Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Teaching the value of values

CAN 18-year-olds be taught ethics or good values? Or is it a little too late, with character well formed for the better or worse, for ethics lessons to make any difference? Will learning ethics have any impact on actual workplace conduct?
By S. Chandra Mohan , For The Straits Times

These are some questions we teachers at the Singapore Management University (SMU), where ethics and social responsibility is a core module, often ask ourselves and our students.

So the recent announcement, by the Minister of Education (MOE), that character building and the learning of values will receive greater emphasis at an earlier age in our schools was good news indeed.

MOE's project raises two questions. First, what are the values that are important for character building?

The ministry will no doubt receive numerous suggestions as to what these values ought to be. According to a Straits Times reader, integrity, respect, care, filial piety and patriotism are core values.

However, students in our schools may not necessarily be strangers to all of these values. An informal study of perceived values, among 400 SMU students in ethics classes, had surprisingly consistent results. Students were asked to identify two values that they had learnt as a child and two values they would teach a child. Honesty, integrity, trust and respect topped the lists. In addition, a number of other values that the students readily identified included compassion, humility, fairness, commitment, responsibility, diligence, courtesy, justice and equality.

Incidentally, these values are not much different from values parents ought to teach children, according to best-selling authors Linda and Richard Eyre. The SMU survey indicates that our students may be well aware of the values that educators may now want to preach to them.

If the students know it all, what then is the cause of the decline of ethical standards and the perceived erosion of good character in our society?

The answer lies partly in the litany of dishonest conduct we have seen in recent years. There are, for our children, just too many examples of the absence of morals and virtue from business, political and religious leaders the world over.

The fact that adults have largely ceased to teach by example compounds the difficulty in teaching values and good character. The virtues that we hold up to our kids do not seem to endure as sturdy values because we have over-emphasised the importance of doing well over doing good. We continuously define success in monetary terms, in a stark departure from what our forefathers taught us. Quite simply, we adults often undermine by our conduct everything that we teach children about values and character.

The second and the more important question in the teaching of values in schools, therefore, is the one that poses the greatest challenge to MOE. How do we persuade students to accept the true value of values? And how are these values to be embedded in students in a meaningful manner?

Obviously, beyond a mere class of instructed values, there must be a continuing emphasis on doing right. The relevance of values must be seen at every turn. There are surely lessons to be learnt about compassion, tolerance, respect for all living things and for simply doing the right thing in every subject from history to biology.

The sports fields too abound with opportunities for the development of character. Rafael Nadal's refusal to make excuses or to blame anyone for losing to Noval Djokovic in the US Open recently, was described by the New York Times as 'the thing of beauty - and the very ethic behind his game'.

In addition, the best lessons may not be pious platitudes but examples of adult failings to uphold values. These examples of failure provide good classroom material of what ethical standards are needed to avoid the greater pain of public discovery, humiliation and even punishment.

At SMU, students in their very first term at law school, beyond discussions on criminal cases, are shown media photos of professionals imprisoned by the courts the week before. In final year ethics, they discover and debate the consequences of failure by corporations, governments and individuals to uphold the right values.

There is, for example, much to reflect on personal values from the experience of American businessman Bowen McCoy, who once decided that it was more important to reach the summit of Mount Everest than to save an Indian sadhu he had found dying on the Himalayan slope.

The lessons to be taught, whether at schools or the universities, must go beyond emphasising good values, which students know only too well. They must also learn how easy it is to let your guard down and be trodden by temptation and what happens to you, your family and your friends (if any are left) if you do wrong. The more enduring lesson perhaps is when children are taught to be good kids in order not to become bad adults.

The writer, a former senior legal officer, is a law professor at the Singapore Management University.