3. Thinking About the Teaching of Human Values

I recently wrote about the three key aspects in the development of youth, namely the education of the body, the mind, and the soul. In this note, I focus on the teaching of human values. I chose this topic because we live in times when an increasing percentage of citizens seem to believe that wealthier people tend to be happier, never mind that research in modern psychology tends to find that prioritizing money over time may undermine our happiness. For others, power is the key. The problem arises when people are willing to sacrifice traditional values for money or for power.

At the same time, the information media tend to address popularity above honesty, and with the internet plagued with lies, is becoming increasingly harder to know the truth. Advertisement at many levels, try to convince us of the extreme importance of personal aesthetics and appearance. I am not trying to mention all the problems that in my estimation modern occidental society is currently facing, and I know that some people will say that these problems have always existed but, are they taking into consideration that the percentage of society affected seems to be growing as time goes by?

Something to keep in mind that is unique to our times is the fact that currently the volume of human knowledge doubles every day. The implications of this are mind bogging. Consider that some experts have predicted that when current students graduate many topics taught today will be redundant, and numerous jobs available at that time do not exist yet.

Given the complexity of the chosen topic and its implications, it is not my intention to be exhaustive, rather to share some thoughts. If I write about the teaching of values is because, in my perception, it does not respond to its relevance nor to the social and technological changes that we are living. I believe that reconsidering the topic help us to clarify our ideas and may entice others to do the same. In the words of the great educator Revd. Andrés Manjón, “Education is the work of all for everyone.”

Personally, I believe that the values that we adopt and refine through our lives, permeate and define our existence, since they are the foundation of our decisions and our goals, as well as the scale we use to measure our success.

It is true that the problems that I mention next about the way that values are taught, the content of what is taught, and who teaches them, can be found in most areas of knowledge, but I think that in this area we should be particularly careful because the individual and social consequences at every level.

  1. What is taught?

All through our lives we are exposed to a set of principles or values that should be the foundation and guide our existence. We learn values about ethics, moral, politics, economy, and society, among others, at home, in our studies and readings, from religious and social communities or groups, from friends and colleagues, and even from a few good people that luckily cross our path.

Christians are taught the cardinal virtues of mind and character, namely prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. In addition, we learn the capital virtues opposite to the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth; they are, humility, generosity, chastity, patience, temperance, kindness, and diligence. Familiar and socially, we are taught similar principles, although sometimes with different names such as respect, empathy, responsibility, solidarity, honesty, compassion etc. One way or another most occidentals (humans?) are exposed to a set of values often called Judeo-Christian’s.

As I mentioned before the problem comes from the continuous bombardment of anti-values such as avarice, lies, abuse of power, dishonor, sex as the equivalent of love, violence, pornography and so on, that young people receive from all media. If we add drugs, promiscuity, and even sex in group, increasingly accessible to youth, the outlook is not encouraging. The difficulty lies on educating young people stronger that we were at an earlier age because the challenges they face are far worse that those we did. But is this possible? As an educator I know there is no magic stick, we must go back to the basics.

I believe that the principles to be taught are the same, but in this particular area we must: i) preach with the example, ii) teach with honesty, interest, and care, iii) update regularly the examples used, iv) facilitate as much as possible the exchange of questions and answers, and v) promote that students individually and working in teams explore and find answers to questions pose by the teacher and/or by themselves.  

Currently, considering the readily access to incredible sources of information available in a phone, have the foundations to be taught and the approach on how to do it being revised? How about what is now crucial for students to memorize? Although in a different subject, I remember formulating these questions 15 years ago, and I have not heard many answers from research thus far.

