now (or at some particular time.)
3. Despite coffee being available, Harry is drinking tea.
We recognize that a variety of conditions might intervene to prevent Harry's expression of preference. Among others, these come easily to mind.
1. Harry may be asleep.

2. Harry is having trouble swallowing until he gets his tonsils out.

3. Harry may not have time right now to drink a cup of coffee.

4. Harry may not know coffee is available.

5. Harry may have come to believe that coffee is dangerous to his health whereas tea is not.

We can generalize from this to recognize that certain conditions enable the expression of a value. They are knowledge, ability, opportunity, and priority. If one of these conditions is lacking, a value may not be expressed in behavior.(1)

Will those who want values taught in schools undertake to assure that these conditions are met so we might verify the inculcation of an given value? Can you imagine the training procedures required to inculcate courage? What about honesty? What would one do to provide conditions of knowledge, ability, opportunity, and priority? Would such a restructuring of the teaching environment remain within the scope of the school? Or would it have to encroach radically on parental authority?

Priority is a tough one. We would have to know many of the other values of each subject and their relative ranking in order to construct a test situation so that competing values did not interfere.

This is not to say that the schools don't teach kids values. They do by the day-in-day-out routines and practices that often conflict with the official rationalizations they are given. Consider, for example, a situation I witnessed in a high school I once taught in.

Feeling that school spirit was low, the principal has seniors and juniors brought to the auditorium for a pep rally the day before a major football game. It is 8:00 A.M. At first, the groggy students -- particularly the young men --are unenthusiastic. But as trumpets blare, drums boom and female cheerleaders somersault, interest is aroused. Finally, the whole auditorium is on its feet shouting, "Go, team, go!" "Go, team, go!"

The frenzy of school spirit is universal. The exuberance is deafening. Then the bell rings for change of class.

The students continue to chant, oblivious of the bell. "Go, team, go!" "Go, team, go!" The vice-principal in charge of assemblies runs onto the stage and waves his arms to quiet the students. The students continue to chant, oblivious of the VP. "Go, team, go!" "Go, team, go!"

The VP then turns up the volume of the PA system and yells at the students to shut up and sit down. His thundering commands, electronically amplified to the point of auditory pain, eventually overpower the crowd.

Red-faced, he tells the students that he is disgusted by their blatant disregard for school procedures. "That bell is a signal for you to quiet down and pass on to the next class," he scolds as he pounds the rostrum. The students shuffle out, no doubt having learned something about the values of school spirit and respect for school procedure.

It is a lot easier to undo virtue than to teach it.



1. For more on enabling conditions for values, see E. G. Rozycki, "Pluralism and Rationality: the Limits of Tolerance" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/RatPlurTol.html#Valuing