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Education and Values: Study, Practice, Example

by Denis P. Doyle

When I was invited to join you for this auspicious occasion, I was asked to return to my own work to find a quote that would illustrate the theme of my presentation. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan says, “backwards reels the mind.” Eight years ago this Fall, I wrote an article for the College Board Review, titled “Education and Values: A Consideration.” If anything it is more apt today:

“Since ancient times, philosophers and scholars have known that values and education are indissolubly bound together. Their connection was so obvious and important that it was virtually impossible to imagine value-free education. Even if education did not transmit values explicitly and self-consciously, it did so implicitly and by example. Can anyone remember a distinguished teacher or philosopher, ancient or modern, who was morally neutral?”

As a people we have come to understand that no nation that ignores values in education can hope to endure. No democracy that neglects values and education can expect to remain free. The reasons, though they should be obvious, bear repeating.

The American experiment in self-government is now two centuries old. Indeed, we are not only the oldest democracy in the world; we have an unbroken tradition of self-government marked by a long history of enlarging the franchise. When our experiment began, only white men of property could vote; today all citizens over 18 may do so. They may do so because we are convinced that all adults can responsibly exercise the franchise. They may do so if they are educated.

Philosophically, the reason for including values in education is clear enough. A democracy committed to the twin principles of equality and liberty must have an educated citizenry if it is to function effectively. By “educated,” I mean people who are liberally educated. In this connection, it is worth remembering the purpose of a liberal education. It is to suit men and women to lead lives of ordered liberty. It is the embodiment of the Jeffersonian vision of a free and equal people.

Such observations, of course, would hardly surprise the Founders. To them civic virtue was the sin qua non of a democratic republic, and it was in some large measure imparted by the formal institutions of society, among them schools. Indeed, without such norms, civilization itself is unimaginable. Born naked, ignorant and full of appetites, each child must learn the facts and values of the culture anew. It is no surprise that formal schooling plays a major role in that process. Schooling and civic virtue cannot be separated.

In place of the hereditary aristocracy of the Old World, the New World, according to Thomas Jefferson, would witness the emergence of a natural aristocracy of talent. In a great democracy, as all men are equal before God and the law, so too are all men free to develop their talents to the fullest. This elegant and radical idea survives to this day and for its full development, the people of a democracy must be educated. As Lord Brougham said, “Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.”

The ancient Greeks, from whom we inherit our intellectual and educational traditions, knew that there was one purpose for education and one only: to fit man to live in the polis. The key to life in the polis is values, “civic virtue.” Without it the polis, the state itself, would flounder. They had the insight to know how one acquires civic virtue. Their threefold lesson is as true today as it was then. It is study, example and practice.

First, values are acquired by study — knowledge acquired didactically. Teachers teach and students learn. Study requires submission to the discipline of learning. Second, values are acquired by example. Virtuous men and women, by example, communicate values to the young and to their fellows. Third, and perhaps most important, values are acquired by practice. Virtue is acquired by behaving virtuously.

Long before the “excellence movement,” there were two broad schools of thought in such matters. One is the vision of school as agent of the state, familiar enough to any one who cares to peer beyond the iron curtain. John Stuart Mill, who was spared the excesses of modern totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, thought that no other objective could characterize government schooling. Government education, whether the dominant power be a priesthood, monarchy, or majority of the exiting generation is:

“… a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it cast them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government … it establishes a despotism over the mind …”

By way of contrast, there is the perspective of a supporter of government as the instrument of civic virtue, Simon Bolivar. Addressing the Congress of Angostura, he solemnly observed:

“Let us give to our republic a fourth power with authority over the youth, the hearts of men … Let us establish this Areopagus to watch over the education of the children … to purify whatever may be corrupt in the republic …”

There is, however, a less extreme way to think about education and civic virtue in a democracy. How should a free people inculcate those values and attitudes essential to public welfare, domestic tranquility, and the pursuit of happiness? How can order and freedom be reconciled? The task, while not easy, is not impossible. The American experience of the past century and one-half with public education — or the education of the public — is instructive.

What are the values of civic virtue? First, explicit knowledge, mastered to the point of habit, about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and the opportunities and obligations imposed by a constitutional republic. It is knowing, as sociologist Morris Janowitz observed, that the corollary of the right to trial by jury is the obligation to serve on a jury when called. It is knowing that one man’s freedom ends where another’s begins. It is knowing that rights are earned and must be protected if they are to survive. It is knowing that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was right when he observed that “taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” What is it our public schools should do to teach values? What must children acquire to make them virtuous citizens? Let me look first at example, then study, then practice.


The most striking example of citizenship in all of history was offered by Socrates. He accepted the hemlock cup, not because he believed himself guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens, but to demonstrate the supremacy of law. His wisdom and his courage are captured by John Ruskin in words which contain the essence of my point:

“Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know … It is a painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, by warning, by precept, and by praise, but above all — by example.”

