If you thought the old ‘Moral Science' classes were boring, here's OUP's new series on ‘value education' that attempts to make it fun and interesting…

One class per week, one book for the year. The teacher would walk in, read or get the kids to read pages from the book. Each “lesson” was a story “with a moral” — the moral printed in italics at the end of the passage. Moral Science was no fun, but no pressure either. If you slept through the class, well, you showed honesty and courage.

The eight graded Living in Harmony text books from Oxford University Press have been trying to change all that. The “Moral” in the subject has morphed into “value”, and rightly so, “Science” is now liberal art. In answer to the times we live in, “Peace” is coupled to value education. The course is meant to go beyond the classroom, the school and family to embrace life itself in all its aspects.

The books cover 84 values, phew! — from being honest to being happy to being tolerant! But the format compels attention and interest. Each value has one main story illustrating it and is neatly wedged between the introduction and the explanation part. The stories come from everywhere — folklore, literature, anecdotes, inspiration — reminding us of the rich story-telling legacy we are heir to. Comprehension questions follow and the lesson is rounded off with an extrapolatory activity. More activities fill the “peace pages”, to reinforce values the authors feel are of universal relevance.

A major strength of the book lies in the last few pages set aside as teachers' guide. Implicit in what it contains under the headings “Purpose of the lesson”, “Teaching plan” and “Classroom interaction” is the simple but stern dictum: take the book and the subject it discusses seriously. There is no excuse for doing a half-hearted job. Follow the step-by-step instructions, get feedback. Kids can be trained to think and act in positive, healthful ways. Just make it happen.

Welcome openness

The books don't shy away from “taboo”, politically-incorrect topics. If shouldering social responsibility is a value to imbibe, it's good that children get a grip on casteism and religious choices, better if that sense is shaped by logical thought and fair discussion. Says the series editor, “All the books carry India, Home to All Religions, Ahimsa, I love India. Something no other textbook has carried so far is the chapter on casteism in Book 8. I've titled it Cast out Caste and carried two excerpts from dalit autobiographies in it, recalling experiences in dalit childhoods.”

That, perhaps, constitutes the core value of the course: let's talk of issues, discuss the thorniest ones with an open mind, and set our values, let's find order in a complicated and often unsafe time that growing up has become, let's give solidness and shape to vague ideas of good and bad. Children need these grab-rails as they make their rock-strewn, unfamiliar journey into adulthood.

So, one hopes, in the spirit of what the books purport to say, teachers make the books activators of healthy exchanges; hold discussions in an atmosphere free of prejudice and narrow-mindedness; and eventually, convert the classes into forums where children air their doubts, reconcile values like “initiative” and “obedience”, “self-control” and “curiosity” without fear of ridicule.

The books are colourful and fun, but the elbow grease behind the content and the layout reflects the seriousness and urgency of getting our children to think in ways that'll help them live in harmony with their surroundings. We can hope that the “peace” pages will find their mark, centre-spread peace posters will find a place on the walls of children's rooms. We can pray the values introduced are not cast aside because they're inconvenient to practise. We can expect the lesson ideas to enhance the teachers' role in imparting values.

Gaps

Still, is formal value education, however well-taught, enough to plant right thinking ways in our young? What about the non-formal part that is caught from family and friends? How do we ensure the effort of the books isn't neutralised by a permissive home? The kid carrying the conviction isn't mocked/bullied to walk ahead in a queue, put what he finds in his pocket, submit lies in place of home-work?

In an age when politeness is equated with stupidity and cowardice, the first and major thrust should be to co-opt parents in the task the course sets out to do. It is a collective necessity, if the not inconsiderable work that makes the books so comprehensive shouldn't go to waste.

Maybe in the next revision, there will be “notes for the parents” making it mandatory for them to join the endeavour.

Living in Harmony: A Course on Peace and Value Education, Edited by Valson Thampu, Malini Seshadri and Maya Gaitonde, Series Editor, Mini Krishnan, OUP, 2009.