‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique


‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.


The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.


Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Value Socialisation and Pedagogy, Part 2: The Theoretical Basis of Teaching Values in the Classroom

Part 1 dealt with issues arising in the field of values education, looking at the literature of academic debate over three decades. In my estimation, a fundamental problem of the whole field is that it has taken insufficient account of the philosophical discourse of values and lacks a concept of values as transmissible entities or a model of institutional transmission. I have elsewhere written on these topics (September 2015, August 2016). The present essay outlines this institutional model in a specifically pedagogical context of the school classroom. All schools and all teachers attempt to instil values in their students, and the success of these attempts are measurable in terms of the interrelated variables of expected behaviours and expected outcomes. However, much of this is implicit rather than explicit, but by exposing the nature of successful transmission mechanisms, even when implicit, there is the hope to give values education on a more robust theoretical and evidential basis. This model has drawn for its inspiration on several theorists, but particularly on the cultural transmission theory of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Bernstein’s (1975) theory of educational transmission. However, the conclusions reached are based on a cross-case analysis of values education carried out in three UK secondary schools with different demographic profiles and differing forms of governance (Trubshaw 2014).

Methodological Considerations

Before presenting the model, a consideration of the methodological procedures for data collection and analysis are in order, summarised from the document referred to above. The model emerged from an iterative cross-case analysis of three cases employing a mixed methods – primarily qualitative – approach to gain a snapshot view of institutional processes in constructing, realising and maintaining the institutional ethos, investigating embedded values in school documents, pedagogy and student lived-experience.

Observations, several interviews, a survey and student focus group and an examination of public and internal documents were carried out at each school and the data subject to a range of analyses, such as content analysis, conceptual coding, semiotic analysis and statistical analysis, as appropriate. A profile of institutional transmission was built up through a series of matrices tracing the fortunes of prominent value groups across the management/administrative, teacher/classroom and student/recipient levels of each school, which formed the backbone of each case study.

The resultant model, outlined below, was subject to several tests. First, each element was checked against the raw data, to determine whether there was supporting evidence for the particular concept, and to test the extent and variability of the concept (and to rule out the possibility that it was an artefact of theorising or theoretical influence). Then the whole model was applied as an analytical tool to randomly chosen passages of interviews, to look for ‘conceptual clustering’ around values in the text. Finally, the model was applied to the description/transcription of a classroom observation. The first and second strongly validated the model. The last was more problematic as transmission is an institution-wide phenomenon, not limited to the classroom. Moreover, it is a transformative phenomenon, taking place over time, and so unlikely to be captured in its entirety in a single class. Nevertheless, there were elements on display and I remain confident the model will be further validated when longitudinal studies are carried out.

Finally, two concepts referred to in this essay, invocation and evocation, are terms denoting processes deduced from philosophical analysis of the nature of values to hypothesise the mechanics of value transmission, and are therefore not part of the empirical model derived from collected data, but rather what Blumer (1954) refers to as ‘sensitising concepts’ in the research design. Invocation refers to the ritualistic (incantatory) utterance of value terms by an authority figure to a receptive audience, while evocation refers to the declaration of the existence of a community bound by a value or set of values (moral community).


Overview and Outline of Model for Institutional Value Transmission

Based on the analyses of data obtained at the three schools covered in the case studies, an overview of the model for institutional value transmission in four stages can be outlined, shown in the table below. The categories/concepts in bold are constitutive aspects of the stages in the left-hand column; non-bolded ones are typically examples of the categories/concepts or ‘scaffold’ terms that have been important at various stages in the construction of the model.




The following section will provide a definition of all the main categories and concepts in the model, the principal stages in the first column and those bolded in the second column of the table.

Categories of Permeation

Permeation is the state of conceptual saturation of the life-world of an institution, specifically by value concepts. This arises through the normal routes of institutional communication in schools: policies, meetings, notices, discourses, colleague dialogue, books and films, classroom pedagogy and more informal exchanges, peer conversations, and so on. As well as the specifically linguistic, it can also include extra-linguistic communication, such as pictures, symbolic acts and behavioural modelling.


A value is any term, or a description of a state of affairs, that has the connotation of a good in a particular frame of reference, and can influence how individuals feel and behave in certain circumstances. Here, it includes specifically social, moral, spiritual, individual and achievement values. Using a variation of content analysis, values are designated by abstract nouns being assigned to sections of text that match the noun in meaning, either through being identical, transformed (e.g. syntactically) or synonymous.


Disvalues, as they are interpreted in this research, are negative states that reinforce a good or invoke a positive reaction, so are found in clusters either with or without values.


A strategy is an action, intention to act or action plan with a pedagogical aim, specifically (though not exclusively) to facilitate the teaching of a particular value or set of values.

Semiotic marker

A semiotic marker is a word or phrase that designates an object or event, either real or imaginary, which has some pedagogical significance, particularly, though not exclusively, in the teaching of values.

Intentional state

The term is taken from the phenomenological literature, from the ‘intentionality of consciousness’, used first by Brentano (1973) and then by Husserl (1970), meaning that consciousness is not a pure abstraction but is always consciousness of something, that something being either indiscriminately the perception of an object in the external world, the awareness of an emotional state, a belief, etc. In this essay ‘intentional state’ is used to denote particularly expressions of experiences in the context of a value or set of values.

Categories of Authority

Authority is understood to consist of power and control. Power is hierarchical and distributive and this distributive aspect is reproduced throughout all levels of the institution. Control, by contrast, is individual and charismatic, and limited only to a particular arena. Power and control are not themselves represented at the analytic level, but power by ‘power distribution’ and control by ‘periodicity’, ‘boundary’ and ‘symbolisation’.

Power distribution

Includes any references to the power structure, the giving (empowering) or the removal (disempowering) of power: within the class, within the school, or from outside the school.

The following three categories denote techniques for exerting control within the school environment, that arise from individual or collective autonomy, initiative and creativity, outside of the hierarchy of power. They include physical manipulation of the environment, but more specifically the manipulation of language. At the administrative level this latter is more likely to be written; at the pedagogical level it is more often spoken.


Periodicity refers to the action of patterning language with respect to time. That could include placing things in a chronological order, or even creating a time reference for a single event. It also includes introducing cycles into language through various rhetorical devices, such as rhyme, rhythm, repetition, group of three, etc, and also grammatical regularities such as parallel clauses, linking and reference, and phonological aspects such as intonation and stress. In all cases examples should be immanent in the text rather than a secondary reference.


Boundary refers to the action of using language to pattern space, of dividing space – in the widest sense, including physical and all forms of imaginary space – up and thereby bounding sections of it. Examples would be dividing the class into groups, prohibiting or promoting certain actions (dividing moral space, creating regions of ‘allowed’ and ‘not allowed’). The language tends to be imperative, but the bounding transcends the language and is ‘felt’ in the realm of meaning.


Symbolisation can include the use of visual images, but refers specifically to the manipulation of language to create images in the mind of the reader or listener. Includes, metaphor, metonymy and simile, onomatopoeia and alliteration, etc., which are immanent in the language, but also various transcendent narrative and anecdotal devices. The use of visual images, particularly used pedagogically, would probably be classed under ‘semiotic marker’.

Categories of Resistance

The natural reaction to change, particularly when that change is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to impact negatively on the relative freedom, power, status, wellbeing or economic circumstances of an individual or of an individual to act on behalf of an institution. In the context of this research the definition is more narrowly focused on the struggle between the relatively empowered and disempowered over the question of the good.

Moral autonomy

The desire of each person to be able to decide the good for themselves, irrespective of whether that good might be fundamentally selfish, self-denying or public-minded. It is the encroachment of power into the area of moral autonomy that is the basis of resistance.


Every reaction to the usurpation of moral autonomy is a form of resistance, but its manifestation can vary widely, particularly its intensity. The intensity of resistance can be categorised in a range of behaviours, from the least to the most intense: questioning, criticism, distraction, defiance and rebellion.


The target of resistance is that authority which is perceived as encroaching on moral autonomy. The identification of this source with the real situation depends entirely on the correctness of this perception. This can be problematic, as power is invariably diffused and authority notoriously subject to mythologizing by those subject to it.


We all negotiate a compromise between various goods, for example between freedom and security or leisure time and income. Sometimes this is subtler and more fundamental. The acceptance of a value requires the sacrifice of a degree of moral autonomy. Often this proceeds through an internal dialogue; sometimes the bargaining is in the open but the nature of the process is not acknowledged, as when a teacher convinces a pupil to work hard for an exam. The institutional transmission of values in a school requires a specific negotiation that may be made partially explicit, but ultimately takes place within each individual: the acceptance of a place in the moral community, which the school has to offer, in return for – at least a measure of – the pupils’ moral autonomy. That is clearly not an offer that every person feels obliged to take up. The youths in Willis’ (1977) classic study of working class pupils were clearly not willing to sacrifice their moral autonomy to accommodate academic study, despite this condemning them to a life of industrial labour. Children who truant are rebelling against the authority of the school and placing themselves outside the moral community. These are the more extreme cases, but as a measure of negotiation takes place within all individuals, there must be something that both makes the moral community an attractive proposition and assists in the mitigation of moral autonomy.

