A WILL FOR VALUES
Immanuel Kant was asked by Sulzer, one of his contemporaries, why moral instruction “although containing much that is convincing for the reason, yet accomplishes so little.” The difference between Kant’s days and ours is that such questions are rarely asked.
I remember working with a group of authors on producing a series of ‘values education’ books. All of them were very sincere and earnest about the cause, being convinced that indifference to values -- or being values-neutral -- is a major lacuna in the current practice of education. But we came up, repeatedly, against a roadblock. My fellow authors, true to the prevailing approach to values education, were pre-occupied exclusively with expounding values. They assumed that ignorance of values was the only problem, whereas I was convinced that the key problem -- the one that frustrates the beneficial outcome of values education -- was leaving the will of students un-addressed and under-developed in respect of practising values.
To me the problem was two-fold. Ignorance was certainly part of it. But knowledge by itself is insufficient in respect of practising values. The will to act according to what one knows to be good and right is the other part.
Knowledge of values inclines a person towards them. To know is to desire or to favour. Where ignorance prevails, inclination stays unborn. But to be inclined to act in a certain fashion is not quite the same as being able to do so. The latter involves the will of the agent of action. It is at the level of will that the inclination to act morally gets empowered or thwarted. Sadly, the need to educate and empower the will of students to practise values they know is overlooked in the present approach to values education. Not surprisingly, values education fails to deliver, aggravating cynicism about its feasibility and usefulness.
In his reply to Sulzer, Kant identified disinterestedness as the main flaw in all efforts to promote the values-formation of children. Values, according to Kant, must be practised for their own sake; and not for the sake of the advantages or gains they may yield. Kant would, for example, disagree that ‘honesty is the best policy’. He would say that the choice to behave honestly should not be a matter of policy. It should be a way of life. One should be honest, even if being honest presages to be costly.
If honesty is valued for its policy-merits, it is unlikely that anyone would be consistently honest. Honesty becomes, then, a subset of opportunism, an exercise in counting gain and loss. This is, ironically, immoral in respect of morality. Such an approach is sure to fail in the face of trials and temptations.
Consequences are of two kinds: immediate and long-term. In any reckoning of consequences, by way of ‘policy’, it is only the short-term consequences that are reckoned. Long-term consequences are necessarily out of the zone of reckoning at the threshold of a moral choice. They unfold only over a period of time. So, honesty as a policy gets hitched to immediacy. And immediacy -- or obsession with short-term benefits and advantages -- is the seed of corruption. Values stand no chance of being pursued and practised consistently, if one cannot look beyond immediate benefits. It is the willingness to compromise one’s gains and advantages for the sake of upholding a value that makes one’s commitment to it authentic.
So, values must be deemed ends in themselves. The problem, then, is to convince a young mind why this should be done. It is a basic principle in behavioural psychology that animals repeat what is pleasurable and profitable and avoid what is painful and disadvantageous. Human beings, as mere animals, cannot, therefore, be expected to stick to values unless they are educated to be better than animals. Instinctive awareness of, and preference for profit, and avoidance of loss, are animal-like. The very purpose of values education is to enable young people to rise above the level of animal behaviour. All values, therefore, must stand necessarily on disinterestedness; or, treating values as ends in themselves.
Caught, not taught
The norm I have outlined above underlies the cliché, “Values are caught, not taught”. The limitation in ‘teaching’ values is that teaching limits itself to imparting knowledge. A teacher can only make a student know -- or, more accurately, know about -- values. Such knowledge, in the very nature of it, excludes the critically important factor of training and empowering the will of the pupil. When values are ‘caught’ rather than ‘taught,’ the will-factor is addressed.
But it is so in theory. The formation of will is not a matter of random exposures to sporadic role-models. Role-models help; but, in our times, inspiring role-models helpful for values-formation in children, are hard to come by. If anything, our children are exposed to negative role-models -- instances of those who thrive by flouting values and principles. In such a context, the assumption that your child will ‘catch’ values is far-fetched.
Yet, your child’s values-formation is crucially important for the child, for you and for the society. It is because disinterestedness in the practice of values has given way to expediency -- that is, doing only what is profitable -- that parents suffer neglect and are abandoned by their children in old age. Parents are valued so long as they contribute in cash or kind. When they cease to, it seems to be sensible, under the present outlook on life, to put them away and be rid of encumbrances. Not many realize that life pays back to us in the coins with which we transacted its business.
The point I wish to make here is that parents should not palm-off the values-formation of their children wholly to teachers. Teachers are severely restricted in their roles in this regard. They can only provide knowledge in a context that is removed from life. Over-burdened as they are with routine work, they cannot be expected to improvise experiential contexts from which values may be caught. Such training can be attempted only within durations of time over which consequences of moral choices unfold gradually.
Parents are in a better position to take on this responsibility. Parent-child relationship is situated, unlike its pedagogic counterpart, in the life-world of children in their formative years. Parents and children experience life together in a way that teachers and students do not. Most households function, alas, on sheer expediency. The strange thing is this: there is no parent who does not desire that his or her ward be values-nourished. Yet, there aren’t many parents who provide their children with a domestic ambience that is values-informed. This must change. The key responsibility in parenting is not getting one’s child into the most ‘prestigious’ school within reach. It is to lay the foundation for the character-formation of children at home.
Question of rights
I am concerned that the general outlook we have developed is unhelpful to the education of the will of students in respect of practising values. Western notions about the ‘rights’ of children -- while the intention is sensible -- hold a serious problem. Neither teachers nor parents are left free to address the sensitive task of educating the will of students. The practical problem here is that a certain measure of ‘coercion’ is inevitable in educating the will. It is a problematic thing in this regard to draw a line with any measure of certitude. How far is a parent or teacher to go in this task? ‘Will’ cannot be educated without checking it. This involves correction. Of course, corporal punishment must be avoided. But we do our children no good by investing them with outlandish rights like protection against coercions of every kind. Such prescriptions invert roles, investing children with all rights and leaving teachers of with next to nothing.
I can understand how this has come to be the norm. Teachers, laden with quantitative and qualitative burdens in respect of the work they do, tend to be ‘harsh’ often out of exasperation. Among them are those who are apt to be callous and insensitive. They inflict harm on children. So, guidelines are developed to ‘protect’ children against likely excesses by teachers. While this strengthens the learning milieu in one respect, it weakens it in respect of another. I am inclined to think that, on the balance, we have lost rather than gained in the bargain. Teachers are becoming defensive and demoralized. That cannot be good news for education.
It could make a big difference, if parents become active partners with teachers in values-educating children. Parents, as of now, tend to side with their children in the event of any unpleasantness developing at school. This happens without parents exercising due diligence on the factual merits of situations. This doesn’t help. Parents have to walk the extra-mile to empower teachers in taking enlightened care of their children. And this may have to be done, at times, in ways that might seem, for the time being, harsh towards children.
The value that parents need to practise -- which can then be ‘caught’ by their children -- is that of respecting teachers and having faith in them. If this is acknowledged as a ‘value’, it should be deemed, Immanuel Kant would say, as an end in itself. Respecting teachers, that is, should not be contingent on their conforming to our ideas about how a teacher should treat children. A large margin of charity should be left for the possibility -- in judging teachers -- that they could have considerations and compulsions that remain hidden from our view. This needs to be buttressed by the time-old faith that a teacher acts out of his/her sense of what is in the best interests of pupils. Of course, there will always be exceptions to this norm. An article of faith should be held on to in spite of exceptions and not rejected because of them; just as we don’t proscribe driving just because street accidents happen now and then. Accidents are exceptions. And exceptions are inadequate bases for formulating prescriptions.