Imposing values is obnoxious

One aspect of Labor’s education policy where I emphatically agree with Graham Young is in the area of values. Labor’s policy document says (page 11):

A Federal Labor Government will provide $150 million over five years to teach Australian values and improve discipline in schools.

Although it’s a modest amount and a relatively unimportant part of the policy package, this is obnoxious in principle. Troppo readers may recall that I’ve been trying for some time with limited success to promote a debate to define what common values Australians share (see here and here).

However, it’s one thing to discuss values and seek informal consensus about them, and quite another for Mr Latham to decide upon some undisclosed set of “Australian values” without any discussion at all, and then try to impose them on the community. Labor’s policy document lacks detail about how this scheme would work, but it’s a reasonable assumption that funding would be made available to schools that agreed to teach these “Australian values” (whatever they may be), and not to others. This is not only undemocratic but arrogant social engineering of the worst sort. It should be removed from Labor’s policy without delay, before the Howard government has a chance to ramp up a scare campaign to deflect attention from the many positive aspects of the policy, not least of which is that most of that $150 million appears to be intended to go to fostering programs to improve discipline in schools rather than the much more amorphous and troubling notion of “Australian values”.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Neale
2022 years ago

Hi Ken,

While I agree (as you knew I would) that Labor trying to value engineer Australia’s youth is a dispicable thing (the road to hell and all that), I think there is little the Liberal party can do in retort. I can hear the sound bites now.

Howard: “We believe that Labour’s policy of enforcing values in public schools is terrible.”

Latham: “What’s wrong, don’t you think we should teach Australian Values to our children.”

Howard: “Well, yes I do, but to suggest that their funding will rely…”

Latham: “But didn’t you say a little while ago that the public systems was failing to teach values to our youth? What better way to ensure they will do so…?”

Howard: “Uh, yes, well…”

Latham: “Why do you hate Australian Values so much, Mr Howard?”

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Ken, I agree with you in principle, but I doubt this will be fertile ground for Howard. If he attacks this, Labor will say he is against Australian values. He will say, “no, I’m not”. Labor will say, “then why are you against teaching them in schools?”. This is an argument Howard will lose.

Exactly this kind of scenario was played out in the US Presidential election of 1988. Some right winger suggested that burning the US flag in protests should be made unconstitutional and punishable by … I don’t remember, but probably death or at least life imprisonment. Anyway, Michael Dukakis, the Democrat candidate, stupidly reacted by saying that while he was personally against flag burning, freedom of speech was more important, blah, blah, blah.

George Bush the first simply said flag burning was unAmerican and got himself photographed in a flag factory. He won the argument easily.

Howard won’t touch this.

Alan Green
2022 years ago

Repugnant or not, kids pick up values from school. Schools have our children for thirty six hours a week, forty weeks a year, for twelve or thirteen years. How they are treated and what they are taught leaves a mark on our society.

In sweepingly general terms:
– if we show them only white anglo saxon monoculture, they’re going to grow up narrow minded and afraid of other cultures.
– if we don’t show them examples of people taking pride in Australia, they won’t understand patriotism,
– if we judge and mark every activity they do, they’ll grow up thinking life is about jumping through hoops
– if we always reward them, even when they do poorly, they’ll grow up thinking performance doesn’t matter
– if they constantly see punishment being handed out unfairly and injudiciously, they won’t ever trust our systems of laws
– if they never experience relationships with good role models of men, women, religious leaders, community leaders, parents, volunteers, they won’t know what it is like to be part of a workable and broad minded community.

The question is do we let each school and district and state pick up these issues piecemeal, or is it important enough to warrant federal funding? I think it’s worth a small amount of funding. Like you though Ken, I’d like some more details.

akman
akman
2022 years ago

Imposing values is not great, but how can anyone seriously argue that schools presently refrain from it?

The scant detail that Labor provides suggests that the cash will resource programmes for disruptive students, kids with behavioral problems &c. Hardly the Hitler Youth. But yes, more info is needed.