Categories of Transformation

In the notion of ‘transformation’ a link is made between the institutional and the individual. Although transformations take place within the individual, they are never spontaneous and isolated, but always related to the particular context of the individual and, in the case of transmission, the processes taking place within that institutional context.

Transformative experience

As the experience of a shared feeling constitutes the interiority of value, the acquisition of a value should logically be accompanied by a type of ‘experience’ – i.e. a transformative experience – the occurrence of which allows and enables the experiencing of that shared feeling. Though these two meanings of experience used here are distinct, as continuity of consciousness and irruptive event, they are connected at a very fundamental level, as awareness of emotional response.


The change from a state of non-acquisition of a value, particularly in the case of active resistance though not limited to this, to a state of acquisition requires an event in the individual’s personal or social environment that triggers the change. This can be something dramatic or something quite mundane, but it leads to a shift in perception. In the schools I investigated, in particular talking to students, I found evidence that such transformative experiences were invariably connected with a good personal relationship with an authority figure, sometimes with an insight into the human warmth and humour of those who must ordinarily present an authoritative role, a trigger event that I termed ‘the slipping of the mask’.

Turning inward/reflectivity

The exteriority of a value is its linguistic conceptualisation. Therefore, the acceptance of a value, particularly as this is explicitly recognised, should engender a more reflective attitude towards life. Though values are relative and underpin very different life-worlds or ‘forms of life’ (Pring, 1986), all values qua values require something of an inward turn.


Values are intrinsically shared. Moreover, they are inherently transmissive, meaning they require being transmitted. On acquiring a value, at the expense of a degree of moral autonomy, there is a need not only to reinforce the decision through invocation of the value but also to extend the moral community of the value. This underlies the sociality, actually the tribalism, of human nature, which is evident from phenomena as disparate as religion, being a fan (of a sport or a genre of music) and hobbyism.


Comparison with models of values education and models of value transmission

Because the model I have presented takes a holistic and integrative view of values transmission, it bears similarities to other holistic views in the literature. For example, Downey and Kelly (1978) and Plunkett (1990, pp.128-9) put forward similar ideas of values education being approached from one of four possible avenues: through a specialised curriculum, through a broadening of the existing curriculum, through pastoral care or through the school community. Hawkes (2010) has effectively taken all those approaches and combined them in pedagogy of values education. Hawkes, even more explicitly recommends the creation of a vocabulary of value terms to structure pedagogy, an approach essentially undertaken on a national level in Australia which has a list of desired values (Toomey, 2010), around which participating schools can design their curricular and pedagogic approaches. Seeing values education less from a curricular and more from a psychological perspective, Darom (2000) discerns four distinct aspects of education, the cognitive, affective, values and behaviour, which he believes should be integrated for education to have ‘a chance of truly touching young people’ (ibid, p.20). The model of values transmission touches on all those points but explores their theoretical connections, not only as interconnected parts of institutional structure but as aspects of a coherent mechanism.

That mechanism, which I have presented here, I would argue, builds upon, incorporates and goes beyond the mechanism put forward by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Schoenpflug (2001a), a two-stage process of awareness and acceptance. Looking at transmission from an institutional perspective, it has had to take into account issues of authority and control which are constitutive of the deontology of institutions, aspects not made explicit in their theories even if assumed, which make formal education possible and, as I have described, have a central role to play at the stage of awareness. Between awareness and acceptance there is also a hiatus, which they have not clearly addressed, that of resistance and transformation. This theory has provided a theoretical framework that bridges that gap. In some sense the theory of transmission explained here could also be said to extend Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman’s viral transmission model by incorporating the idea of the dual conceptual and symbolic functions of values, allowing them to switch from ‘diffusion’ mode to ‘infection’ mode.

The centrality of the human relationship to transmission

If there is any consensus over the frequently disputed area of values and values education it is the centrality of the human relationship and the quality of that relationship in the transmission of values. As Schönpflug reminds us (2001b, p.132), the contents of transmission are ‘particularly sensitive to the channel’ of transmission, which I interpret to mean that for the recipient of any form of information, and particularly with the case of values, which also need to be activated in the recipient, who the transmitter is, in terms of the perception of the transmitter by the recipient, is vitally important. From a negative perspective, in cases from the schools studied where teachers were not held in high regard, this had a negative impact on academic performance; and in all these cases the cause of the complaint was not their competence as teachers, which in all but a small minority would be taken as given, but their lack of warmth, remoteness or unpredictability. Research invariably backs this observation up. There is a broad area of agreement with various psychological and philosophical views that the quality of relationships is central to the idea of transmission. For Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) the relationship between the teacher (transmitter) and the taught (recipient) is a key condition of transmission. Although the focus of studies on values transmission has been on the parent child relationship, shifted into an institutional context, all of that which has been predicated of relationships in intergenerational transmission is equally true of the teacher-pupil relationship. For Schönpflug it is (2001a) that is ‘an empathetic style’; for Euler et al. (2001) it is ‘emotional closeness between the generations’; for Barni et al. (2011) it is the ‘relationship’ among the parents and the ‘consistency’ of the value message that is received, as well as the ‘closeness’ of the relationship. These all fit into a pattern of successful parenting, which most now agree is authoritative (Steinberg, et al., 1989), rather than authoritarian or permissive. This also seems a fitting description of the relationship that ought to exist between teachers and their pupils in the context of education in general, but specifically in the context of transmitting values. An ‘authoritative style’ seems a fitting description of the combination of authority and humanity of key figures that I discovered in the data from the schools , which I concluded was fundamental to a contextual transformative experience en route to the acceptance of institutional values.

An evaluation and interpretation of the model

Through this research, the aetiology of value transmission has been traced, from the nature of values having a dual role as concept-like and symbol-like, through the institutional permeation of value concepts throughout the institution, to their invocation through the medium of pedagogical control of the value concepts and their re-symbolisation for the student audience. In doing so this theoretical perspective has developed an understanding of the school as an institutional structure for value transmission, incorporating and offering a reinterpretation of its power hierarchies, and its administrative and pedagogical functions. Moreover, it has demonstrated that the definitionally problematic notion of ethos has a tangible meaning in the context of value transmission. The abstract notion of value has been shown not only to be real but implicated into and – importantly – co-defined with its institutional context, incorporating aspects of space, time, authority, strategy and dramatic play. In short values, value transmission and institutions are co-existent and inter-related conceptually (Rokeach, 1975).

It has also considered what many theorists of values education and values transmission have not, that of the role of resistance to values inculcation and its incorporation into a more inclusive theoretical model of transmission that embraces both inculcation and acquisition perspectives, through the negotiation of moral autonomy for belonging under acceptable conditions. Parsons (1959) did recognise the phenomenon of resistance to schooling, but saw that as a structural reaction to raising levels of achievement. Values education is much more than a one-dimensional race towards academic or vocational achievement, although research on longer term programmes of values education (Lovat, 2010; Toomey, 2010; Hawkes, 2010) suggest that it can impact considerably on those outcomes; it is about humanising the curriculum (Aspin and Chapman, 2000) and creating the opportunity for education to touch the lives of young people (Darom, 2000) based on ‘the kind of persons that [as a society we wish them] to grow up into’ (Pring, 1986, p.181). For this to happen, values education, as all good education, requires a transformative experience in the life of the recipient, one which can mitigate or even prevent resistance to transmission.

The emerging picture of transmission of values within an institution is both simple and complex. It can be understood at the level of an individual journey through the institution, a negotiation with and reconciliation to the demands placed by institutional belonging. But it can also be understood at the institutional level, as the workings of a complex system of interlocking hierarchies, in the cases considered here the relationship between the teacher in the classroom, the administration, management and ethos of the school, and the influence of outside forces, notably religions, local communities or constituency, and local and national governments. A school is an intricate web of control, dependence and autonomy (Morris, 1964) at every level and a consideration of the transmission of values highlights this very clearly. But at its core it is about a series of spaces and encounters in which significant relationships between authority figures and pupils flourish or wither.

Value socialisation and pedagogy

The model of values transmission should prove useful for teachers, managers and administrators within schools concerned with the pedagogy of values. Derived to solve a purely theoretical problem, that of the process of institutional value transmission, nevertheless its conclusions converge significantly with the empirically-based views and strategies of educators who take a more proactive approach to values education and add a theoretical underpinning to their programmes and curricula. As detailed in the previous section, though, it remains a highly conceptual and abstract model, so I will attempt to draw out its relevance to pedagogical practice.

The model of institutional values transmission addresses a number of issues that have been discussed in the academic literature on values education and also issues that are recognised by teachers generally, such as the role of ethos and school culture, implicit and explicit forms of values education, pupil resistance to authority, issues of student empowerment, the school as a community  as well as part of the community, school discipline, rules and regulations, friendship groups, gangs and bullying, ethnic or class tensions, and the risk of increasing alienation through raised standards, although its primary contribution is in promoting values as fundamental to all educational development and a balanced view of values education as being a process of both inculcation and acquisition.


