Values Education in England


Professor Lord Alton, October 2010.

Nanpi, China.

Professor Liu Baocheng and Professor Yang Hengda, distinguished guests, it is with great pleasure that I have come here today with my colleague, Mr.Andrew Johnson, headmaster of one of Britain’s leading schools, at the invitation of Stephan Rothlin, for whom I have the greatest admiration.

Educationalists sometimes quote a wise Chinese proverb:  “If you are thinking one year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate the people”.

It is a thought with which I profoundly agree.

As a young man I taught in schools in what we call the voluntary aided sector – that is schools run by the churches. Around 2,300 British schools are run by the Catholic Church and another 3,000 by other churches. 10 % of Britain’s schools are Catholic: 1,723 Catholic primary schools and 352 secondary. In addition there are 17 Catholic sixth form colleges.

Those schools were only possible because of the generosity of previous generations of British Catholics – many of whom were from poor immigrant communities, particularly from Ireland.

Even today, in addition to many other forms of support, parishes contribute around £20 million each year towards the capital costs of church schools; salaries and other costs are paid by the Government. It is a solid partnership which works

There are a further 156 Catholic schools in the independent sector, totally independent of the Government and self financing. Mr.Johnson’s school is one of the most famous; I serve as one of the Governors of that school.

In addition, before entering Parliament I worked in the State sector, served on the city of Liverpool’s Education Committee, and in 1997, the same year that I was appointed to the House of Lords, I became a Professor at Liverpool’s John Moores University; and I am a Visiting Fellow of St.Andrews University in Scotland.  Three of my children are students at university and another is at school.   So, education is close to my heart, and, yes, “if you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate the people.”

The major pieces of legislation which have shaped our education system were passed by Parliament in 1870, 1902, 1944 and 1988.

But education is about more than laws or regulations, and it cannot simply be reduced to academic achievement – important though that is.

Education is about values, or, as I prefer to put it, education is about the cultivation of virtue; the formation of a nation’s citizens; the promotion of the common good.

In Victorian England, during the 19th century, Thomas Arnold said that

“Rather than have it“—he referred to science—”the principal thing in my son’s mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth . . . Surely the one thing needed for a Christian and Englishman to study is a Christian and moral and political philosophy”.

His contemporary, Cardinal John Henry Newman, wrote a treatise on “the idea of a university” and he, too, extolled the importance of developing the character and values of the student:  “You see then, gentlemen, here are two methods of education; the one aspires to be philosophical, the other mechanical; the one rises towards ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external”. Therefore, he said: “It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life—these are . . . the objects of a University”.

A third Victorian, the great novelist, Charles Dickens, famously opened his brilliant and classic novel, Hard Times, with the teacher, Thomas Gradgrind, stating an alternative education philosophy, an approach which Dickens lampooned and despised:  “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them”.

Happily, the ideas of Arnold and Newman rather than the dehumanised rote learning of Thomas Gradgrind are the ones which in the more enlightened English schools are the ones which have prevailed.

But some would argue – and I am among them – that, in recent years, we have been tilting too far towards an over-centralised rigid regime of testing, continuous examination and targeting, as though nothing else will be of any service to our children.

There is a place for education that reaches beyond academic attainment. Young people must have the opportunity to think, inquire, debate and understand the importance of making decisions about their lives and some of the great issues that will affect them and their generation. We can gaze into a crystal ball and imagine what some of those issues will be – ethical dilemmas, moral conundrums, technological and scientific challenges, the rapidly changing pace of living – and world crises, ranging from hunger to global warming, from the control of weapons of mass destruction to the exploitation of finite resources

These profound questions are as important to young people as ensuring that they have high academic attainment at the completion of their education.

Important though it is to put basic levels of attainment in place, there must be scope for a broader view of learning. I agree with the declared objective of the British Government when it states that the purpose of our schools is to “ensure that every child in every school in every community gets the education they need to enable them to fulfil their potential”

Explicit in this declaration is the firm conviction that education is, indeed, about far more than conjugating Latin verbs or understanding quadratic equations. It is about the whole man, the whole woman.

What is important is an acceptance that every child is different and that we target their individual needs and help them to fulfil their potential. To achieve this, the State and educationalists must never forget to honour and involve the parents of children in their education and upbringing.

The European nations, in Protocol 2 of their Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms affirms this principle with great clarity, and it is one to which Britain is a signatory. It declares: “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”.

The family, therefore, is central to the stability, education and upbringing of a child.

Tragically, though, in England, we have witnessed a terrible destruction of the traditional family. Some 800,000 children no longer have contact with the man who fathered them.  Even where fathers are present they are no longer sufficiently involved in the formation of their sons and daughters.

