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Bland, politically correct values

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 12 September 2006


The Federal government plans to spend $29.7 million on promoting values education in our schools. These plans are outlined in a document available on the web entitled National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools (pdf 184KB). The reason for this initiative is not explained in this document but one can only guess that enough influential people are convinced that our society is going to hell in a hand-basket because our young people do not know right from wrong. The idea is that if only we could teach the young values then our society will again be set on firm foundations.

Anxiety about the character formation of the young goes back to the early ages of most civilisations. What makes our situation any different? The difference is that, as in all examples of cultural breakdown, the stories and myths that are at the centre of that culture are gradually forgotten. Cultures survive when those stories and myths describe the human reality and when they are rehearsed with the young.

The central stories and myths for us come from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the decline of the church means that these stories are no longer rehearsed with the young. Indeed, the separation between church and state almost demands that they are not, and our insistence on giving equal air time to all religious traditions further alienates them from us.

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My first response to the National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools was that it looks like a massive dismissal of the much touted separation between church and state. While any influence of the church on the state is loudly protested, it seems that when the state encroaches on the business of the church we hear hardly a whimper. For is this not what is happening?

The document states that “Schooling provides a foundation for young Australians’ intellectual, physical, social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development”. As the influence of the church further weakens in our society it seems that governments feel duty bound to pick up the pieces. They ignore the fact that the church is the bearer of a long history of thought and experience concerned with what it means to be human otherwise known as the spiritual.

But what does government do when it tries to fill the gap? Reading this document is like reading many documents composed by well meaning institutions in that it is peppered with words whose origin lies in various sociological, psychological and educational movements. This is the kind of document written by a committee with every “stakeholder” putting in their bit. Concern for students self esteem, resilience, responsibility, compassion, caring, fair play and so on are apparent.

This is the cherry picker approach to ethics and the good life. There is no cohesion: there is no underlying narrative that illustrates the nature of our life in the world. This is the sort of document that no one in their right mind could object to. It is all about “good practice”, what could be better? Of course the separation between church and state is firmly adhered to; no mention is made to the Judeo-Christian tradition or to any religious tradition.

The tragedy of all this is that trying to teach the young to be good will either produce pious individuals who think they know right from wrong and this will cripple their moral compasses or, in rebellion, it will produce the anarchist who knows that morality is a poor substitute for passion.

Managerialism has already produced a righteous language of its own that ensures that the speaker is “appropriate” and “committed” (two of Don Watson’s weasel words). What will it be like if students swallow this tripe? Caring and sharing will hide deviousness and corruption. Those who identify themselves as suffering from low self esteem will set themselves up as powerful victims. This is the sort of behaviour that is condemned again and again in the New Testament and is the opposite of freedom. A thin veneer of morality, which is all that we will get from values education is liable to result in a false piety behind which evil and corruption will breed.

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The problem with this is that these values, gleaned from bits of Australian history, as if we have a monopoly on “a fair go”, otherwise known as justice, and the odd self help book, are to be dumped onto students in the absence of a motivating narrative that could put fire in their bellies. The people who produced this document are naïve in thinking they can skim off values from the narratives that have forged our society and serve them up to be taken like medicine for bad character and behaviour.

Character is not formed like that. Do they really think that the great men and women of history were as they were thanks to values education? No, they were caught up in a motivating narrative for good and evil. Without the narrative of the Fatherland and the ascendancy of the Arian race Germany would not have gone to war and ruin a second time. The same is true of the progress of the Soviet Union.

Secular attempts to provide character formation for citizens run the risk of simply being ignored, as I suspect will be the case with values education, or, if they are associated with a motivating narrative based on nationhood will cause huge misery and suffering. I would have thought that the bloody history of the 20th century would have taught us that it is not the function of governments to engineer the values and character of their citizens.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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