The process of value transmission in a school can be considered as a pupil’s ‘journey’ through the institution towards the acquisition of its values. According to this model, simply stated, the necessary stages on this journey are the transition from self-empowerment (i.e. self-directed freedom and desire) to disempowerment under the authority of the institution, where they are inducted in the values, culture and structures of the institution, to empowerment (or re-empowerment) under the authority of the institution, where they have the opportunity to rationalise the choice of these values as their own.

However, these stages involve a complex choreography of institutional strategy and individual response in which the desired outcome is, or at least is experienced as, an individual choice. A pupil enters a school in which an established ethos reigns, which is promulgated by the governing body of the school, embodied in the person of the headteacher, and carried into the classroom by the teaching staff. Pupils may initially follow this as a matter of course, but at a certain point in their development, usually around puberty, when they become more morally autonomous, they may start to manifest resistant behaviours. Resistance is typically seen as problematic, but from an axiological perspective, because values must be freely assented to, resistance to the prevailing ethos – except in the more extreme cases – should be seen as a healthy and necessary development, as a testing of the moral community of the institution as a prelude to acceptance of and belonging in that community. But that resistance also has another function, which is to alert those in authority that the moral community must be sufficiently attractive that it is likely to elicit a transformative shift from resistance to acceptance and catalyse the negotiation with moral autonomy which this transformation requires.

One conclusion of this research, based on an understanding of the nature of values, is that values can only be acquired, and only acquired in any meaningful sense by an experience of the moral demand that they place upon us (‘moral’ being understood in a broad sense of ‘requiring commitment to a set of behaviours’), but that they are rarely, if ever, acquired in the absence of an intention to teach them.

None of the schools I studied had a specific values education policy or programme, although all of them considered values to be an important concern of the school and the education of values in general to be a part of what they did. The schools were different in the degree to which they were able to identify specific values which they considered important, though my research indicated that all of them had policy statements in which values were prominent, though perhaps subsidiary to the overall purpose of the texts. Again, I observed examples of PSHE classes in all the schools, and of good practice in each, but, except in one case, the   education of values was not an explicit aim of the class. The implicit education of values has an important function, in reinforcing a particular message or desired behaviour, but evidence from the research on values education indicates that an institutional discourse of values in which specific and explicit values are a pedagogical focus is more effective in terms of behavioural outcomes – and academic performance as a result. This is perhaps unsurprising, as conceptual clarity with effective practice is invariably a potent combination.

Another conclusion of this research, based on an understanding of the nature of values, is that the acquisition of a value is never merely a private experience, but through acquiescence to a shared meaning and a shared commitment to its moral demand, is bound up with belonging in a moral community (one that shares that commitment) and a shared experience. This means that schools in order to transmit values not only have to acquaint students with the meaning of value terms, make clear the expectations in terms of attitudes and behaviours, and ensure that their staff are setting an appropriate example, but also create the communal structures that both reflect and elicit that sense of belonging.

Schools face two challenges to accomplishing this. The first of these is what I have come to call ‘spontaneous sociality’. By that I mean simply the natural tendency of humans to form social groupings, not necessarily those deemed by authority to be in the interests of the common good. My research indicated that where the student body is highly heterogeneous in terms of cultural background student perception of the school as a ‘community’ is lower than where it is more homogeneous, despite this being an important focus of the official policy, and that the primary commitment of pupils is to the community of their cultural background, class, ethnicity or friendship group. While all pupils enjoy the opportunity to socialise that schools provide, they do so largely with people of the same background. This is not necessarily a problem as such – although it can lead to factionalism and be the precursor of bullying – but it tends to weaken that sense of belonging to the school community that schools clearly wish to foster, and hence commitment to its institutional values, and replace it with a sort of co-presence. This may have implications for the definition of what we mean by ‘inclusion’.

The second challenge is resistance to institutional authority, as discussed above. ‘Resistance’ is a broad category that ranges from boredom and disengagement, though criticism and disobedience to outright rebellion and non-attendance, including truanting. Although resistance creates problems for teachers and schools, it should not, except in its most extreme forms, be taken to be something essentially negative, but as an expression of moral autonomy and, as such, a precondition for the acquisition of values. Also, resistance is by no means limited to pupils. In my research, I came across instances of resistance to institutional authority from Heads, teachers and pupils, though the targets were variable and commensurate with the forms of authority with which they were dealing.

Implications and recommendations

Implications for values education

Data from the literature (Hawkes, 2010) and from the field both indicate that expectations of appropriate and good behaviour, and the organisation of the structures within the school to promote that, and to minimise poor behaviour, while a worthy end in themselves in promoting young people who aspire to play a positive role in society, are also fundamental to creating the atmosphere, ethos and culture in which academic attainment can be optimised. A school culture in which there are strict boundaries and clear sanctions for transgression, but one in which the inward pull of community is strong, a strong institutional pride and identity is fostered, but also one in which a balance between authority and humanity is maintained, is clearly fundamental to this effort. At the same time, the concept of invocation, which has largely been vindicated through this research, implies that the explicit voicing, explication and modelling of values is more important than is generally practiced within schools, and this view is strongly backed by evidence from programmes of explicit values education (Lovat, 2010). Evidence from the field in all the schools studied shows, though, that even implicit or ‘intrinsic’ approaches bear fruit in the permeation of fundamental and strongly-held values, whether those are moral, individual attainment or socio-political, into the student body.

The model of institutional values transmission described above has several implications for pedagogical practice and organisation in schools.

  1. Schools should develop an integrated and specific set of values which reflect the character of the school, reinforce the community of the school, further their commitment to creating educated persons in the broadest possible sense, and develop their place in and service of the local and wider communities of which they are a part.
  2. These values should be taught explicitly and integrated into all aspects of the school culture, particularly attitudinal and behavioural expectations. They should also be taught implicitly, by the example set by the management and staff of the school. The model does not specify that these values should be integrated into the curriculum as such, but that knowledge/skills and values should be ‘twin pillars’ of the institution, though some subjects may be naturally appropriate vehicles for the broader educational contextualisation and discussion of values.
  3. The specific values, or their origin, are less important than that these are assented to by the entire staff and reinforced on a continual basis. The expectation is that there would be a convergence on a core of common and widely shared values, though variation at the institutional level is probably socially beneficial.
  4. Although the excesses of resistance to authority, as described above, should be controlled, critical evaluation of authority and institutional values should be accepted as a natural phenomenon of cognitive development and the assertion of moral autonomy, and pupils should be encouraged to exercise their moral imagination in different scenarios, at an age-appropriate level. The inner nature of values as shared experience entails that any form of coercion is counter-productive; explanation and dialogue are the required methods to achieve acquiescence to the institutional values and their behavioural requirements.
  5. Schools should be structured in such a way as to maximise opportunities for belonging under the auspices of the school that ‘cut across’ and thus mitigate spontaneous sociality based on class, ethnicity or friendship group and primary commitments to those values (which weaken the communal integrity of the school). Evidence seems to suggest that a culture of belonging to such sub- and micro- school communities (diffused belonging) actually reinforces a sense of belonging within the greater school community. Two of the schools I studied employed a house system to good effect, but there are numerous ways to achieve this diffusion: clubs, boards, groups, teams, and projects, both internal and external.
  6. The acquisition of institutional values requires some element of personal transformation that occurs within the specific institutional context. Although in the research the manifestation of that transformation was found to be different, such as a growing academic interest, a spiritual crisis and its resolution or the assumption of greater communal responsibility, the institutional trigger was invariably the relationship between a member of staff and a pupil. Pupils look to their teachers and senior staff as role models and appreciate those who are open, friendly and helpful and who make themselves present and available, while maintaining their authority and setting clear boundaries, and clearly these are qualities that need to be sought, emphasised, nurtured and developed. Indeed, a striking finding was that it is the dissonance between the ‘mask of authority’ and the underlying humanity that plays a key role in triggering transformation.

Implications for schooling in general

Schools already provide, and are required to provide, a measure of education in values for their pupils, whether it is explicit or, more usually, implicit. As discussed above, I believe, and the evidence tends to support this viewpoint, that the more explicit the education the more pronounced are the outcomes. There is one thing to add: fundamental to values and to values education is the development of reflectivity, a higher-order and late-developmental cognitive skill, which as a technology-driven and highly pressurised culture we do not provide sufficient context for young people to develop. While I make no specific recommendations in this regard, I believe that we do our young people a disservice if we model our schools on too narrow a view of success as the success of the marketplace, and bias learning and means of knowledge acquisition too strongly towards the technocratic at the expense of the traditional, creative and reflective.

Recommendations for educational policy

  1. There should be national standards for developing and overseeing values education programmes. At the moment Ofsted oversee the provision of moral and spiritual education in English and Welsh schools, but there is no requirement for schools specifically to have a values education policy.
  2. While national oversight is important, an approach that allows schools freedom in determining their own policies of values education would be preferable, following the example of Australia, which has a nationally determined policy, but allows schools to determine their own values strategy (Lovat, 2010).
  3. The pedagogy of values should be integral to all teacher-training programmes, and an element of school and teacher evaluation.


