Valuing diversity of values

Education, Culture and Values, Volumes I-VI

December 8, 2000

ISBN (each book) Volume I: 0 7507 1002 0; Volume II: 0 7507 1003 9; Volume III: 1004 7; Volume IV: 0 7507 1005 5; Volume V: 1006 3; Volume VI: 1007 1

This is a monumental piece of work: six volumes, with a total of 120 articles by scholars and practitioners of international repute drawing on experience from 23 countries. The editing is excellent. The content and purpose of each contribution are clearly stated, conclusions are drawn and useful references provided. Occasionally, contributors drop into too dense a form of writing to be easily intelligible, and some are contributing in a field where specialist knowledge of the subject is essential to the reader's comprehension. But for the most part, the writing is extraordinarily readable. Most of the articles are interesting, some are profoundly challenging and some deeply moving.

For anyone concerned about the future of children and their education, this series will be a great resource. It reveals how international and global the issues have become, how varied, complex and sensitive they are, and how necessary it is for all of us, whether we are parents, teachers, students, governors or community leaders, to seek out and understand what needs to be done if the next generation is to cope adequately with increasing social and cultural diversity.

Reading all six volumes in the space of a few weeks is not an experience I would recommend, but it has certainly been mind-expanding (if not mind-blowing).

What I find puzzling is that so little indication is given as to how this imaginative and extensive project was conceived and carried through to publication. Such an undertaking is born only of deep conviction of purpose, extensive knowledge of the field, absolute determination and a great deal of hard work. I think readers would like to know more about how it was instigated and brought to fruition.

For someone of my generation, "values education" is a new term, but it has become an immensely important issue to all sections of the educational community. Most people, whatever their political leanings, seem to believe that acquiring information and skills is not enough. It must be complemented by the infiltration of social, moral and spiritual values. But what these values should be and how they should be developed, whether in the classroom or in the life of the school or college, is wide open to argument. With the advent of national curriculums, here and elsewhere in the world, these values are having to be articulated, generally agreed and put into practice as instruments of governmental policy and law; no longer has the school or individual teacher the freedom to do as they think fit.

"The far right", as it is referred to in many articles, is profoundly concerned with what seems to be a breakdown in social order and morality. In the United Kingdom, it is looking to the educational system to re-establish traditional values and a more widely accepted concept of British identity with an emphasis on Christian belief. To many of the contributors, this stance seems to be looking to the past, failing to appreciate that society, here and elsewhere, is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of race and culture, and that new concepts and solutions have to be sought if present and future generations of children are to be given the support they need.

Three themes run through all six volumes. The first is a concern about the degree to which materialism, consumerism and reliance on market values have penetrated national cultures, fostering an emphasis on individualism at the expense of society. Education itself, with its tests, league tables, target setting and performance indicators, has become a competitive commodity, provided as a means of entering the world of work rather than as a means of developing each person's potential to the full. The emphasis has shifted away from service to the community towards school or personal success.

The impact of economic globalisation is the second concern. Contributors believe it results in a standardisation of attitudes, language and skills that governments encourage to establish national identity and to cope with the global market. This is liable to undermine policies of cultural or local diversity that can have such an important role to play in a pluralistic society.

A third concern for many of the contributors is that there is still far too great a disparity between the reality and the rhetoric adopted by international and national bodies calling for an end to discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, gender or religion. In many parts of the world, profound injustices remain, which deny whole sections of the population access to a reasonable level of education. This includes some glaring examples in the wealthy western world.

Many contributors deal with the issue of racism: an age-old phenomenon rooted in the fear of the stranger and the unknown, but now greatly multiplied by large-scale immigration from one part of the world to another, bringing in its wake dissidence in communities, violence on the streets and, even more damagingly, bullying and humiliation in the school playground. Several articles examine the issues and describe ways of dealing with them. Tensions clearly exist between those who think that immigrants should assimilate fully with the host community and those who believe that individuals will only achieve their true identity and consequent wellbeing if they retain and build on their inherited culture, enriching the culture of the host community.

The issue of finding a reasonable balance between these polarities varies from country to country and place to place; it seems there are no common answers and that it is all too easy to make mistakes. A contributor from Canada writes of well-meaning initiatives to preserve cultural particularisation that had the perverse effect of confining individuals to a permanent and immutable cultural identity. In England, some schools have gone out of their way to involve local ethnic communities and show respect for their cultures only to find that the students, for whom they have a primary responsibility, are questioning parental values in their wish to make friendships across the cultural divides and assimilate with the majority culture - something, as individuals, they have every right to do.

Volume five is devoted to moral, spiritual and religious education. If ever there was an educational minefield, this seems to be it. Anyone entering it will find this group of articles invaluable. They provide theoretical concepts that differentiate between morality, spirituality and religion and give a clear account of the history and law relating to religious education. In the United Kingdom it has to be predominantly Christian, but also cover the six main religions practised in the country by immigrant communities. This is a remarkable official step towards the acceptance of cultural diversity, but one wonders how teachers can gain sufficient knowledge and understanding of these to fulfil this obligation in the classroom without creating stereotypes and trivialising sincerely held faiths.

Volume six carries some interesting contributions from countries that have recently moved from dictatorial to democratic regimes, for example Latvia, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, freeing themselves from past legacies. These legacies can be collective communist ideology, authoritarian styles of teaching, an imperial past and church manipulation (love of God, fatherland and family), or apartheid with its consequent violence in black schools and an ingrained tradition of severe corporal punishment. The challenge is immense, particularly given the shortage of resources, the multiplicity of languages and the lack of suitably trained teachers. The education of minorities, such as the Maoris in New Zealand, the Aboriginals in Australia, the Romanies in Hungary, the Palestinians in Israel and the Spanish-speaking immigrants of California, is also included, and the volume touches on issues of bilingual teaching and unassimilable ethnic traditions.

I can only hope that libraries will make these volumes easily available and that those interested in improving the educational system will seek out the material relevant to their interests. What I find immensely encouraging is that so many of the contributors are challenging injustices and questioning current orthodoxies out of practical experience and not out of ideology. The word progressive does not appear, but the spirit of dissidence is clearly still alive. It has been reassuring to find Dewey being quoted; overloaded and politically driven curriculums being criticised; and the need being stressed to complement cognitive knowledge with intuitive apprehension and aesthetic judgement, to think of society as well as personal success, and to accept that we are already a pluralistic society and there is no going back.

Some clearly want to see values at the heart of the curriculum in order to reinforce the status quo. I personally side with contributor who wrote: "Religion, properly understood, is a very subversive affair."

Peter Cox was founder-principal, Dartington College of Arts.

Education, Culture and Values, Volumes I-VI

Editor - Mal Leicester, Celia Modgil and Sohan Modgil
ISBN - 0 7507 1018 7 (set)
Publisher - Routledge Falmer
Price - £450.00 (set), £85.00 (each book)

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