Simon
Simon
2022 years ago

Why would Howard attack it after his ‘no saluting the flag, no funding’ policy?

Interesting though what can be done under the vagueness of ‘values’.
‘Christian values’ American- let the poor help themselves vs British (Church of England)-compassion and aid

Honor and respect for life. Two societies can claim to share these values -but depending on the value given and social justifications- can lead to very different outcomes including honor killings and abortion/euthanasia.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Simon

Yes a couple of people have made your point, and I agree. It probably would be fairly difficult for Howard to attack on this one given his own nonsense about values. But it’s still obnoxious (or at the very least badly in need of clarification).

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Love your concept of the difference between US values and British values, Simon. If it wasn’t for your outageously racist anglo saxon attitude which dismisses the non white cultures, I’d think you could be a school teacher.

Martin Pike
2022 years ago

Come off it, Howard has run the “schools need more values” line several times- Latham could just say he is responding.

While it might make the Right gnash its collective teeth, if these are values such as tolerance, sharing, and respect for difference in a plural society, what serious argument are they gonna put up?

How is sticking kids in religious or class value based schools really any different? Scares me at least as much- they aren’t accountable to the public the way the government is…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Martin

Several people have made the point that Howard is unlikely to be able to attack Latham effectively on this issue, and i agree. But that isn’t to say it’s not a worry. I agree that if Latham is just talking about very general things like tolerance and civility, few would object, and their objections would be unreasonable. But how do we know what Latham means by “Australian values”? He hasn’t told us.

We shouldn’t be sanguine about governments imposing undisclosed values on our children. And it isn’t the same as private schools inculcating values at all. In those cases, parents send their kids to private schools quite specifically to be inculcated with a particular set of values. If we accept that transmission of values (as long as they’re legal) is primarily a matter for parents and that the state has no right to override parental wishes in that regard (I certainly do accept that proposition, but maybe some others don’t), then it’s obnoxious for governments to impose a particular set of values in schools (beyond the most innocuous, general and universally accepted ones) without even disclosing them to parents let alone seeking their consent. This is nanny state intrusiveness, and unacceptable.

Martin Pike
2022 years ago

Depends if it is all about parental rights, or if it is about education. My personal preference would be for schools to focus on education, with a handful of core civic values that can be agreed on widely, and personal values to be taught in the home.

I’d rather kids got to make up their own minds, and weren’t the mere reflections of brainwashing from parents, lefty teachers, conservatives priests, or any other domineering adults.

We’d only need a couple of Java-style Islamic schools and you’d be agreeing with me, I’m sure…

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

Like Ken, I instinctively shudder when I think of some committee of bureaucrats deciding how to mould impressionable young minds.

On the other hand, I think that to the extent that Ken assumes that in the absence of such a strategy, state education is going to be value-free (or at least value neutral), he’s a little wide of the mark. Schools are always going to foster a set of values … it’s only a question of what they are.

But I agree that this particular effort is unlikely to result in a set of values that I want any kid of mine to have shoved down their throat … although I’m also pretty dubious that whatever it is that comes out of this process will have any significant effect on anyone.

Peter Murphy
2022 years ago

James: Simon was deliberately choosing two similar examples, just to contrast the resulting difference in values. He could have chosen something different, such as (say) comparing Syria and Jordan. (Both Sunni Arab, but one is a monarchy and the other is a nasty republic.) But I think everyone here is more familiar with the US and Britain. Calling someone a racist without good reason is uncalled for.

Latham faces a danger with “values”: there are quite a few Liberal “wets” and libertarians that probably want to vote against Howard. That is the block that Latahm risks losing.

loofer
loofer
2022 years ago

You know what would be wonderful?

If this money was used to teach ethics and logic in high schools, not to teach any particular ‘values’, but to equip students with the necessary frameworks to develop and evaluate systems of ‘values’ for themselves.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Oh, and some history, Loofer. particularly in the lively and questioning context you are advocating. Great list from Alan Green.