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Value Socialisation and Pedagogy, Part 1: Issues and Trends in Values Education


Values – both allegiance to values and disagreement about values – have been and continue to be fundamental to society, culture and thought (Moor, 2004; Andrew, 1995; Werkmeister, 1970) yet, paradoxically, remain largely submerged in our individual and collective unconscious. It can, however, be reasonably asserted that conscious interest has quickened in recent years in response to a perceived ‘crisis of values’ within developed economies and modern cultures (Bindé, 2004). This quickening is felt most keenly in the political and educational establishments, where responsibility – both for the problem and the solution – is considered to lie most heavily (Giroux, 2011). A crisis in values is, in fact, not a peculiarity of our age; one only has to read almost any of the writings of antiquity to understand that laments about the waywardness of youth and the moral decline of social institutions are as old as recorded history. What is perhaps unique is the extent to which we have come to believe that schools are the key to arresting this downward spiral (MacIntyre, 1987, p.16).

In the UK the current wave of interest in values and in values education can almost be pinpointed to a specific moment in time, and began, as these things often do, with a dramatic and tragic incident, in this case the murder of a head teacher outside the gates of his school (Davies, 2005; Taylor, 2000). Of course, there were antecedent incidents and there have been subsequent, regrettably frequent, incidents at schools that have all but erased the memory of this earlier outrage. A few years prior to this there had been an upheaval in education, with the passing of the Education Reform Act (UK, 1988), itself a reaction to perceived weaknesses in the quality of schooling. But this was perhaps the moment when vague feelings of disquiet about the state of the nation’s youth and of the inadequacy of our social institutions to deal with these problems spilled over into a determination to do something, which boosted the profile of the nascent values education movement and that led to calls for moral or values education in schools and a flurry of activity on the policy front (SCAA, 1996). These early government-led initiatives were never systematically implemented or given statutory force (Hawkes, 2010), but stimulated the present oversight of spiritual and moral education provision in UK schools in Ofsted inspections (ibid), and resulted in some localised and networked  approaches to teaching values (VbE, 2014; Lepkowska, 2012/08/06).

Against this background, I wish to make two points of a philosophical nature. The first is that, for all the positive resonance of the term ‘values’, the nature of values is contentious, both as to whether such things actually exist and, if they do, what form they take. The second flows from this; it is that values education, in the absence of an understanding of the nature of that which is supposedly being transmitted, must lack an adequate theoretical foundation. Like ‘education’ itself, the transmission of values is highly contextual and sensitive to the nature of the package; it is far more than mere logistics. To illustrate this point, a common definition of values that is used within the values education establishment is that of Halstead (1996, p.5):

[Values are] principles, fundamental convictions, ideals, standards or life stances which act as general guides to behaviour or as reference points in decision making or the evaluation of beliefs or actions.

This, or something like this, may, indeed, be what most people would have in mind if they were called on to give a definition of values. But from a theoretical point of view its very inclusiveness is a weakness, as it offers no cohesive view of values that could be used in understanding the process that takes place when a value is acquired within an educational setting. This much is clear when looking at various definitions of values education. This is Taylor’s (1998, p.1) view:

[Values Education] is a relatively new umbrella term for a range of common curriculum experiences: spiritual, moral, social and cultural education; personal and social education; religious education; multicultural/antiracist education; cross-curricular themes, especially citizenship; environment and health; pastoral care; school ethos; extra-curricular activities; wider community links; collective worship/assembly; the life of the school as a learning community.

A definition of values education comprised entirely of exemplification helps in understanding the context within schools where it is taking place, but is also not of much help in understanding what takes place when values are acquired or what ought to take place in order that this activity can be deemed successful. Hawkes (2010, pp.233-234), in a similar descriptive vein, but adding a more practical edge, defines values education as:

a convenient term for a wide range of implicit and explicit activities devised to develop a values-base to the life…which are principles that guide behaviour. It explicitly develops an ethical vocabulary based on value words… It encourages reflective learning through silent reflection…It looks for ways that values can be expressed through positive behaviour in the school and community.

Hawkes attempts through this definition to build a more cohesive sense of what values education is beyond the activities which make it up. It moves beyond being merely a collective noun for thematically related activities to something with a distinctive and positive praxis. Even here, though, it is unclear whether there is a coherent conceptual idea underpinning the project.

In part 2 of this essay I will discuss a theoretical model of values transmission derived from philosophical considerations of value and research into good practice in schools exhibiting a range of governance models, proposing a theoretical basis for values education as a coherent enterprise. In this first part, though, I intend to set the scene by considering the main trends and issues in values education over the past thirty years, values in the curriculum, values and character education, values and tradition, and values and wellbeing, concluding with an overview of the emerging themes within values education, including many of the unresolved issues with which any model attempting to provide a coherent theoretical underpinning will have to engage.

Values in the Curriculum

Whether and to what extent values should form an explicit and distinct part of the school curriculum is something that has formed an integral part of the discourse on values education. In examining the philosophical, political and sociological dimensions of implementing values education into the school curriculum, Richard Pring (1986, p.181) declares that it is inescapable that ‘the educational activities promoted by any society are intimately connected to what that society believes to be a valuable form of life…[T]he particular values embodied in what is designated educational will be about the kind of persons that the society wishes its young people to grow up into.’ However, he believes that these values will not yield to ‘philosophical analysis’. Instead he argues that values are local and historically conditioned, and cites in favour of this view the controversies and arguments over values even within our own society and its educational system. To educate someone ‘entail[s] the introduction to a valued form of life but …what [that is] is essentially a matter for moral debate’ (ibid, p.182).

In an interview that I conducted with him on 11th September 2009, Pring reiterated much the same view, which is that the development of a person’s values is contingent upon the nature of the community or communities in which they are raised, and this issue cuts to the question of the nature of community that schools should embody in order to transmit the appropriate values to the next generation. Pring seems to believe that the resolution of this implicit relativism, which particularly troubles moral philosophers such as MacIntyre (1981), lies somewhere between reasoned debate, an appeal to the intrinsic worth of human life and the requirement of social continuity: ‘You’ve got to create the kind of communities in which the values which are humanly important to provide social cohesion…are somehow embodied and these young people are introduced to them’. I hold essentially the same position as Pring on this, although I suspect that the conflict of values plays a more significant role than he allows and perhaps reasoned debate less than we would like (citation from interview used with approval of interviewee).

Awareness of the dangers of educating young people in a critical tradition that can result in the radical transformation of culture has meant that politics has always exercised some form of control over what schools teach and this has manifest itself in recent times in the call for schools to be involved in the education of values (Pring, 1986, p.182-183). Recognising this, Pring turns his attention to the substantive values that he believes can and should be transmitted ‘through the content of the curriculum but also through the methods of teaching and through the general ethos of the school’:

  • The respect for rule-governed behaviour, and for the authorities.
  • The respect for persons, whether oneself or others.
  • Respect for the truth.
  • Trusting and unselfish relationships.
  • A sense of justice and fairness.

He argues, though, that:

it would be wrong to translate the general concern for personal and social development, and for developing in particular a set of defensible values, into the content of specific subjects…For that could be but a distraction from the more important questions that a school should be asking about the impact of the curriculum as a whole upon the values of individual pupils (ibid, p.189).

Pring then draws on the evidence of a survey of twelve schools, which correlated outcomes in terms of exam results, behaviour and attendance with the general school ethos. By ‘ethos’ what is meant are ‘the various stable procedures through which business is conducted towards individuals and their work, towards the community as a whole, and towards those outside the school’ (ibid, p.190).

Aspin and Chapman (2000, p.122) consider the role of values education to be that of humanising the curriculum, in directing it towards ‘educating for excellence in the life of virtue’. They see this as including moral, political and personal values.

[V]alues exist [and] are found in and embodied across the whole curriculum. Values are not definable as though they were an autonomous element in the curriculum, as being in some way a separate subject, with its own body of theory, cognitive content, typical activities, disciplinary procedures or criteria for success. Values permeate everything that we do in the curriculum – including the naming, defining and inter-relating of all its parts. And that is because of the point made above, that description and evaluation are inextricably entwined activities (ibid, p.136).

What seems clear from these readings is that values are not to be considered as something apart from the information and activities that constitute the normal life of the school. That is not to say that values is an area that can safely be ignored; it is, rather, an area that requires particular attention, but one that should be integrated into the processes and procedures of the school. Such considerations have also informed the debate on the implementation of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) education. Within the context of the provisions of the National Curriculum and the 1988 ERA, it is obvious that provision should be made within schools for the implementation of SMSC policy. The philosophical raison d’être has been variously expressed, as in this rather flowery statement: ‘Just as such biological development requires appropriate conditions – to do with such things as climate and soil in the case of plants – so, the (Ofsted) report claims, the personal development of pupils demands a favourable ‘climate and soil’…provided and promoted by the school’ (White 1994, p. 370, cited in Dillon and Maguire, 1997).