As a practical matter, this means that our schools must be staffed by moral men and women who care about their calling and their craft. By the pure force of personality they must communicate their sense of commitment to their students. There is no mystery as to who these people are. They are the teachers we each remember, the teachers who made a difference in our own lives. The problem is not identifying them after the fact, but before the fact. They are the teachers who are connected to their disciplinary traditions, who are broadly and deeply educated, and who believe in the life of the mind.

These are not empty homilies. There is an internal dynamic to study and scholarship, and there are canons of the profession that themselves embody the values of a democratic society. They include honesty, fidelity, accuracy, fairness, tolerance for diversity, flexibility, and a willingness to change when new evidence is presented. Indeed, what we expect of our better teachers, is precisely the set of traits that we associate with civic virtue.

Another name I use to describe this cluster of attributes and the outcomes they help foster is “the invisible curriculum.” It is the message sent by teachers to students about what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not. A school, for example, that sets low standards sends a powerful message — nothing much matters, get by! That is a dangerous message to give a young person because it programs him for failure. The invisible curriculum undergirds and reinforces the student’s visible curriculum.


It has become fashionable in certain circles to think that education is a process, a set of skills divorced from their substantive context. That is not true. Education is contextual. It is a substantive experience which requires, among other things, learning about the great documents of citizenship. At a minimum, these include an acquaintance with Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics, Plato’s Republic, The Magna Carta, The Prince by Machiavelli, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, The Declaration of Independence, the 10th Federalist Paper, the United States Constitution, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Education is an empty concept if it is stripped of the values these documents embody. As King reminds us:

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

To be fully educated the student must master a body of knowledge, fact, myth, history, anecdote; not as an exercise in memory, but as an exercise in understanding and critical thought. History and context are important to education, both for themselves and as the instrumentality by which people learn to think and reason. It is simple but true. People learn to think by thinking and thinking hard. That is the essence of the Socratic dialogue — the most enduring and important teaching technique ever devised.


Think of the centerpiece of the Fifth Amendment as simply a phrase to be recapitulated without an understanding of its underlying meaning: “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Without understanding its purpose and its historical context it is truly nonsense. Why should a suspected criminal not have to testify against himself? Protecting all of us from testifying against ourselves emerged from a long and bitter history of the rack and thumb screw. If a man may be compelled to testify against himself, who is to say no to the torturer? Certainly not the victim. Freedom from self incrimination is no more and no less than freedom from the Inquisitor and the tools of his trade. It is a strange thing in a century so convulsed by violence of every kind that this simple truth is frequently overlooked when people “take the fifth.” It may be the single most important protection a free people enjoy.

In exploring the idea of values and education, we must remember that values are a part of our world that is not scientifically derived. They include such human, but unscientific, attributes as love, loyalty, courage, devotion, piety, and compassion. These attributes give dimension, scope, and meaning to being human. It is precisely with these attributes that great literature concerns itself.

Let me draw upon a particularly telling and appropriate example, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published more than a century ago. It is among the greatest American novels, a book of importance in American education. What makes this book important? Its scope and sweep, certainly, but above all, its values. In shape it is a book for the masses. It tells a universal story, accessible to all. Just as it contains much with which to agree, it contains much that shocks, provokes, and even offends. As a consequence, reading the book and discussing it in a classroom requires sensitivity and discretion.

It is interesting that the book is attacked today just as it was when first released. The far right believes Huck is venal at best, and hostile to religion at worst. They say his language is abominable, his behavior unacceptable. In sum, he is a poor example. The left is even more outspoken in its hostility to Huck. They level against him the worst of modern epithets — racist.

In a way, what critics on both the right and the left perceive in Huck is correct, but this is precisely the power and importance of the book — to confront the conventional wisdom. Twain railed against the organized religion of the day and its sanctimonious piety and hypocrisy. Indeed, he found organized society, particularly the state, the cause rather than the cure for social ills. Huck and Jim, children of nature, could escape the corrupting forces of contemporary life only by physical escape. So, in the end, Twain is far more dangerous than either the left or right knows. He is an enemy of the state.

Without dwelling on Twain, it is useful to consider great literature in general to see if his example is idiosyncratic. The direction assumed by great literature across the ages is the same. While its first purpose is to entertain, its more important purpose is to instruct. It provides examples of courage, strength, and love. It shows the effects of hubris, greed, and the will to power. It reveals transcendent accomplishment and abject failure. Great literature is almost never the servant of the state, or the advocate of the status quo. It challenges assumptions, and breaks with the conventional wisdom. Not all great books, in literature or other fields, are offensive, or irreverent, or hostile, but they do challenge the conventional wisdom; they provoke the reader; they insist upon engagement with the subject. This is even true of science, particularly in its early stages when it was concerned with breakthroughs in basic knowledge. Galileo, Kepler and Darwin are only the best known examples.

At issue in the teaching of values is an error of judgment that continues to plague our schools. An assumption was made, in all good faith, that our schools could be value-free, neutral, and objective; this would defuse the potentially explosive question of which values to teach and how to teach them. This vision of American education is an old one. In the 19th century, what was described as value-free education was really non-sectarian Protestantism. It was not quite ecumenism, but a robust Unitarianism. Indeed, it is no accident that the early public school reformers were visionary and romantic Unitarians — builders who would use the public schools to uplift and transform each generation. As Horace Mann, with a striking sense of modernity, said in his Annual Report to the Board of Education in 1848:

“If all the children in the community from the age of four to that of seventeen could be brought within the reformatory and elevating influence of good schools, the dark host of private vices and public crimes … might … be banished from the world.”