Perhaps I may quote from a finding of the National Fatherhood Initiative–an American organisation–which expresses the matter well:  “We have simply changed our minds about the importance of fathers to the well-being of children and families. We have so truncated the role of fathers to where we now say a good father is someone who provides money … It’s far more than just economic. In fact, the non-economic contributions are more important, things like being a good nurturer, a good disciplinarian, a teacher, a moral instructor. These are things we used to look to fathers to contribute to the well-being of their children”.

In England, for boys aged 12 to 17 the factors most strongly associated with serious or persistent offending can often be traced to the absence of a father. Others boys have a poor relationship with their father, who may be violent or take little interest in them. And other fathers are working such long hours that they cannot give their sons the time they need. All of this has accurately been described as the “Dad Deficit”.

In a survey conducted by Adrienne Katz of 1,400 boys, 13 per cent were found to have low self-esteem, low motivation and low confidence. Boys in that group said that they were uncertain about their responsibilities and depressed about their future.

Twenty per cent of that group had been in trouble with the police; 11 per cent were deeply depressed or suicidal. I should point out that today three out of four suicides in our country are males. One of the group said,“There is no position in society for us to grow into”. Those are significant words.

This is an underclass of young men, often detached from the socialising influences of the family, often believing that they are unfairly excluded from the opportunities of the consumer society. If we want to reduce crime, drug abuse and domestic violence and to strengthen families, we must give these young men back hope and self-confidence. More than any other group, our education system has been failing these young people who desperately need values and a sense of self worth.

So what should we do? How should we educate?

The English author, H. G. Wells, who died in 1946, understood what would happen if we fail to appreciate the role of education in fostering civiliised society, where personal civic responsibility is cultivated in each person:“Maintaining civilisation is a constant race between education and catastrophe”, he declared.

In his book, The City in History (Pelican, 1961), Lewis Mumford perceptively and prophetically saw what the consequences when we fail to promote values and virtue; how the balance of civil society comes to be threatened:

“Before modern man can gain control over the forces that now threaten his very existence, he must resume possession of himself.  This sets the chief mission for the city of the future: that of creating a visible regional and civic structure, designed to make man at home with his deeper self and his larger world, attached to images of human nature and love.

“We must now conceive the city, accordingly, not primarily as a place for business or government, but as an essential organ for expressing and actualising the new human personality.”

Mumford records that when cities were first founded, an old Egyptian scribe counselled their founders to “put the gods in their shrines”. Today, it is the needs of each unique and precious human being which should be put into our shrines and be at the heart of our political activity.

In reality, all the monstrous gods of the ancient world have reappeared – demanding total human sacrifice at their altars: economic systems that create a servile State in which we become dehumanised automatons and zombies, education regimes that become like a fast food outlet rather than places which cultivate humanity; traditional family and community structures sacrificed in the name of progress.

Moloch stands waiting to be appeased on the threshold of his furnace.  The wonder of it is that despite all the enticements, so many remain unwilling to surrender their children to his fires. It is the duty of educationalists to ensure that self knowledge, self government, and self actualisation – rather than economic Gradgrind – becomes the centre of our cities’ activities.

We constantly need to ask ourselves how we will form citizens who are willing to accept responsibilities and duties.

Saint Edith Stein, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, was a German-Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic nun.

At a time when Hitler’s Nazi state was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of Nazism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill, and about the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the state in which they live. She rightly insisted that both society and the state consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities. They are made up of men, women and children
whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real.

These are her words. “The state”, she said, “is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer. And it is their actions that conform to or violate norms and values … the state is just or unjust, protective to those whom it ought to protect, and scrupulous or unscrupulous in its dealings with other states, only insofar as the relevant individual persons have these characteristics. Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals”.

The State, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens. Stein warned that when the two do not coalesce it inevitably leads to conflict:

Education of the citizen should, then, underline the moral significance of self-knowledge – as agents in the way we live and affect others.  Without such an appreciation, we end up justifying our actions by the unthinking assertion that we were “only obeying orders“, or that “It’s what everybody else does”.  In extremity, this leads to the hecatombs of the concentration camps and the nightmare kingdoms of Nazism but the everyday examples are commonplace.

Unless we are able to conceive of ourselves as an agent or agents with regard to how we behave, it will be impossible to develop any sense of responsibility or judgement.  Educating for citizenship is educating us to know ourselves.  Beyond being told that stealing or lying is wrong, we also need to know what it is about them that makes them unacceptable.  Rules must genuinely serve the development of judgement.

First principles would require us to clearly state what we expect of a citizen; that sharing in the common life of a nation or community confers responsibilities and obligations.