There are probably two areas from which strong support and push for the implementation of this policy derives. The first is among the general public, and particularly the parents of school pupils, perceiving an apparent decline in ‘moral standards, particularly among young people’ (SCAA, 1996, p.8). This perception has, over the past two decades, filtered through to government policy and local initiatives. The other comes from the opposite end of the process, in the Ofsted inspections to which schools are periodically subjected and which has kept the pressure on schools for the incremental implementation of SMSC policy. Left to themselves, most schools would probably have quietly dropped this provision of the National Curriculum due to the burden of the existing administrative and teaching loads. As it is, according to Dillon and Maguire (1997, p.184), ‘Many schools are choosing to write a policy statement on SMSC. When developing the policy, three key issues are paramount. These are the need to consult, the provision of a rationale to support the proposed framework and a strategy to put the policy into practice’.

There are naturally difficulties to a successful implementation of any policy on this scale. Pring details five areas of difficulty in relation to Personal and Social development, which would be equally valid in the case of SMSC: conceptual, political, ethical, empirical and organisational (Pring, 1984, pp.4-7). Some of the tensions involved in setting out on a policy like SMSC were recognised by the government in the 1970s:

The educational system is charged [firstly] with equipping young people to take their place as citizens and workers…Secondly there is responsibility for educating the ‘autonomous citizen’, a person able to resist exploitation, to innovate and…[defend] liberty. These two functions do not always sit easily together (DES, 1977, quoted in Pring, 1984).

Several strategies have been proposed for the implementation of spiritual and moral education. Downey and Kelly (1978) propose four possible strategies for the implementation of moral education in schools: a specific, timetabled, subject ‘Moral Education’; through broadening the scope of the existing curriculum to include a moral dimension; through pastoral care supplementary to the existing curriculum; and through the school community. In considering the teaching of spiritual values Plunkett (1990) outlines a similar range of strategies and draws up the advantages and disadvantages of each. Discussing the use of the curriculum for teaching spirituality, for example, he states:

…a pupil will often learn thinking skills, aesthetic standards, religious values, healthcare, interpersonal qualities, and so forth, not from a specific subject but from the pervasive of multiple and often uncoordinated inputs into the total programme…The curriculum has become an instrument of economic and social policy when it should be just as much a spiritual celebration of humanity’s inner and outer beauty (Plunkett, 1990, pp.128-9)

As Dillon and Maguire have pointed out, most schools pursuing the implementation of SMSC have done so through the writing of a policy statement (1997, op. cit.). The hope is that this is in some way incorporated into the ‘ethos’ of the school, a factor of agreed significance by all interested parties (SCAA, 1996, p.11). Citizenship education and PSE(PSHE) is also seen by many as playing potentially significant roles in the implementation of this policy (SCAA, 1996, pp.14-16), though some of the recommendations have already been implemented with as yet inconclusive results.

One issue that has been discussed in relation to values is the ‘hidden curriculum’. Carr and Landon (1999) discuss the various senses in which values are thought to be hidden in the hidden curriculum, such as being a part of unofficial knowledge, being implicit, spontaneously emerging or being deliberately concealed (ibid). In order to understand their role in the hidden curriculum they develop a concept of values as ‘principled dispositions or preferences conducive to the promotion of defensible goals or individual and social flourishing’ (ibid, p.24). It is this practical nature of values that makes their concealment possible; they are hidden in practices which do not require that they be made explicit verbally (except, ironically, when those same practices are brought into question), which also makes their deliberate concealment possible by those who do not want the practices of the institution to be too closely scrutinised (ibid). They disparage both conservative and liberal views on the values of the hidden curriculum based on a ‘weak consensus’ and call for a more robust commitment to inquiring into the ‘objective truth’ of judgements made on the basis of these values (ibid, pp.26-27).

 Values and Character Education

Richard Peters (1981) examines the apparent paradox that exists between following rules and traditions in order to arrive at a rational moral position. He draws finally on Aristotle’s dictum (Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter 3-4) that ‘the virtues we get by first exercising them…we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts’. In the context of educating children in morality, Peters claims that ‘it is only if habits are developed in a certain kind of way that the paradox of moral education can be avoided in practice’ (ibid, 1981, p.60). What this way is, is beyond the scope of philosophy, but empirical evidence from psychology suggests that the existence of a loving and trusting relationship between parents and children is an important factor (ibid, p.54).

For some, the role that it was hoped that values education would play within the life of schools has largely been filled by citizenship education. There have been a number of critiques of citizenship education, but Kristjan Kristjansson (2002) advances a critique from the perspective of a style of character education known as ‘non-expansive character education’, one which he maintains the proponents of that style have not themselves thought through or taken advantage of. Kristiansson’s first charge (ibid, p.209) is that the concept of democracy implied in citizenship education is a particularly Western and liberal one.

McLaughlin and Halstead (1999) introduced a distinction into values education between ‘non-expansive character education’ and ‘expansive character education’. Kristjansson (2002) refined those definitions, showing that while both employ methodological substantivism – basically a mixture of teaching methods – non-expansive character education takes an approach that he terms moral cosmopolitanism, the teaching of ‘transcultural values and ‘moral basics’’, whereas expansive character education takes an approach which he calls moral perspectivism, the teaching of a highly selective range of values (ibid, pp.209-10). Citizenship education, according to Kristjansson, ‘constitutes a quintessential programme of expansive character education’. The values with which Citizenship is concerned are those of ‘democracy’, but not only with the transmission of facts about these values but the inculcation of these values through ‘an extensive programme of character moulding’ (ibid).

Kristjansson then raises his major objection to Citizenship education which is that it ‘politicises values education beyond good reason, by assuming that political literacy and specific (democratic) social skills, rather than the transcultural ‘moral basics’, are the primary values to be transmitted’ (ibid, p.212). There is a danger implicit in the programme of citizenship in that ‘the emphasis on this new foundation subject runs the risk of overshadowing and sidelining the necessary core of all values teaching, including justice teaching, namely, the inter-human psychological capabilities and moral virtues that lay the basis for social and political skills. To put it bluntly, the danger is that the cart will be put before the horse’ (ibid, p.212).

Kristjansson (2002, pp.214-216) moves on to detail three specific areas of disagreement between citizenship education and non-expansive character education. First, citizenship privileges the ‘right’ over the ‘good’, employing a more deontologically based concept of justice, in which moral goodness is subservient to social institutions and particularly the notion of ‘rights’. Non-expansive character education, on the other hand, asserts that justice and other values are fundamentally ‘personal virtues’ before they come to have social and institutional significance for the individual. Secondly, non-expansive character education is pluralist to a wider range of political settlements than the narrower democratic, rights-based view of citizenship, but is less accepting of a plurality of lifestyles. The value of tolerance is not given primacy to the extent that it is in citizenship, but non-expansive character education can countenance the idea of personal and communal justice existing even under conditions of unjust government, the corollary being that social justice can exist only where just individuals hold sway. The third disagreement is over the relationship between morality and politics. Kristjansson (ibid) perceives the danger of citizenship education is that primacy is given to the political over the moral, the latter becoming in some way derivative. He believes this would overturn almost the entire philosophical tradition stemming from Plato and Aristotle who considered the morality of the individual logically anterior to the social virtues.

Darom considers another distinction, or tension, that arises in implementing the education of values in school. He begins (Darom, 2000, p.16) by contrasting the often conflicting views of humanistic education and values education. He states that humanistic education ‘focuses on the individual whose growth and development, needs and aspirations are considered paramount in all educational processes’. By contrast, values education ‘emphasises involvement with others – individuals, communities, society – commitment and social action’ (ibid). Darom sees his task as integrating these two perspective s within a common humanistic values education.

Darom (2000) looks at the interdependence of four aspects of education, the cognitive, affective, values and behaviour. ‘Education can thus be considered a system having four sub-systems, every one of which plays an equally decisive part in the system as a whole. If any one of them is neglected, the whole educational process is incomplete…By striving for the fullest possible integration of these four domains…education has a chance of truly touching young people, of sowing seeds of intellectual and moral honesty and personal commitment’ (ibid, p.20). In particular, an individual’s value system has three components: personal, interpersonal and social values. ‘These three are an indivisible whole; a structure whose stability – whose very existence – depends on their more or less successful blending’ (ibid).

There seems a relative consensus that values education should take a holistic approach to educating the whole person, addressing the various dimensions of human life such as the social, spiritual, economic and political spheres, the academic, physical and cultural skills, and the individual, interpersonal and collective levels. On that basis Darom’s distinction between humanistic education and values education seems superficially redundant; however, it alludes to an issue already discussed, in the previous section, that of the dichotomous purpose of education: whether it is preparation for a critical evaluation of, or for participation within, the existing social and economic order. This essay does not seek to answer that question, except inasmuch as it bears upon the related issue of the balance between the desire of agencies within society to inculcate their values and the desire of individuals to freely acquiesce in the values that seem in their own – hopefully enlightened – interest.