When it came to values education, Mann, as well as his supporters and colleagues, had little problem identifying what schools should do. They knew that most teachers were poorly trained and they were the inheritors of a classical tradition that brooked little interference. In essence, the curriculum chose itself. So it was in the late 19th century that the McGuffey Reader enjoyed unparalleled success. It was full of pious homilies and entreaties to civic and religious virtues, the values widely shared by the community that patronized the public schools. In the 19th century, the patrons were almost exclusively white Protestants.

The emergence of a highly diverse, democratic, and pluralistic modern society means that we can no longer rely on either the classical curriculum or the Protestant consensus of the 19th century. In an attenuated way, this disciplinary tradition does exist in the best public and private college preparatory schools. In these institutions, for example, teachers are free to choose Dryden or Donne, Spencer or Marlowe, Shakespeare or Cervantes, Twain or Hawthorne; but the freedom to choose is nearly ephemeral because the educated person, the student, must eventually read all of them. The general pattern in American education, however, is the virtual abandonment of disciplinary tradition. Instead of vertical integration, elementary and secondary schools are organized horizontally. They are not only characterized by self-contained classrooms; they are self-contained organizations with few links to the outside world. Great bands of children are grouped by age and they are given “problem areas” to study. Communication skills replace English, social studies replaces history and geography. Is it any surprise that bachelor living and power volleyball enter the curriculum? Is it any wonder that there are periodic attempts to purge Huck Finn from the classroom? With no intellectual and disciplinary anchor, the school is subject to the fads and vicissitudes of the moment. When the watchwords of the school become “value neutrality,” “relevance,” and “relativity,” anything goes. Nothing is imposed on anyone, except the notion that there are two sides to every question. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the great revealed religions, both based on moral absolutes, no longer provide answers. Not even the existential answer, “that teachers know more than students,” can be offered with conviction. It is for these reasons that the disciplinary tradition is essential.


Let me turn briefly to my final point — practice. “Happiness,” Aristotle tells us, “is activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue.” We achieve this state by practice. Ironically, it is not so much in the exercise of our rights that we learn this, but in meeting our corresponding obligations. It is through submission to a higher principle that we learn to appreciate the importance of our hard-won rights.

At the level of friend and family, practice means satisfying the reciprocal demands that loyalty and filial responsibility place upon us. At the level of the community, it means meeting minimum standards of civility and good conduct — more than just obeying the law, but also accommodation to unspoken standards of behavior. At the level of the state, it means honoring the full and explicit demands of citizenship from honesty in paying taxes, to citizen participation, to the ultimate sacrifice for a higher good in time of mortal danger.

At the level of the school, practice means doing what is expected and doing it well. But it could and should mean much more. It could and should mean service, both to the school and to the community. Every high school student in America should be expected to perform community service as a condition of graduation. No one is so poor or so elevated as to not profit from it, for that is surely its purpose. What is really important is that students should be learning, through practice, the habits of service. That is the very foundation of civic virtue and the personal satisfaction it can provide.


What all of this means, of course, is that we cannot avoid the question of curriculum. What we teach, we value, and what we value, we teach. The curriculum, both visible and invisible, is value laden. What is it we need to know as Americans, both to have a shared sense of community and a shared destiny?

Any curriculum — particularly a “core” curriculum — must reconcile the demands of a continental democracy and the need to belong to a more intimate community. It must reflect the values of the whole, and the part — respecting both while supporting the individual. The need is acute because, in the final analysis, “excellence” in any endeavor is a solitary pursuit requiring self-discipline and commitment. Excellence also assumes many forms — music, art, the quantitative disciplines, languages and the humanities. Over the life of a student, the pursuit of excellence calls for progressively greater specialization and more complete immersion in the peculiarities of a given discipline.

This raises the most important question of all. If curriculum is central, and values are central to the curriculum, who will chose? If it is chosen by the wise and judicious, the penetrating and the discerning, the discriminating and the disciplined, the curriculum will be a wonder to behold. If it is chosen by the ideologues of the left or right, the Babbits and Buffoons of American intellectual life, it will be a disaster. The fear of the latter is a real one. Anti-intellectualism in America is an old, powerful, even honored tradition, and it’s not at all clear that — even over the long haul — this will change.

Lurking beneath the surface of any discussion about the quality of American education is the nagging suspicion that we already have the schools that we both want and deserve. We do have citizen control; we do have a voice in what our schools do and how they do it — however attenuated it may be. Perhaps, after all is said and done, Americans prefer football to the life of the mind. That, after all, is what values are all about.

The life of the school, then, is defined by what is taught, and the life of the student is defined by what is learned. What has this to do with education and values? A good deal, I think, because we are what we value, and schools cannot escape this simple truth