Why values are neither caught nor taught


Can values education lead to lasting outcomes? The challenges: the might of public opinion constantly shaped by mass media, and unscrupulous forces at the helm

A striking feature of education in India is our simmering unease about values education. So, we try out various names for it, but fail to make any progress in enlivening this key component of education. Not long ago, we used to call it moral instruction. Then we christened it values education. Then, in 2005, we renamed it peace education. Names changed; the outcome did not.

I have interacted with teachers across the country. The one thing common to them is diffidence about the feasibility of values education. They feel that what they are made to do in classrooms is out of tune with the warp and woof of the society.


Surely, not all schools are apathetic to values education. No, many are struggling to do what they can. But even they seem uncertain if the character-formation they impart to students would endure beyond their boundaries.

They know that there are parents who are anxious that their children could be handicapped in the rat race that awaits them if they are principled and idealistic. There is a need, therefore, to attain clarity on why values education remains sidelined in the architecture of the education we practise.

Let us begin with the cliché: values are caught, not taught. If values are caught, surely there must be a location, a source, from where they are to be caught? We catch fish from water; not from street or sky. The case of catching values is no different. So, what is the environment from where students may ‘catch’ values?

Plato, in Protagoras, makes Socrates wonder why it is rare to come across teachers of values, whereas instructors in swordsmanship or equestrian skills are easy to come by. This anomaly is then explained as follows. Virtues are not to be taught in classrooms. They must be taught by ‘the whole community’. This is what is implied in ‘catching’ values. To the Greeks, the society was the pond from where values may be caught. What demoralises teachers of values education today is the awareness that the work they do in classrooms is continually contradicted by whatever happens in the society. This explains, besides, the anxiety that parents too feel in this regard.

Society has two components relevant to values education: public opinion and politics. We think of the irresistible power of public opinion as a modern phenomenon. No! It is at least three millennia old. Greek philosophers knew that formal education could not prevail against the might of public opinion.


Today, the media monopolises public opinion. The overweening influence of the media stems, to a large extent, from the decline of family traditions and the spiritual stature of religious leaders.

Exposure especially to the electronic media — in particular, prime time talk shows, often rippling with violence and riddled with palpable misrepresentations — should be a cause for worry for those who care for the character formation of their children. If only the media would invest part of its huge influence-capital in generating sound public opinion and fortifying the ethical outlook of students!

Lawmakers comprised the second pillar of values education in Athens. In Politics, envisaged as a handbook for lawmakers, Aristotle identifies legislators as ‘doctors of the State’! A law-giver is one who has a clear idea of what ought to be done and how the society can evolve towards greater perfection. He is not one who perfects the art of capturing the helm of the State by hook or crook, but one who knows how to steer the State steadily to its destination. It would help hugely if our legislators became mindful of the harmful impact they have on our children, and the beneficial influence they can have!

The author was Principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and former member, National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, Government of India.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 6:49:17 AM |

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