Tradition and Values

In the first of the Richards Peters lectures in 1985, Alasdair MacIntyre sounded a pessimistic note about the future of education. ‘Teachers are the forlorn hope of the culture of Western modernity’ (MacIntyre, 1987, p.16), he declared, meaning that they are both at the forefront of the effort to maintain that culture and that their efforts are destined to fail. MacIntyre believes that the task which we have set for teachers is impossible to accomplish ‘because the two major purposes which teachers are required to serve are, under the conditions of Western modernity, mutually incompatible’ (ibid). These purposes are, first, to educate a young person to take up a role in social and economic life, a role pre-determined by that society; and, secondly, to educate the young how to think and to gain intellectual autonomy. However,

[T]hese two purposes can be combined only if the kind of social roles and occupation for which a given educational system is training the young are such that their exercise requires, or is at least compatible with, the possession of a general culture, mastery of which will enable each young person to think for him or herself (ibid, p.16).

The coexistence of these two requirements can only occur, MacIntyre is arguing, only where there exists what he terms an ‘educated public’. There have been times in history when such an educated public has existed, for example in France, England and America, and the case he cites is the Scotland of the eighteenth century enlightenment. But ‘as a matter of contingent fact specifically modern post-enlightenment societies and cultures now exclude the conditions which make this coexistence possible’ (ibid, p.17). MacIntyre locates the conditions for the existence of an educated public in the contingent existence of a consensus on procedures and institutions for the conduct of rational debate, marked by an ‘agreement to participate in a particular ongoing debate, [where] allegiance to the purposes of the debate would have to be as important to the participants as their allegiance to their own point of view’ (ibid, p.33). It is the existence of these particular conditions that MacIntyre considers to have vanished with the advent of modernity. One of the causes of that dissolution is the sweeping of intellectual discourse from the broader society into the realm of ‘professionalized and specialized academic discipline[s]’ (ibid):

[T]he possibility of thinking for oneself, other than as a professional specialist, only opens up in the context of a certain type of community and that … kind of community is no longer available, indeed has not been generally available to post-Enlightenment culture for quite some time (ibid, p.34).

He considers the one possibility of returning to such a culture is an education in which the reading of the Greek political and philosophical texts is central.

The return to an intellectual tradition is one of the ongoing dialogues in the philosophy of education. This dialogue which began in Britain really with the publication of MacIntyre’s book After Virtue (1981) has been paralleled in America with cultural critiques such as T. S. Eliot’s Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1962) and Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987). Commenting on MacIntyre’s Richard Peters lecture, Graham Haydon considers that:

It has sometimes seemed that either education, in transmitting values, will merely be an agency by which the domination of one cultural tradition over others is sustained; or that, in attempting to avoid that outcome, it will leave the way open to a scepticism about whether moral values and ethical life have any meaning at all it may be that [there is] an understanding of the ethical life that allows us to make realistic sense of a third possibility: that it is indeed part of the business of education to sustain the ethical life, but in a way that can embrace pluralism within the ethical life. If this is not a possibility, perhaps MacIntyre’s pessimism will be justified after all (Haydon, 1987, p.12).

There are those, naturally, for whom the fragmentation of tradition is seen as both a natural and a positive development. Susan Mendus traces the arguments of MacIntyre, Bloom and Eliot back to a ‘myth of the fall’ and a golden age when traditions were intact. She rejects this view, partly because it was a myth, and rejects the call for a return to the past because of ‘a belief that the past is not as good as it is said to be, and … the belief that such a return is, where not possible, intellectually disreputable’ (Mendus, 1992, p.182). She claims that the return to such a mythical golden age requires ‘an innocence that we no longer have and which we can only ‘regain’ by intellectual deception’ (ibid). Mendus locates the source of this inauthenticity in the idea that the solutions to the problems of our age and, necessarily the problems of education, lie in a transcendental realm. Her own view is that modernity is characterised by ‘reflective consciousness’ and that education should be fostering that capacity in the young, not cultivating an inordinate respect for tradition. Education ‘must, of course, appeal to the past. But it must also remember that we possess the past; the past does not possess us, and our task now is not to return to a lost world, but to seek and create a new one’ (ibid).

Responding to Mendus, Ruth Jonathan questions whether the crisis in education brought about by the fragmentation of value resulting from the relentless assault of critical rationality can really be solved by more of the same (Jonathan, 1993, p.171). While accepting that the supposed homogeneity of the pre-modern world is frequently exaggerated, she argues that one of the consequences of relentless criticism is a ‘quantitative and exponential increase in the rate of cultural fragmentation [that] has resulted in a qualitative change both in the social world and for the developing individual’ (ibid, p.173). While Jonathan does not suggest that the solution to this crisis is a return to tradition as such, she warns that the predicament that is already engulfing modernity cannot be resolved by continuing the same emphasis within liberal education (ibid, p174); otherwise, the result will be a social relativism in which the individual good is only that which the individual chooses and the social good reduced to that which allows the individual such latitude (ibid, p176).

Mendus’ stance that a return to a more innocent, traditional view of the world is ‘intellectually disreputable’ I understand but find overstated. Ricoeur (1967), for example, maintains that while fully cognisant of the facticity of the historical origins of founding myths, indeed because we are so aware, we are, nevertheless, able to enter into a state of ‘second naivety’ that is as profound as the ‘first naivety’ but richer because it is based on knowledge and conscious decision, rather than ignorance and uncritical acceptance. Moreover, Gadamer (1994, p.298) argues that it is the temporal distance between the events in mythic time to which a text refers and the present that creates the possibility for the discovery of truth, through a fusion of the horizon of the present with the horizon of the text. The culture of modernity, if it anywhere exists outside of university departments, is characterised by a lack of a socially cohesive worldview. But on the very grounds of rationalistic critique, such a worldview cannot exist, except perhaps in the reductive caricature that Jonathan outlines, where we are all thrown into a state of moral solipsism. Yet, both intellectually and intuitively we accept the existence of society, which means we uncritically accept a type of myth. Within all social institutions, including educational institutions, a plurality of myths are fostered, many of which embody the core values of the institution. Many of those are held in a state of ‘second naivety’ in which they are half-believed but fully endorsed; in many of the most enduring and adaptable institutions these myths are reinterpreted into new and shifting contexts without dissolving the integrity of their mythic core.

Values and Wellbeing

The issue of student wellbeing and its relationship to values education has emerged as a focus for educators in the early twenty first century. Much of this development has been focused in Australia where the government has been promoting a programme of values education based on a set of 9 common Australian values that define citizenship in the nation and in a global community, a programme that each state and territory education board is following, although the actual policies and methodologies are being left to each area, and even each school, to define, mixing cross-curriculum and stand-alone approaches (Lovat, 2010, pp.3-7). The intellectual paradigm that supports this programme is the ‘double helix effect’, which asserts, based on psychological and neuroscientific evidence, that the goals of ‘learning implied in quality teaching (intellectual depth, communicative competence, empathetic character, self-reflection) [are] more readily and easily achieved in the learning ambience created by values education’ (Lovat, ibid, p.7). The programme thus sets out to achieve benefits in two spheres: that of individual wellbeing and a reinvigorated sense of citizenship and, presumably, national engagement.

Although the model of values education is openly declared to be one of inculcation at the classroom level (ibid), which has its critics and detractors, the organisation is locally based and proceeds with full student involvement. In schools which are operating these programmes there are four main components: a common language of values and shared expectations about personal and interpersonal behaviour that lie at the core of the school’s values education programme; a positive dynamic in the teacher-pupil interaction; the modelling of appropriate and expected behaviour by teachers; and the incorporation into the programme of an external service project that provides an opportunity for pupils to be involved in a public good (Toomey, 2010). Through this, in addition to the ‘double helix effect’, there is also a ‘troika effect’ emerging from the relationship ‘between values education, quality teaching and service learning’ (ibid, p.20). Students are involved in the establishment of this structure at an early stage through Student Action Teams that identify a need in the local community and plan a strategy and action programme of engagement (ibid). Toomey asserts that this is pedagogically sound and evidence-based as it has been shown to provide a sense of empowerment through taking initiative, social bonding through teamwork, and a sense of self-worth through giving to others.

By contrast with the Australian experience with values education, which seems to be affirmative, progressive, incremental and joined up, balancing political will with local initiative, and based on cumulative evidence from pilot schemes and scientific evidence, the experience with values education in the UK seems to be an object lesson in how not to approach it (Haydon, 2010). As in Australia, it was a perception that values relativism was an underlying problem of social ills that prompted attempts to discover shared values that could be taught in schools. In 1996 the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) convened the National Forum on Values in Education and the Community, bringing together some 150 people from organisations representing all sectors of society. Their brief was to arrive at a consensus of values that were shared across British society. They came up with a Statement of Values that is now appended to the National Curriculum (National Forum on Values in Education and the Community, 1997). However, its recommendations, and that of subsequent policy initiatives in this area, were never given statutory force, and uptake has been left almost entirely to individual schools (Haydon, 2010; Hawkes, 2010). Instead, values education in the UK has followed the twin paths of PSHE and Citizenship Education, which Haydon (2010) argues has compartmentalised wellbeing and personal responsibility, unlike the programme of values education in Australia, which has integrated these two functions effectively.

