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Values, education and the politicians

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Tuesday, 7 June 2005

What is the place of teaching values in education? Much of the education debate, especially during the recent federal election, has focused on issues like accountability, academic standards and funding to government and non-government schools.

Since the election, the debate has been broadened to include concerns about Australia’s lack of skilled workers, especially in the traditional trades, and the need to strengthen Australia’s approaches to vocational education and training.

Thankfully, more recently, as a result of the federal government’s work in the area of values education, there is recognition that education must have a strong ethical base and that building character is as important as acquiring skills.
In the context of building character, it is interesting to note the approach taken to values education in the recent publication National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools (DEST, 2005). The document defines values education as:


Any explicit and/or implicit school-based activity which promotes student understanding and knowledge of values, and which develops the skills and dispositions of students so they can enact particular values as individuals and as members of the wider community.

Also included is a list of preferred values such as care and compassion; doing your best; fair go; freedom; honesty and trustworthiness; integrity; respect; responsibility and understanding; tolerance and inclusion.

While the definition of values education is uncontroversial, it begs the question: which and whose values? An added concern is that while the values listed are reasonable, they represent a motherhood approach to defining the ethical role of education.

An alternative approach to the above can be found in what is described as a liberal education. Instead of simply advocating character traits like being compassionate, being honest, doing your best and being inclusive as is done in values education, a liberal approach begins by defining the purpose of education.

Brian Crittenden, one time head of education at La Trobe University, defines the purpose of education based on a liberal view. It involves:

… A systematic and sustained introduction to those public forms of meaning in which the standards of human excellence in the intellectual, moral and aesthetic domains are expressed and critically investigated.


The ideal of a liberal education goes back to the early Greek philosophers and is best summed up by Socrates’ admonition, recalled in Plato’s Apology, that education must deal with “truth and understanding and the perfection of the soul”.

Matthew Arnold makes a similar plea when he argues that education must inculcate what he terms “sweetness and light” by basing education on the “best that has been thought and said”.

Second, the values associated with a liberal education are more clearly defined and more enduring than those in the national framework document. These include the ability to know right from wrong, true from false, the ability to discriminate and a willingness to admit error and to acknowledge that wisdom does not reside in oneself alone.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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