Saturday, October 15, 2005


Schools should teach values

There are two kinds of bad decisions: those due to incompetence and those due to lousy values. Earth has got plenty of both, but I think the second kind is much worse, and it’s inadequately addressed.

I’ll use “values” in the most neutral sense, to mean “a preferential ranking of states of the world.” I have to provide a definition because “values” is a much-abused term. It’s common to think one’s own values are “the right” ones, an attitude that can lead to such ridiculous terms as “family values”. We’re largely unaware of how values form, and we often feel hostile or at least superior to people whose values are different from ours.

Perhaps due to the volatility of sentiment regarding “values issues”, schools are irresponsibly silent about the formation of values in students. Presently, our schools aim to impart competence – which of course is good. However, competence alone is no guarantee of worthwhile results. Adolf Hitler was competent. To generate good things, competence must be well-directed. That is, it needs a legitimate, credible system of values. Our schools impart huge quantities of knowledge, but they don’t help students decide how to use it. They should.

Note that I wrote “help students decide how to use it,” rather than “advise students on how to use it.” It would be monstrous, as well as impossible, for schools to implant their own preferences in students. However, to familiarize students with the logic of preferences and value judgments could only be beneficial.

The numerically-oriented may be thinking, “How beneficial? More so than the courses they already get?” I think so, and here’s why: Kids fresh out of school are prone to spectacular screwups – picking the wrong mate, the wrong job, the wrong habits, the wrong dreams, you name it. Such bad choices are for the most part, I think, the result of poorly-thought-out values, and they don’t have to happen so much.

One could argue that plain "life experience" inevitably leads one to define and rank one's values. I would agree. However, the traditional trial -by-fire ranking process is unnecessarily costly. When one is making real, important decisions for the first time, it’s true that mistakes are inevitable. And because of the high stakes, it’s reasonable for society to postpone those decisions (e.g. whether to drink, work, marry) to a certain age. However, if we want kids to make good decisions when their time comes, we ought to at least familiarize them with the ideas they’ll be facing. It’s one thing never to have faced a certain vital decision before, and quite another never to have developed the sort of thinking that the decision will require.

For most people I think the development of a value system is slow, at best semi-conscious, and often self-contradicting. (Some economists have shown that lots of people exhibit irrational preferences – e.g. behaving as if A is better than B is better than C is better than A.) It is my (culturally imperial?) belief that the intrepid few who create their value system entirely consciously are unlikely to do a thorough job of it without standing on the shoulders of past great thinkers.

I know the curriculum is already stuffed. But a course in values would be more than an addition to the curriculum; it would enhance the effectiveness of everything being taught already. It would lead to better use of the knowledge absorbed elsewhere. And hopefully, by transmitting the logic necessary to develop a sound set of preferences, it would also increase the likelihood that students would take the time to absorb what they’re taught. A values course might even create room in the curriculum for itself, by making students more efficient. I’m not saying it would, and if it didn’t, the course would still be worthwhile. If a child had to choose one course, one year, that he thought was least useful to him, and replace it with a values course, the loss to society would be close to nil, and I’m arguing that the benefits would be huge.

Alright, that’s my argument.

The course should hold whatever it would take to allow students to make their own value judgments in a way that maximizes happiness – in particular, rationally and consistently. I would like the course to include bits of logic, economics, ethics, and psychology. I can list a few specific topics I think would be good:

Students should become familiar with the algebra of how one’s own preferences change over time – e.g. how ex-post I might wish I had not wanted to drink the night before. They should learn what is known about how preferences are developed, including the extent to which it is possible to choose and steer oneself toward a “desirable” set of preferences.

They should be made familiar with how an individual’s preferences can conflict internally as well as with those of others. To operate well in society, one has to understand that conflict between individuals can be subtle. Examples: the conflict of advertisers trying to convince you to want something you don’t know much about; the conflict between a mechanic and a customer who doesn’t know how much he can trust the guy; or the conflict between colluding exporters of oil.

Students should get the opportunity to try to justify (or debunk, I suppose) the notions of human rights and societal utility, upon which (most of? all of?) our behavior ought to be based.

Wouldn’t that be awesome?

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