Being based on a consensus model, the values the NFVEC’s Statement contains have a tendency to be generalised expression of values-based intent rather than very specific named values as in the case of the Australian government’s National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools (Commonwealth of Australia, 2005). My own view is that this different approach may have resulted from different perceptions of where the problem of value relativism lay. During the twentieth century Australian schooling abandoned its original charter to teach values and became values-neutral (Lovat, 2010), effectively removing standards against which pupil behaviour could be judged. The move to values education is thus a recovery of its original intent. By contrast, British schools have largely maintained a tradition of values education through RE and more recently through PSE/PSHE, although the 1988 Education Reform Act clearly intended to enshrine this function in law (UK, 1988). The problem of value relativism, therefore, is more likely to have been located in society as a whole rather than in education in particular, and for this reason the response more diffuse and ambivalent.

Emerging Themes within the Educational Discourse

Having reviewed the literature around values education and the formal education system in the UK, a number of themes have begun to emerge, prominent among which are: the source of values; the degree of autonomy/control over the curriculum; the rationale, reason or role of values education; the medium for values education and the strategy for implementation of a values education programme; the dimensions of values education; the degree of integration, both internal and external, of programmes; and conflicts, antimonies and unresolved aspects of values education. Each of these themes will be considered, synthesising information from the literature considered.

a) Sources of institutional values

Religion and faith communities: Macmullen (2004, p. 603) argues that religious education and religious upbringing together provide the basis for an ‘ethical autonomy’ although this needs to be conducted within the context of rationality rather than dogmatic faith. While rejecting the aspect of religious observance in schools as divisive, Ward (2008) recognises the higher moral standards of faith schools as something that should be aspirational. Like Macmullen (2004) he believes that pupils should be taught about religions within a framework of rational inquiry. Halstead (2007) has a radically different perspective. Schools, he proposes, should support the religious observance and identity of the home and faith community through an inter-faith ethos built on the foundation of the British cultural values of tolerance, cross-cultural understanding and respect.

Traditions: Traditions are longstanding institutionalised behaviours, in which values – often implicit – are embedded, that are passed to succeeding generations. Clearly, religious beliefs and practices are an important source of values and traditions for many institutions, including schools, though McIntyre (1987), Eliot (1962) and Bloom (1987) all refer to an intellectual tradition in which the reading of the classics is fundamental.

Government initiatives: Government has always had a measure of interest in the moral as well as the academic education of children (Arthur, n.d.), but it was only with the Education Reform Act (1988) that it started to play a more active role in promoting values within education. Apart from Religious Education, provision of which is mandatory for all schoolchildren up to 16, most schools, including independents, have some form of Personal, Health and Social Education (PSHE), although the contents are not mandated, and Citizenship, which was (until 2014) a part of the National Curriculum.

Local communities: Pring (1986, p.182) argues that values, rather than being absolute or universal, the result of a rational analysis, are rooted in the particular view of a society and the moral decisions it makes, and in the local, historically conditioned communities that engender and introduce the rising generation into a ‘valued form of life’.

b) Degree of autonomy/control over the curriculum

There are a number of parameters through which the degree of autonomy or control over the curriculum, including the provision for values education, can be ascertained, though they tend to converge upon particular modes – what might be referred to as models – of governance. For example funding, status with regard to the National Curriculum and ability to select are parameters of control which are, in theory, independent of each other, yet tend to be highly ideological markers of the to-and-fro of policy-making. State schools, including both community schools and Voluntary Controlled and Voluntary Aided faith schools, follow the National Curriculum, have local government oversight and funding and, apart from the few remaining state grammar schools, are non-selective. Independent schools are self-governing and financing, are not required to follow the National Curriculum, although many opt to teach some parts of it, and are completely selective.

Specifically regarding values education, as this is not included in the NC and the only requirement of Ofsted is that the spiritual needs of pupils are being met, this gives schools a relatively free hand in how and to what degree they meet this requirement. Clearly, faith schools of all types are committed to giving a religious education, both doctrinal and experiential, to their pupils. There are also a small but growing number of ‘values schools’ (part of a movement for values education rather than an officially-recognised designation), whose syllabus, pedagogy and daily routines are built around a set of core values (VbE, 2014).

c) Rationale, reason or role of values education

Rationale, reason and role are not identical, but they bear a close relationship, rationale being closer to an explicit justification – often requiring documentation, such as a policy statement (Dillon and Maguire, 1997) – and role more of an implicit, understood purpose or function. The reasons given for values education are advanced more philosophically and address the moral requirements of society. For Pring (1986, p.182) that is the creation and perpetuation of the ‘form[s] of life’ that society considers ‘valuable’; for Aspin and Chapman (2000, p.122) it is to promote ‘excellence in the life of virtue’. The SCAA cites a more pragmatic and pressing reason: to address parents’ perception of apparent decline in the ‘moral standards…among young people’ (SCAA, 1996, p.8).

d) Medium and implementation of values education

The process of implementation of values education begins with an impetus and that seems to derive mostly from the public, represented particularly by those who are most directly involved, that is, the parents of children within school (SCAA, 1996). But a secondary driving force is also the inspection regime initiated in conjunction with the National Curriculum, Ofsted, which as part of its responsibilities checks for the provision of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education; but while it can recommend, there is no statutory requirement for schools to have a policy in place (Hawkes, 2010). Implementation of a values education policy has three steps: a period of consultation; a rationale for the policy; and an implementation strategy (Dillon and Maguire, 1997). There are three basic strategies to implement a values education programme: through the curriculum, through pastoral care and through the whole community (Downey and Kelly, 1978); moreover, there is a decision whether to have a separate timetabled subject within the school curriculum or to adapt the existing curriculum. Bigger and Brown (1999) advocate a cross-curricular implementation of values education, but many schools favour a whole school approach of embedded values. The experience from Australia shows both approaches can work (Lovat, 2010). Pring (1984), though, doubts the cross-curricular approach and favours more the transmission of a core of values through the general ethos of the school and ways of teaching. Increasingly, there is also recognition that non-curricular and non-directive aspects of school life, the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’, also play a part in the education of values (Carr and Landon, 1999).

e) Dimensions of values education

There is near universal agreement that values education is a complex phenomenon, interwoven into all strands of the educational process, which needs to address the multi-dimensionality of human life as well as that of the social institutions of schooling. Darom (2000) attempts to encapsulate this within four educational sub-systems, that of the cognitive, affective, behavioural and values, the latter which is itself comprised of personal, interpersonal and social values. This, though, is a predominantly psychological reading of the issue. A differing interpretation, although I prefer to see it as complementary, is that offered from a socio-cultural perspective, that of the ‘ends’ of education – individual wellbeing and the public good – and the ‘means’ of education – the infrastructure, materials and processes necessary to promote the values within the cultural spheres of the political, economic, moral and spiritual (Plunkett, 1990; Dillon and Maguire, 1997; Aspin and Chapman, 2000; Darom, 2000; Kristjansson, 2002; Haydon, 2010).

f) Degree of integration – internal and external – of programmes

To speak of a programme being integrated means that the various aspects such as the rationale for implementing the programme, the medium or means for delivering it, the people and agencies bringing their various skills to the programme, and means of assessing the outcomes, are part of a strategic oversight, both within an institution and in relation to the wider society. By this measure, the development of values education within state education in the UK has to be considered to be poorly integrated. There has never been a fully developed strategic view, and even when the prospects for one seemed at their highest in the late 1990s, the proposals were watered-down and eventually led to a series of recommendations and a fairly weak assessment regime (Hawkes, 2010). The approach has rather been piecemeal, perhaps reflecting a national unease about ideologically-driven or inculcatory approaches to values. Values education in the past would have been delivered through Religious Education or some form of Moral Education, but the moral content of RE at least has been somewhat attenuated through the focus upon appreciating cultural difference and the differing cultural experience (Barnes, 2011). There has been an attempt to introduce values education and character education through PSHE and Citizenship (Arthur, n.d.), but Haydon (2010) has argued that this approach has effectively compartmentalised well-being and personal responsibility. Moreover, Kristjansson (2002) criticises Citizenship for giving precedence to political values over moral ones. By contrast, ‘values schools’ and others that have implemented explicit values education policies have tended to have integrated approaches consisting of such things as core values and a values language promoted throughout the school, common behavioural expectations and reflective practice (Hawkes, 2010). In Australia, the government has taken the initiative in promoting ‘Australian values’ through various state sponsored programmes. Although the specifics of the programmes are decided at regional and even school level they have common features: they are based on psychological and neuroscientific evidence that the combination of quality teaching and values education promotes good learning and personal outcomes (Lovat, 2010); and they consist of four essential elements of a language of values and expectations, positive relations between teachers and pupils, appropriate modelling of behaviour by teachers and the incorporation of an external service project (Toomey, 2010).

g) Conflicts, paradoxes and unresolved aspects of values education

Actual programmes of values education often fall short of the complex multidimensionality outlined in section e) above, being too limited, too tentative or too partial. However, these are problems essentially of implementation. There are also unresolved theoretical issues, though some arise out of ideological differences or simply lack of empirical data.