If we were to educate for citizenship and to take seriously the civic deficit, we would enshrine the duties of each person: to live peaceably; to participate in civic institutions and the processes of local and national government; to contribute to the resourcing of commonly beneficial institutions; to acquire knowledge and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge in children; to learn respect for the needs of others; to behave ethically; and to appreciate how legitimate rights have been acquired, and to cherish them.

Civil society has become uncivil as modern citizenship has become perceived in terms of rights alone.  This in turn breeds unrealisable demands and a cult of materialism and consumerism.  It is further entrenched in the isolation of individualism and the marginalisation of ethics.  Is it any wonder that society becomes chronically disordered?

Rights and choices are the new civic dogma.  The word ‘choice’ stems from the same Greek root as the word heresy. The brilliant English writer and polemicist, G. K. Chesterton pointedly observed in one of his paradoxes that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose”. The choices we make always carry consequences for others.

In England rights have too often replaced duties as propagandists demand the right to a job, the right to an education, the right to a child, the right to drugs, the right to pornography, the right to kill, the right to die.  Displaced are the ancient duties to work, to acquire knowledge, to care for family, to cherish and to respect life.  Choices are no longer conditioned by consequences.  The delicate balance of civic society is thus broken.

We need a greater concern with how civil society is made, how it decays and how it might be preserved.  Civic education would be a sine qua non.

If a civil society is to withstand the ambitions of those who wish to usurp it, fundamental shared principles must be widely held and understood in the political community and beyond.

A nation or community will not survive for long if its civil structures are corrupted or decaying or if its rulers and citizens do not pursue civic virtues.  A respect for law, a sense of personal responsibility, public spirit and munificence, firmness of purpose, discernment and foresight, perseverance, and a sense of duty might be chief among these civic qualities.

In the construction of civil societies we must build on custom and on virtue rather than political ideology.

Among the ancients the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is best known for his belief that everyone should pursue virtue and for his upholding of communal existence, or koinonia. The koinonia was not about civic structures of government but about the qualities in mankind which made civic co-existence a possibility. In “Politics” he wrote that we are “not like solitary pieces in chequers.” He said “aidos, or shame, would attach to those who refused to play their part. In ancient Rome, Cicero held that “the whole glory of virtue is in activity.”

Aristotle’s ancient virtues remain for me the key to building a civil society:

Justice

Wisdom

Temperance

Courage

Magnanimity

Tolerance

Munificence

Prudence; and

Gentleness

As St.Edith Stein insisted, how a person acts as a moral agent affects everything from how they behave towards their neighbours and their environment to how they uphold ethical standards in politics or commerce. We begin building a civil society by our own actions towards one another – by our willingness to serve rather than to dominate and by our willingness to embrace values which run counter to those which may prevail throughout mainstream society.

Christ offered the virtues of faith, hope and charity (the love of God in its original meaning) and encourages us to “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (St.Luke 6:31).

This is in close accord with the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who promulgated a social philosophy which largely revolves around the concept of ren“compassion” or “loving others.” For Confucius, such concern for others is demonstrated through the practice of forms of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;” “Since you yourself desire standing then help others achieve it, since you yourself desire success then help others attain it.” He teaches that such altruism can be accomplished only by those who have learned self-discipline.

If such indispensable virtues – which united East and West – are not passed from generation to generation, civic fabric is bound to crumble.

The virtues are acquired by practice. They are internal qualities perfecting the interior persona and, thus deeply affecting society as a whole.

Education and formation of the masses must enrich the intellect, cultivate virtues and good tendencies, engender a spontaneous uprightness of the will, and shape instincts and conscience.

The wolves are always waiting at the door, waiting to destroy civil society and education is our best defence.

The bad comes to pass more frequently than the good. All the more reason to create political and civil structures and institutions which are organised in accordance with the order of nature and justice and centre on the common good.

Through our English education system we teach that laws are only truly laws if they are just – and they are binding in conscience only if they are just; that real, not feigned justice, is the foundation of authority in the law, as it is for stability and peace within the community.

In many of our schools we teach that the common good and a strong civil society require the progress of social justice; the organic development of institutions of law; the participation in more and more extensive ways of people in political life; the creation of conditions which really do offer each an equal opportunity to bring their gifts to fruit and which rewards the efforts of its labour for common use; and the cultivation of that inner liberty which gives mastery over self; and, finally, a love of knowledge and truth.

In her book The De-moralisation of Society, from Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. Gertrude Himmlfarb (IEA Health & Welfare Unit 1995), reminds us that England’s Victorians focused on good character and personal responsibility.  They spoke not so much about values but of virtues – a more demanding test.

It is a pity that values have become interchangeable with virtues.

The political philosopher, Leo Strauss, was right to muse on the mystery of: “how a word which used to mean the manliness of man has come to mean the chastity of women”.

