1999 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 3/24/19

Apprehensive about Dick and Jane lying, cheating, stealing, even murdering, many Americans are demanding that educators teach values: but what is it they want the kids to know? There are at least three types of knowing: "knowing that," "knowing how" and "knowing to;" and these distinctions are not mere hair-splitting. They are directly tied to what will happen if educators commit to further emphasizing the teaching of values.

Teaching Values and "Knowing That"

"Knowing that" is knowledge of facts -- what cognitive researchers call declarative knowledge. Some examples are: "knowing that" Columbus sailed from Spain, or that electrons have negative charges. Getting kids to "know that" about values is no more difficult than getting them to learn any other fact. If this is values education, the task is comparatively easy. Presuming rudimentary community consensus on what is "right" and "wrong," pupils would only have to learn enough to pass a test like this:

True or False?

1. Lying is making false statements with intent to deceive.

2. Telling the truth is better than lying.

3. Stealing is taking the property of others without permission or right.

4. Stealing is wrong.

Notice students only have to know what lying, stealing, and so forth, amount to, and that they should be regarded as wrong or immoral.

The desirability of "knowing that" type values education depends on how many kids lie, steal or are destructive and cruel because they actually don't know what they are and that they are wrong. How many kids are like that? Some, surely; but it is hard to believe significant numbers have missed these messages. Even the most hardened delinquents probably know the right and wrong of things. They just think these classifications are for "fools," or at least wrong for them given their "unique" situation in life. Consider this actual court statement of a juvenile murderer which was quoted on my local news. "Sure I shot him. What else could I do? He wouldn't give me the money."

Other, more dangerous, kids know that stealing, destructive cruelty, and so forth, are wrong, and that is precisely why they do it. Their dominant passion is destructiveness. Consider Charles Manson; John Wayne Gacey, or "Son of Sam;" the standard interpretation of their behavior is that they are mentally ill or at least see the world differently and then do what is "right for them." But if we allow for the possibility of wickedness, they may, instead, know right from wrong and revel in choosing the wrong. Their sense of self-worth and ability to escape their own insignificance may depend on how evil they succeed in being. In other words, wickedness validates their existence.

Give this sort of person "know that" type values education and they simply add new wrong things to their "to-do" list. And at this very minute parents in every corner of this land are parenting in ways that inadvertently teach their children that they are evil people. Over and over they tell their kids, "You are no good! You never have been any good, and you never will be any good!" Hammer that home to a child a few hundred times across a developmentally critical span of years and it is a very bad idea to give them details about what bad people do.

Will kids be positively influenced by instruction that stresses the "knowing that" dimension of values? No, more facts about values will not deliver the civil society the values education advocates are after.

Teaching Values and "Knowing How"

"Knowing how" involves what researchers call procedural knowledge: knowledge of how to do something. For example, "knowing how" to be honest involves knowing that if you find someone's wallet, you should return it with money and credit cards intact. In such an instance, that's how to be honest.

"Knowing how" is probably a big part of what values education advocates think educators should do. Pupils do need assistance in developing values "know how." Like learning to play the piano, ethical decision making requires knowing how. But we should we assume that when benighted kids know "how to" be nicer, kinder and more decent, they will be? Not by a long shot.

How many kids lie because they literally don't know how to tell the truth; how many cheat because they don't know how to be honest? Surely, very few do. Some might engage in mayhem because they don't know how to otherwise resolve conflicts -- the point of training kids in conflict resolution. But a lot of juveniles who turn to mayhem know both "how to" be good and "how to" resolve conflicts peaceably. They just don't want to. Why is that? They enjoy inflicting pain on others. It may be one of the few things they are good at. Moreover, it is often profitable and the risks are relatively low.

In the case of youth gangs, strife even is indispensable to the perpetuation of the gang. Struggle defines the group, revitalizes its traditions and provides a way of getting information about the strength of potentially lethal enemies. In short, gang conflict is often functional. That is why gang youths with enough sense to figure out the "how to" of avoiding conflict, still don't do it. It would undermine the group that gives their lives perverted meaning. Values "know how" won't change that behavior either.

Teaching Values and "Knowing To"

Now let's examine values education using our last type of knowing, "knowing to." This is the type of knowledge that leads to action. A person who "knows to" can be counted upon to do particular things in specifiable circumstances. If, for instance, an individual "knows to" be honest, they will not cheat even if they can get away with it, they will return lost belongings regardless of their value, and so forth.

"Knowing to" is the type of knowledge West Point's famous honor code is designed to promote. When it comes to honor, Academy officials are not interested in cadets merely "knowing that" or "knowing how." Their intent is to graduate cadets who "know to" be honorable even when they could easily get away with lying, cheating, and so forth.

A surprising number of the nation's values education promoters seem to assume that kids who "know that" and "know how" will automatically "know to." They could not be more mistaken. Many people who "know that" honesty is the best policy, and "knowing how" to be honest, still are dishonest. (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton come to mind.) There is a quantum leap from "knowing that" and "knowing how," to "knowing to."

Generally, youngsters develop "know to" knowledge about values only when the important people in their lives live that way. And the best way for educators to really help pupils "know to" act more morally is for those self-same educators to conduct themselves more decently. Consider the Chicago teacher who was shot while protecting his students and now finds himself abandoned in his application for Workmen's Compensation by the Chicago Board of Education because protecting pupils "was not part of his job description." In taking that action the Board taught values to Chicago school kids, but was the lesson what they wanted to teach?

Summing Up

Sermons and how-to instructions are largely worthless when it comes to teaching values, Children learn what they live. So if we want kids to act more morally, adults must act more ethically themselves. That's real values education. The rest is pious nonsense.