I wonder if this one is a curtain raiser. I would welcome a wider discussion of values in this political context because it has been so lacking. When I end up thinking that, say, the refugee thing is offensive to my notion of what society I want to identify with, that is values territory. And after all, democracy is not so good at choosing tax policy cos it is so technical, but it is better at laying down the general direction and aspirations of the society.

A political party could, for instance, say: We believe in foreign aid and will commit 2% of revenue to it.. and it will go to grass roots projects.. etc. That is value driven policy making.

At that point, I presume we would find out that the values involved are tolerance, co-operation, self respect, etc etc etc..

But I hope this is what we are talking about, because like Ken I bristle at the values thing, since I grew up in an environment that tried to teach manliness, courage, obedience, leadership and arrogance.

I wonder, when we talk about private schools having the right to teach values because the parents pay for it and seem to be in control, how many parents end up
a) sending little Sophie and Vince to a private school because they are scared of what government education does to kids in their area (which may be a fantasy) and
b) see their kids turned into Salmonelle and Vindicticus before their very eyes.

There are clear differences in the kinds of values we can teach in schools. One of them is materialism.

simon
simon
2022 years ago

James you’d better get some glasses, you have so badly missed your target I think you’ve actually shot yourself in the foot.

‘outageously racist anglo saxon attitude which dismisses the non white cultures,’

Don’t know get where you got that. Being strongly non-ethnocentric myself I’m all too aware of differences in values and moral across cultures as I tried to indicate with my honor/respect lines.

I based the difference on the development of the Protestant work ethic in America on the shows by philosopher Alan de Botton on Status Anxiety which appeared on Compass. When you get statements like wealth is a reward for being spiritual and attitudes that the poor only have them-selves to blame because they’re not trying hard enough you get some idea what I’m talking about.

Loofer if you have the time they could check out this talk with Dr Peter Vardy

It looks like modern values education compares and contrasts different ethical/moral systems encouraging students to ask their own questions. Combine it with the Philosophy For Children programme, Critical Thinking and inform about cognitive error problems like confirmation bias and you couldn’t wish for more.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2022 years ago

The point that “Howard can’t oppose this” can be sharpened up. There was a big lump of money for values education in the last budget.

So if he attacks this at all, it will be on the basis of “Labor steals our ideas”

loofer
loofer
2022 years ago

that was an interesting talk Simon, thanks for that.

I was blown away the first time I came across Philosophy at university. Dropped my Astrophysics major within a year… I’ve always thought high school would be the perfect time to be introduced to such ‘big’ questions, and completely agree with Dr Vardy in that this would have a positive effect upon our obscene youth suicide rate in rural areas.

Let’s hope this money gets put towards decent value education then eh? Will have to quiz my public teaching relatives if it gets implemented…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Simon

I’d be very keen on educational programs along the lines you describe:

“modern values education compares and contrasts different ethical/moral systems encouraging students to ask their own questions. Combine it with the Philosophy For Children programme, Critical Thinking and inform about cognitive error problems like confirmation bias and you couldn’t wish for more.”

That is, programs which develop critical and analytical faculties and encourage children to think for themselves, ask ther own questions and formulate values. If that’s what Latham is talking about he would have me as an enthusastic supporter. But funding programs to promote “Australian values” doesn’t sound like that at all. It sounds much more precriptive and therefore, as I said, questionable at the very least.

Graham
2022 years ago

Sheesh, we still haven’t even worked out Australian identity, (I mean, every time some tries to spell it out, someone else comes along and says, “no, that’s wrong”) now we have to worry about “Australian” values, too?

Alex White
2022 years ago

I imagine that the Australian values propounded by the Labor Party would be similar to those named in their charter.