2. What affects the teaching of values?

Like other subjects, values are not always taught in the same way. In general, in Christian schools’ values tend to be taught with more depth and clarity than in public schools. Also, there are noticeable differences both in the training and the approach of those teaching them. Thus, we see that no matter if we talk about parents, teachers or religious, with the best of intentions, the way they act may contradict the principles they are trying to teach. Thus, it is not uncommon to see some of them losing their calm, or using erroneous expressions, or trying to ignore having said something wrong or not knowing the answer to a question.  Likewise, we find at times some religious teachers adopting, in class or publicly, political positions, or threatening with the wrath of God, or stating that they have the “domain of truth,” forgetting the limitations that we all have as well as the proven errors made by the hierarchies through the centuries.

 An alarming phenomenon of the last decades is the increasing number of parents that criticize teachers of their kids in front of them, often without solid basis, affecting the authority and credibility of the teachers as well as the respect that their kids owe them. On the other hand, what are we teaching students that are promoted despite of being completely unprepared?

Clearly the maturity and background of a teacher is crucial in any subject. A teacher can hardly teach what he does not know nor what he has not experienced. Thus, a teacher who has never solved problems out of the textbook, will seldom proposed them to his students, and when he does, often have troubles guiding them on how to solve them. On the other hand, do parents really value the teaching of values? Do teachers of values receive as many trainings as those teaching science and/or mathematics? Do they attend meetings on content and methods offered by knowledgeable experts with practical ideas? In the past I have observed often that teachers, when given the opportunity, may exchange excellent pragmatic ideas and approaches, not necessarily known by experts, on how to better reach different kind of students. Do we provide the opportunity for these exchanges?

3. How do we teach?

We do not gain depth into the meaning of values by simply memorizing them. It will be advisable that young people face theoretical problems to help them deepen their understanding of these principles. This is nothing new, research in different areas have repeatedly found that by applying concepts to concrete theoretical problems allows us to clarify and deepen our understanding of the involved principles. Hence to pose problems in current issues would allow young people to face conceptually the world they currently or soon will be facing.

Anecdotally, when I was 15 years old in a class about Christian Morality that I was taking, the professor posed a problem about a prisoner that new how his army could be attacked by surprised and decimated, and we were asked if suicide, for fear of talking, would be an acceptable action the prisoner could take to prevent hurting his people?  In the debate that followed many of us tried to erroneously justify suicide based on the fundamental moral principle that “the common good takes priority over the private good,” forgetting as the teacher pointed out the equally important principle that “the end does not justify the means” and that all principles must be respected. I have never forgotten both principles and the need to respect them both in everything I do.

Currently, after two and a half years of battling Cov19, one may wonder how millions of people in the USA and other countries, that supposedly follow Judeo-Christian values, refused the use of masks during the pandemic based on “nobody can tell me what I can and cannot do,” may reconcile their behavior with the moral principle that “the common good takes priority over the private good” and with the millions of deaths resulting from their decision.

I think is wonderful that in general we encourage kids to get involved in sports and physical activities, as well as in their studies and participating in educational activities, but what do we tell them to do to grow spiritually?   

For many Catholics, often a quick review of our behavior since the last confession, before the next one, is often the only time that we spend a few minutes of introspection on how faithful we are with the values that we say to profess. Shouldn’t we give more emphasis to a frequent, if not daily, analysis of how consistent are we being with our values? To say a prayer every night and to go to mass every Sunday is important, but often most everyone fall into monotony. What else can we do so that the most important area of our life grows with vitality?  

It is clearly crucial to expose young people to the practice of those values, both in theory and in the reality that surrounds them. Therefore, the fact that young people collaborate with civic en religious communities in activities to help those most in need is of incalculable value.

One of the most pleasant surprises I had when I came to the USA, was to observe many people who still practice what I call “the pioneer spirit.” I remember, for example, that after hurricane Katrina, there were numerous groups that went to help Nueva Orleans, different groups of college students use their spring break collaborating on-site with support services, and even numerous individuals used their annual vacations, and paid for their transportation and stay, to go lend a hand in whatever was needed.

It is easy to understand the origin of Japan’s proverbial street cleaning when we read that, from an early age, Japanese schoolchildren daily clean their schools.  They also learn to plant and cultivate in their schools. Shouldn’t these best practices be imitated internationally?