Friedrich Nietzsche was, in the 1880s, the first to use “values” in the modern sense of describing collective attitudes and beliefs.

But alongside virtue, value is a weak word.  It can mean anything people want it to mean, which is why it works so well against a backdrop of syncretism and relativism.  Everything becomes neutral and non-judgemental; nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

In England we talk about education being based on the “3Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic – “R” purely in a phonetic sense! but there are two further phonetic “Rs”, right and wrong. We need all five of these Rs to successfully educate the whole man or whole woman.

The English philosopher, T.H.Green rightly believed that the citizen becomes a “grown man” when he appreciates that freedom is about more than the right to get drunk or not to impede another’s freedom: it is about the cultivation of the best in self and in the wider community, with others, to achieve the common good.

And, Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century statesman, counselled that a liberal society required a moral citizenry. When internal self-control was developed through conscience, character, habit or religion, it would reduce the need for the state to resort to punitive or coercive practices: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites” (Burke, A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 11 January, 1791, in Works II, 555);and he said that “Manners are more important that laws” (Letters on a Regicide Peace, 1796, Works V, 208).

Learning then about self help and duty become two of the corner-stones of a strong society and they, in turn come from the marriage of classical and religious virtues.

Many intellectuals have begun to appreciate the consequences of this loss of virtue and disconnect with traditional religious faith.

They are beginning to address the polarities of community versus individual, rights versus responsibilities, free markets versus social cohesion, cohabitation versus the family, public duty versus private gain, expediency versus principle.

It is not simply nostalgia which is driving them to question the grasping acquisitiveness, selfishness and violence which are the hallmarks of contemporary Britain.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.  History is a great teacher. Today, October 18th, is the 150th anniversary of one of the most sordid and shameful moments in British and French history – when our countries, as part of their collaboration in the Opium Wars – burnt to the ground, the Yuanmingyuan, the summer palace in Beijing. These actions still poison the political relationships  of our two nations but they reveal a mentality which is still pervasive in a domestic setting. Our task must surely be too heal history, to build solid relationships, and to tame the savageness of man whenever and however it manifests itself.

It is not sentimentality which desires a more decent, kindlier, orderly setting in which to live and to rear children. It goes much deeper than that.

The question for England has become whether it is possible to create a gentler society which manifests the attributes of Judaeo-Christian belief while discarding the belief itself.  Many of us believe that civic order may be incapable of repair without a new encounter with religious belief.

Might it not be true that faith is not just a decorative detail – a modular bracket on which to hang an ancient deity, but the glue which holds our frail furniture together? God is not just an incidental, an apostrophe in a longer sentence. And many of my countrymen agree: a survey discovered that a survey 71% of people believed in God and that 64% defined themselves as religious.

More plausibly, Civil Society may not believe as it once did, and is living off some of its capital in a certain ambiguity, a compromise between faith and its absence.  Honest doubt hardly inhibits society.  In a curious way, a balanced society needs both faith and doubt; and tolerance and respect of one another is crucial to harmony and stability.

My own university, where I hold a chair, is a secular institution. Twelve years ago it gave me a free hand to establish a Foundation for Citizenship – to promote the values about which I have been speaking.

Among the challenges I listed were:

*  the increasing isolation of the individual within the context of   the modern urban environment.

*  the fracturing of community bonds and their corresponding effects on the relationship of individuals to the state

*  the lack of understanding abut civic responsibilities and duties in the democratic state

*  the lack of a co-ordinated approach towards corporate

responsibility and involvement in the community

*  the failure to address at any level of the curriculum the role of citizens and what responsible citizenship in modern society really means

To meet these challenges we set out to promote the development of ‘ethical’ graduates who will have a clearer understanding of responsibilities as citizens in or out of work; to develop an ‘ethos’ of citizenship in the wider community; to promote the need for greater responsibility in the   corporate sector. We have staged nearly 100 public lectures ( http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/97603.htm ); and to promote an award scheme in schools to recognise acts of good citizenship. These awards are now used in nearly 1,000 schools in the North West of England ( http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/97597.htm ).

These are small initiatives but they are a practical attempt to meet some of the challenges which I have described.  Educating young people to be “men and women for others” to be good citizens is not then just an incidental; it is one of the pillars on which their formation should be based.

Let me conclude by underlining both the universality of these challenges and their timelessness.

In 1818 Thomas Jefferson – who founded the University of Virginia, and became the third President of the United States – set out some of the University’s objectives.  These included “giving every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbours and his country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by others….To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend….And, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue  to others, and of happiness within themselves”.

Jefferson’s objectives were the ancient goals of Aristotle, Cicero and Confucius; and it is from these deep wells we must draw fresh water as we educate for the next one hundred years ahead.  Thank you for the invitation to share these thoughts with you today.