All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


05 June 2011

Values Education, Indoctrination, and Methods

This post came out of a comment that I attempted to make on Rachel Levy's excellent blog. It arises out of an exceedingly interesting exchange that she's having with Mr. Yglesias about values education. I've really enjoyed reading it. It started here with Yglesias arguing that Charter schools may be doing necessary work given their context, with Rachel's comment here, then Yglesias responded here, leading Rachel to post this, to which I was writing the comment that led to this post. The disagreement, on its face, is over whether poor kids need to be taught middle-class values. But I think there's something more fundamental under the surface that needs to be addressed.

Now, I've a professional interest in this debate -- it falls pretty squarely in the area Philosophy of Education on which I'm writing my dissertation -- so I hope that my readers will forgive me if I go on at length, and my colleagues will forgive me if I'm abrupt and cursory in some of my argumentation. It's also of paramount importance that you read the back-and-forth posts before continuing. Much of what I say won't make sense if you don't.

I don't think that Rachel is being as charitable as she could be about Yglesias' argument. I certainly don't think that this is because she's being disingenuous in any way, but because I think there's a buried (and true) assumption that Yglesias is making about how values operate that isn't coming across in his postings, and if it were, I don't think the two of them would seem (or be) so at odds. He doesn't make this point explicitly, though. And while it's possible I'm reading way too much into this, here's what I think is going on.

Let's take this paragraph of Rachel's as a starting point:

Undoubtedly, kids learn norms and behaviors in school from one another--that's part of going to school. The value attached to these norms and behaviors all depends on, well, what each individual values. That being acknowledged, it's not my job as a public school teacher to teach social values beyond, say, teaching students how to get along, and how to peacefully resolve disputes that might arise in my classroom. Rather, it's my job to provide an education. Now, I do need to teach the values or habits of a good student, for example, completing assignments in a timely and comprehensive manner, reading as much and as often as possible, participating respectfully in class discussions, listening to teachers and classmates, coming to class on time, not plagiarizing or cheating, and I have no doubt that KIPP teaches their kids to have the habits of good students. But ultimately, to get students to practice these habits, I need to show them the value of what I'm teaching and that I value their time and effort.

So, we're given that there's some set of values or habits that she wants to teach to her students. Now, while 'habit' and 'value' are distinct concepts, the difference between a value-in-action and a habit isn't always clear: one way to think about values is as certain types of attitudes, that is, as habits of decision-making. You can tell that I "value" my group identity (or, put another way, that group loyalty is one of my "values") because when I have a decision in which group interests can focus as a reason, I am inclined to give such reasons more weight in my deliberations.

This is different, though, than mere behavioral habits that aren't expressions of deliberation (scratching my head when I'm trying to decide between two options, for instance, or swishing my soda around in my mouth before swallowing).

Now, I take it that if pressed, Rachel would say she wants to teach students to value good student habits in the sense of the word "value" that I just used, and not just in the raw sense of thoughtless habit. That's not only admirable, but, I think, the proper attitude for an educator. I also think she is absolutely right when she says:

(Y)ou can't teach kids to value education by telling them to value education.

But how does one teach kids to value education, and what does that actually mean? More specifically, what are the success conditions of having taught kids to value education?

On this point, it seems pretty clear to me that success has not occurred if a kid can merely recite to you what it means to value education, and what sorts of decisions he would make if he valued education. It seems like the success conditions of teaching a student to value education are that he actually values education, and that means that at some point in the process, values were inculcated. Another way of saying this -- and I don't mean to bring up the term in any morally charged way -- is that the teacher in order to succeed has to engage in some sort of process of values indoctrination.

Now there are LOTS of ways to to indoctrinate values -- some of which are morally troublesome, some of which aren't. You might think that the "organic" way that kids pick up on values by modeling the behavior of others isn't on its face morally suspect, but that, say, a regimen of suggestibility drugs coupled with torture designed to make you really love (i.e., "value") Big Brother is morally suspect. You might think it's OK to engage in certain types of non-intrusive interpersonal manipulation, and so forth, but not, say, to lie to the kids in the course of inculcating values. (You could even think that the morality of values lies in the realm of content rather than process, and that the ends of indoctrination can justify at least some means. That's another view.)