4. Some Recommendations

Thinking about what ideas should be clear in the mind of our students about these principles and their implementation throughout our lives, the following points occur to me:

  1. Nobody knows everything. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. We can always improve, and it is our responsibility to try to do so.
  2. Everything that is worthwhile in life is achieved with effort and dedication.
  3. Unlike material values, spiritual values tend to be disconnected from personal power, wealth, popularity, and human aesthetics.
  4. Although we strive to grow in these values, our limitations often cause us to stumble in some of them. When this happens, more than just regretting or trying to justify oneself, the important thing is to repent, recognize why it was like that, and propose with all honesty stay in compliance thereof.
  5. We are born with different physical and intellectual abilities, in homes with different socio-economic conditions, and on different environments, so any comparison with others is unfair. We must not judge and even less condemn anyone, but we must learn to value the effort and spiritual growth of others, helping them in everything we can. Never forget that we compete with ourselves, not with others.
  6. Our spiritual growth has no limit. For me it is like climbing a mountain whose top we do not see and in which the more we climb, when we look up, we see that we have much more to go that we have already climbed, and when we stumble, we must stop the fall where we can and restart the rise.
  7. True spiritual growth should not make us feel superior to anyone, although it does give us confidence and strength to continue growing. In the life of the mystics or in reading what they wrote such as the poems or writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, of Saint John of the cross, of Saint Augustine, or of Saint Thomas Aquinas, seem to indicate that the more they grew spiritually the smaller they saw themselves, that is humility is proportional to spiritual growth.
  8. Saying I don’t believe because I don’t see it or understand it has no basis when we haven’t tried to see beyond our senses.
  9. My final suggestion is that each student should get into the practice of checking frequently, ideally daily, how consequential are his actions with the values he claims to profess and wonder how he can improve.

I am sure that some of those who have had the patience to read this far may be thinking of some other suggestion of interest. If that is the case, please tell me along with any disagreement you have with what I have written, As I said before, it is thinking how we learn and mature.

I believe that at any moment in life, the human spirit is the result of our growth in the values that we adopt and practice, and love is the language of that spirit. Therefore, the love that we possess and lavish, reflects the level of spirituality that we have reached; in my view, that explains the notable differences that are easily observed between the same love practiced by different individuals.

I also believe that both faith and love are cumulative and grow when fed with dedication, abnegation and trust. Each of us is responsible for the spiritual level that he reaches, and that in my opinion only God can fully determine. In general, I think that the limitations of our logic, our intellectual capacity and our knowledge do not exempt us from our responsibility for spiritual growth. Although knowledge can expose us to a greater depth of the different values, I do not necessarily believe that there is a correlation between the intellectual and spiritual development of the human being.

Finally, as a believer, I think that seeing the hand of God in nature and in everything that surround us, talking to Him daily, formally and informally, sharing and thanking Him for our joys and dreams, asking Him for help to face our difficulties and our sorrows, and trusting in His love and mercy is essential for our spiritual growth and for our happiness.  

Por Antonio R Quesada

A esta altura de mi vida reconozco que lo que creo saber es ínfimo comparado con lo que desconozco. Usando mis experiencias, trato de profundizar en algunas ideas espirituales básicas que comparto con toda humildad a fin de animar a otros a que hagan lo mismo. Agradezco de antemano cualquier sugerencia o corrección que reciba. ________________________________________________________________________________ At this time of my life, I acknowledge that what I think I know, is minimal compared to what I don’t know. Using my experiences, I try to deepen on some basic spiritual ideas that I share with all humility, with the purpose of encouraging others to do the same. I thank you in advance for any suggestions or corrections that I receive. ________________________________________________________________________________ Dr. Antonio R. Quesada, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at The University of Akron. Ohio Teaching Fellow. Director of Project AMP. T^3 International Emeritus Professor.

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