Simon Moffitt
Simon Moffitt
2022 years ago

Ken I wonder if either Latham, Howard, or anyone who hankers after those ‘traditional’ values Australian(?) or otherwise would want an education programme to develop critical and analytical faculties and compare and contrast values, encouraging students to think for themselves.
Independent critical thought would be a dangerous thing for the spin doctors to counter.

Look at the furore over one of the Rock Eistedford performances. In regards to that is Andrew Bolt all for values as long as they are the same as his? ( I think he’s forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.)

Would it bring us together to be more tolerant/understanding or divide us as some wish to cling to their foundational beliefs?

I might see if Insight (SBS) would consider doing a programme on it. Anyone want to help draft a proposal and guest list?

Draft
A programme on: Values and Critical Enquiry education in Australia &or What are Australian values anyway?

Topics: Values Education, religion, ‘Traditional (?) Australian Values’, truth in politics/government, media/spin doctors, sport, male/females roles/identity

Guests
Dr Vardy
Andrew Bolt
Hugh MacKay
Rep from Philosophy for Children
Allan De Bottom if still in the country

Alan Green
2022 years ago

Can’t resist adding a bit more…

Public schools already teach “values” of the kind you find obnoxious. In NSW, children do social studies (a.k.a HSIE). At my boy’s school this subject has a definite lean to the left, though I’m not sure if that is state-wide, or just a local phenomenon. Perhaps it is what caused John Howard’s ‘lack of values’ comment in the first place.

Also some of NSW’s non-academic programs may be of interest.

Simon Moffitt
Simon Moffitt
2022 years ago

Alan could you point out which elements which may be obnoxious or left leaning?

I find many attacks on the left/environment values is often misrepresentation & confirmation bias from those who don’t want business to be regulated in regard to the environment, and that many of the concerns of the ‘greenies’ are in fact based in mainstream scientific work. (That’s not to say some green groups don’t go overboard or in fact sometimes lie as Greenpeace did in the case of decommissioned North Sea oil rigs)

For the extremes like Bolt there is no human induced Global Warming, the Murray is Ok, no biodiversity loss etc etc.

To me a foundational attitude for any values education is a respect for the truth. You don’t spin, discredit or ignore it because it doesn’t fit with an ideological agenda. A bit of honesty could go along way in dealing with the problems we face today instead of getting bogged down in rhetoric.

BTW Alan that wasn’t directed at you, it just shits me that the level of debate in politics and the media in this country is so poor and infected by spin.

susoz
2022 years ago

As John Quiggin pointed out, the Liberals have already set in motion a National Values Framework for schools. This was prominent in an election leaflet I received last week. I’m sure the Labor Party is simply responding on an ideological level.
I have a young child in a public school and am very pleased with the values which are put into practice there every day – respect for one another, appreciation of diversity, self-discipline, co-operation, doing one’s best… We don’t need a Liberal-inspired values framework or an ‘Australian values’ framework.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Graham,

now we have to worry about “Australian” values, too?

My two favourite screeds against the imposition of values are Dan Deniehy’s Bunyip Aristocracy speech from the 1850’s and Greg Egans more recent excerpt on “Professional Australians” from his novel “Distress”. From Egan;

He [Munroe] said, “Don’t you ever get tired of living in a society which talks about itself, relentlessly – and usually lies? Which defines everything worthwhile – tolerance, honesty, loyalty, fairness – as ‘uniquely Australian’? Which pretends to encourage diversity – but can’t ever stop babbling about its ‘national identity’? Don’t you ever get sick of the endless parade of buffoons who claim the authority to speak on your behalf: politicians, intellectuals, celebrities, commentators – defining and characterising you in every detail … from your ‘distinctive Australian sense of humour’ right down to your f**king ‘collective subconscious iconography’ … who are all simply, liars and thieves.”

Egan is an awesome novelist. My favourite story of his is the short story, “The Moat”. it mixes in a near-term global warming future, cultural intolerance and the schok of science. Absolutely brilliant.