youth development & education

Teaching Values

I’m writing to respond to CG’s comments on my last post. CG wrote that a major point of contention around sexuality education is the question of values: can we teach values in schools, or do parents have a monopoly on imparting values to young people? If we can’t teach values, which values are and are not acceptable to teach? Who gets to decide? As teachers all over attempt to manage student behavior and establish school culture, they teach values such as respect, obedience and getting work done, and very few people question these teachers’ right to do so. However, sex education is seen as different in that it can be a site for teaching students quite specific values. Indeed, I think part of the amazing power of sex education is its potential for teaching progressive, transformative values. But CG is right – the other disciplines can and should embrace this power as well.

Science classes teach values – in some senses adherence to the scientific method is itself a value, for believe in the Biblical creation story has long been pitted against belief in evolution in a struggle over science curriculum. Science teaches the values of objectivity, inquiry, and integrity. Scientists also like to categorize and theorize, and categories and theories of past scientists have the potential to become common scientific values as teachers pass them on to their students. And in so many scientific studies, one can see how the values of scientists color their interpretation of their findings.

We definitely teach values through the ways in which we explain history and social studies. Racial tensions might be deemphasized by the topic of multiculturalism. On the other hand, the same racial tensions might be explored through a critical view of slavery, segregation and immigration policies. Students can be empowered by learning about abolitionists, the civil rights movement, or feminism. And again the same topics can be used to emphasize nationalism, democracy and capitalism. Biases in the textbook and in teaching methods send value-laden messages that the students will absorb.

If it weren’t for my passion for sexuality and health, I would happily teach English for the very reason that I believe English classes serve as fabulous venues for teaching values. Character, emotions, relationships, conflicts, challenges and other aspects of life can all be explored through careful and appropriate selection of reading material. Through writing, students find value in expressing their feelings, voicing their opinions, and exploring new ideas.

Values matter, by definition. Values are the core of what we hold near and dear. What we don’t carefully select the values we want to teach, we risk teaching students values that can mislead, confuse or injure them as they develop. We must select core values with intention and care, and impart them to our students by all means possible.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

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