Values Neutrality
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Values Neutrality

Terence Lovat, IVET Patron
Emeritus Professor, The University of Newcastle, Australia
Senior Research Fellow, Oxford University, UK

Written on 28/07/14

I write in a week that has seen a commercial airliner shot out of the sky over Eastern Ukraine, taking 298 innocent lives including 39 Australians heading home, countless lives lost in Gaza, mostly civilian, and similar atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Kenya. These are merely the ones I can recall and recount. It is also the week in which my daughter asked me to sit with her, watch and analyse the movie, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, a movie that poignantly illustrates the ingrained potential for vicious human imagination to translate into inhumanity of the grossest order.

They are all events that bring home the dire need for positive and targeted values education. The frightening thing is that these events are not devoid of values, values-neutral as it were. If one looks closely, values are indeed at their heart. It is not mindlessness so much as disordered values that are driving the hate that explains them. It is this realization that positions the ‘values neutral curriculum’ stance as absurd. There is no such thing as values neutrality; values will be and are accrued as we go through life, and especially when exposed to ideologies devoted to division and conquer. When combined with tragic pasts, these values invariably tend to hatred, conflict and destruction.

Darcia Narvaez, in her neuroscientific account of moral growth in the Triune Ethics Theory, shows how the highest developmental features of the human brain are, at one and the same time, vicious imagination and engagement imagination, one tending to fracture and the other to peace and harmony. The lesson is that we cannot leave education towards the latter to chance. The so-called values neutral curriculum is a menace, a relic of a nineteenth century liberalism that no longer applies, if indeed it ever did.

The lessons are now all around us that educators must take a positive stance in instilling and facilitating engagement imagination. This entails helping students to understand themselves and their past and to come to terms with both; it entails facilitating experiences that confront and break down the kind of vicious imagination that too often results from ignorance, stereotyping and demonizing the ‘other’. Values education of this kind is neither a luxury nor for the margins of the curriculum. It is the most important thing that education can and must do.

Furthermore, research shows that, as a bonus, when values education drives the entire curriculum, the spin-off effects are seen in every dimension of the school, including in behaviour management, calm and steady environment and academic diligence. It is not a case of ‘either/or’ so much as ‘both/and’ when it comes to academic achievement and personal and social values inculcation. Indeed, the research shows that the most effective way to ensure academic development, especially among the middle to lower ground natural achievers, is to provide the safe and reassuring learning environment essential to personal and social values formation.