Lisa VanDamme touches all the bases…

In a compelling piece written by Lisa VanDamme, the notions of “Teaching Values in the Classroom” are challenged directly. Ms VanDamme, known for her brilliant insights into education (actually what is wrong with it, and demonstrates how to do it propertly through the VanDamme Academy) is notably responsible for raising the issue and concept of the “hierarchy of knowledge.” The violation of which, according to VanDamme (and self-evident by examining virtually any government school in America), is probably the single biggest error being made in education today (a notion to which I agree totally). But when it comes to teaching values, Ms VanDamme really shines by remaining intellectually honest and consistent.

This is a great article (excerpt below), and you can read the introduction (full article requires a subscription) here.

This approach (for lack of a better desription, the Bill Bennett approach) is methodologically wrong. There is no such thing as an uncontroversial moral absolute. Because moral questions are highly abstract and subsume a wide variety of concrete situations, a great deal of knowledge and experience is required even to think about them, let alone to understand them. To “teach” moral principles as if they were obvious, revealed truths to be accepted and unthinkingly applied in this way is to dismiss the need of actually thinking about what they are and why they matter; it is to deny the importance of reason and facts in considering and understanding what is right and what is wrong; it is to deny the fact that morality is a rich subject with numerous facets that one learns over a lifetime.

One consequence of this method is that morality, in the child’s mind, is reduced to a short list of dogmatic and highly conventional “dos and don’ts.” I call this the “Top Ten” method of teaching values. Educators bypass the diverse, complex range of concrete experiences from which children properly learn moral principles, and reduce all of morality to a handful of lessons conveyed by a stock list of didactic stories. The stories are selected for the values they convey, and since this entire approach eschews real thinking on moral matters, the values sought in the selection process are the conventionally accepted, unscrutinized values du jour. Stories that hammer home conventional moral lessons make the cut; those that don’t, don’t.

Where I would take issue with Ms VanDamme, is her apparently implicit idea that values need to be constantly rediscovered. That, in fact, there are no moral absolutes (such as murder is wrong). There are, in fact, such absolutes. I think where Ms VanDamme is headed here is that those moral absolutes, the values which are essential to man puruing his individual happiness here on earth, are discoverable and self-evident if children are educated not dogmatically but rather to think independently and rationally. Perhaps a subtle point, but it takes us away from both schools of thought (as she does in her article) currently prevalent in education and moves us toward a much more intellectually compelling model of education, vis-a-vis “teaching values.”

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