But one thing that we should take into account - and this is the implicit premise that I see in Yglesias' argument -- is that there's a certain amount of "meta-valuation" that goes on in the shaping of a human personality. We not only value things such as group loyalty and so forth, but we value values themselves. Now we might have all sorts of different reasons for valuing a set of values: perhaps we want to fit in, perhaps we want to get love from our family, perhaps we have some greater value (duty to country, say) that we see as requiring us to take on some other, subordinate set of values (martial values, respect for authority, etc.).

I take it that Yglesias' point, if he were to slow down and think about it, is that poorer kids, by and large, don't have as part of their natural value system the sorts of values that cause them to adopt certain other values, such as valuing education, valuing certain types of work ethics, etc. And I also take it that he thinks that one way to adopt these second order values is the organic, modeling way that kids pick these things up, but that failing that, a certain amount of more heavy-handed (though not, by his lights, immmoral) indoctrination is in order.

Rachel's response to this is, as best I can tell, is to say that she doesn't want to engage in values instruction. But it seems this leads to a necessary contradiction. Let's revisit two sentences:

The value attached to these norms and behaviors all depends on, well, what each individual values.

That seems right, as far as it goes. There are some values, and then there's a meta-valuative structure of other values, and a child's attitude towards the subordinate values is going to be determined by the higher-order values. But then Rachel also says this:

But ultimately, to get students to practice these habits, I need to show them the value of what I'm teaching and that I value their time and effort.

But what is this "showing them the value" if it isn't the actual indoctrination of a higher-order value designed to get them to adopt the lower-order values of "valuing education"? In other words, the course of action she is prescribing just is a certain kind of interpersonal manipulation through example, persuasion, etc. (and I don't mean "manipulation" in a morally charged sense) designed to get them to "buy in" to the values set that both she and Yglesias want the kids to adopt.

In other words, they're both advocating the same thing at a more general level of description: engaging in the imprinting of second-order values. They just disagree about the process that should be used. Rachel thinks that the teacher's role should be more subtle. (To be fair, an opponent might say more "seductive" or "insidious".) Yglesias seems to think that there are two options: the organic way that a child grows into community values and some sort of more structured, focused sort of indoctrination.

But there does not seem to me to be as much daylight between them as either of them thinks there is.


Cedar said...

Interesting take on the matter.
First, I think part of what Rachel is objecting to (and what I strongly object to) is the specific context of Yglesias' argument. No one is disagreeing that poor kids would benefit from valuing education, or believing that education will benefit them.
My disagreement is with two of Yglesias' points.
First: that this study of KIPP's effectiveness speaks to the efficacy of one aspect of their approach (the aspect that teaches bourgeois norms) rather than any of the other differences between KIPP and traditional public schools.
Second, that these bourgeois norms (or modes of behavior, or whatever) can be explicitly taught.
I think your post mostly addresses the second point. I think the educational evidence, as well as the evidence in basic psychology (my field) shows that explicit values instruction is remarkably ineffective by itself.
If we took the literature on academic cheating, or on organ donation, or charitable donations, or political judgments, explicit instruction on what to value would rank near the bottom.
When Yglesias says "They’re irresponsible, they’re impulsive. They need to be taught. They learn from their parents and their peers and their peers’ parents" this shows to me a certain view of being "taught" to be less impulsive and irresponsible. I am dubious of any class of people being better able to teach their children these things than others. And I am very skeptical that any of KIPP's effectiveness in raising reading and math scores is due to explicit instruction in this regard.
But glad to see you are blogging, and I am curious to see your perspective as an educational philosopher.

Michael E. Lopez said...


I think you're probably right about the efficacy of explicit instruction. But as best I can tell, KIPP's methods aren't limited to simply telling the kids "Thou shalt X". It is, and I'm operating on hearsay here so I may just be wrong, a regimented, immersive experience that sort of takes over your life.

You might compare it to a less-intense version of boot camp, which is remarkably effective at instilling certain decision-making values. DI's use explicit instruction, yes, but that's only part of the story (and the least important part); they also use various forms of coercive and manipulative social control to inculcate the various values they are trying to impart.