A number of commentators have pointed out various paradoxes in the overall moral purpose of education today. MacIntyre (1987, p.16), echoing a cautionary note sounded by the DES in 1977 (cited in Pring, 1984), sees a fundamental contradiction between education as preparation for working in the economy and education for intellectual autonomy. The Australian experiment with values education programmes, though it is young, seems to be confounding such pessimistic views and showing that all aspects of pupils’ lives can be enhanced. Perhaps values education does, as Aspin and Chapman (2000, p.122) argue, ‘humanise the curriculum’, meaning that it allows all dimensions of human experience to be integrated through practices. Not everyone is convinced of this. Foster (2001), for example, maintains that the openly inculcatory practices of many programmes, such as those in Australia, undermine some fundamental democratic assumptions.

Implicit in this discourse is the fundamental pedagogical conflict over whether education, and specifically values education, should be achieved through a process of inculcation, in which weight is given to the educator of a given set of values – political, religious or traditional – or through a process of acquisition, in which weight is given to the acquirer of values, probably by some form of self-realisation. My starting assumption would be that inculcation and acquisition both play some role in the transmission of values, and in Part 2 of this essay I will propose a mechanism for transmission that incorporates both.

Both Mendus (1992) and Jonathan (1993) see the incommensurability of critical rationalism with the existence of a tradition, though they evaluate this conflict differently, the former a more strident rationalist and the latter a more concerned rationalist. Certainly to my satisfaction, though, tradition and reason seem to find a resolution within the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer (1994) and Ricoeur (1967), in Gadamer’s idea of the fusion of the horizon of the past with the horizon of the present, and Ricoeur’s concept of the re-mythologised ‘second naivety’. The concept of values as a philosophical proposition mediates somewhat this debate, as values lie at the core of traditions, whether embraced in toto or demythologised into moral assumptions and practices.

In this context, it is worth mentioning the clash between faith and reason, which seems to be one of the recurrent motifs within education with direct relevance to values education. There seems to be a default assumption that reason prevail, a position that I have strong sympathy with; yet, the dangers of over-rationalisation have been made clear, by Jonathan (1993) amongst others. Faith has played, and continues to play in my estimation, an important role in the cultural life of societies; it should be shaped and controlled by reason, but not consumed in a firestorm of reason. All values, including faith and reason, should be self-replenishing in stable, balanced and dynamic societies. However, our institutions should be multi-valued, not mono-valued, whether that be faith or reason or some other, although there is a good case, I believe, for institutions to be disposed to holding to particular sets of values, and these differently-valued institutions competing in the social arena.

Peters (1981) brings attention to a fundamental antinomy in moral education, which overlaps significantly with values education, between following rules and a rational morality, and locates its possible resolution in parental upbringing (ibid), something that finds empirical support in the research on intergenerational transmission of values (Schoepflug, 2001a; Euler et al., 2001; Barni et al., 2011). It boils down to, as Brighouse (2006, cited in Haydon, 2010, p.198) says, living it ‘from the inside’. As in the debate over inculcation versus acquisition it is necessary that at some level institutional requirement, whether that be legal or moral, is matched by individual assent, and that requires a specific type of management in an institutional setting such as a school.

Finally, Pring (1986) raises the thorny issue of the paradox that the social values that are considered fundamental to social life – and in that sense absolute – are, nonetheless, locally and historically conditioned. As the title of this essay suggests, and a theme that will be more fully explored in part 2, a major function of values education – perhaps the only function ultimately – is the socialisation of the individual, and that proceeds regardless of the particular set of values that is transmitted. It may be that across cultures there is a convergence on the most important values. It is certainly true that within majority cultures the existence of sub-cultures with values, principles and priorities at variance with the major culture and with each other can give rise to social tension and potentially fuel conflict. What seems obvious is that at the institutional or national level we must create opportunities for multiple belonging to be as widely accessible as possible.


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The Limits of Tolerance

Attacks like the one we saw in the heart of London last week always set in motion a series of political spasms on the right and the left, the right decrying the lack of calling a spade a spade in the establishment media, in that the danger is posed not just by Islamist terrorism, or by fundamentalist Islam, but by Muslims in general who are here in too great numbers, the left by denouncing any questions or criticism directed to Islam or the customs and practices of Muslims in the UK or elsewhere as ‘Islamophobia’ and thereby beyond the pale and to be dismissed without consideration.

Beyond this predictable ruckus, the response of the country, the political classes and the media by and large have been measured and proportionate. But for the long term to preserve the peace and the arc of social development the nature and role of tolerance needs to be explored and buttressed with more considered arguments and perspectives than are normally encountered in political soundbites and the media.

This issue has become one of some urgency for democratic cultures which are under assault from two very different sources. One is the more obvious influx and settlement of cultures with a rapidly growing demographic profile – specifically, though not uniquely, Islam – which have little or no tradition of liberal democracy, have a generally low tolerance for dissent, and at their most extreme actively call for the abolition of secular institutions and the imposition of religious or other alien laws. The other is a hypertrophied form of tolerance ideology which has taken over large parts of the left, displacing the traditional championship of the working class with that of ethnic and lifestyle minorities, and threatening fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience and free speech, and thereby eroding the basis of real tolerance. Both these threats have been cited as important factors in the rise of populism.

Tolerance has long been touted as a particularly British virtue; however, all established democracies by their nature must have learned to value and to nurture it. A democratic culture cannot really be embedded in a nation unless people have made accommodation with fundamental difference of belief, outlook and lifestyle for the sake of a higher good – that is social peace and stability, which are fundamental conditions of prosperity. To underscore that point, it is only necessary to look at the lamentable state of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the institutions and practices of universal suffrage instituted by the Americans and their allies are permanently undermined by tribal affiliation and ethnic hatred based on religion, which reflects the broader conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. Throughout the region this hatred spills over into local and regional wars, mostly proxies for the major Islamic powers.

Clearly, then, tolerance is a good thing for society. But are there any limits to tolerance? The philosopher Karl Popper claimed that for the sake of tolerance it is necessary to be intolerant of intolerance. This perhaps establishes a logical benchmark without, however, taking us very far along the road of realistically understanding what tolerance is as a positive concept. This, however, has become the fundamental stance of British politicians in the post-9/11 era and time of mass immigration.  As the historian Eliane Glaser notes: “In recent years… the celebration of British tolerance has carried a coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance, as in a 2006 speech by Tony Blair in which he warned: ‘Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here’” (Glaser, 2014).

The situation is made more complex by that other form of intolerant tolerance on the political left, which embraces multiculturalism and identity politics. This form eschews the term ‘tolerance’ altogether, preferring words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. This terminological difference is important for two reasons. One is that it separates these political standpoints from the older, religious context in which notions of tolerance developed in the UK, that is a specifically Christian context, and so frees them from the theological and moral baggage which that carries. Secondly, it is able to divest itself of the tone of disapproval implied by ‘tolerance’ and promote the virtues of acceptance, ‘embracing’ and even celebration.

Having, as it supposes, established an unassailable moral position, the advocates of multiculturalism and identity politics feel justified in compelling absolute conformity to its dictates and denouncing, with an endlessly extendable bastard lexicon, even the mildest criticism or deviation as forms of intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia , disphobia, and so on. This denunciation even extends to welcoming and genuinely embracing the customs and traditions of outsiders, as ‘cultural appropriation’. This latter, if nothing else, reveals the Machiavellian heart of its politics, which is to champion distinction and separation, to perpetuate and elevate the status of victimhood, and to fragment the normative sense of national cultural identity.

For the reasons outlined above, I find the notion of tolerance defined as the negation of intolerance unsatisfactory. To understand the nature and limits of tolerance we can do worse than start with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean. For Aristotle every virtue lies on a midpoint between vices defined by paucity and excess; for instance, bravery between cowardice and foolhardiness, or generosity between meanness and extravagance.  Tolerance, then, can usefully be understood to lie between the extremes of hatred of the other – genuine intolerance – and licentious indulgence of that which is exotic or transgressive.

It is also necessary though to explore the meaning of tolerance from the inside. It is often – it has become – confused with approval, but this is certainly not what tolerance implies in its original meaning. One may strongly, even violently, disapprove of someone’s beliefs or lifestyle, but suspend the impulse to coerce conformity, or even in extremis eradicate the irritant, for the sake of the greater good. It is a fact that the impulse to identify difference, which is the basis of all prejudice, suppression, oppression and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide, is unquenchable. Since this impulse cannot be eliminated individuals, communities and nations must learn and implement the practice of managing and controlling it. This is fundamentally what tolerance is.

Tolerance, though, does not exist in a vacuum, or without certain conditions. Interestingly, Japan, which is a stable democracy, one in which freedom of religion and political belief is institutionalised, is nevertheless not particularly tolerant of dissent at a societal level and a high premium is placed on conformity. Japan is almost an entirely monocultural society, whose religion is syncretistic, and has very low rates of immigration. This is definitely one route to stability, though it is increasingly rare in a highly mobile world; moreover, in the case of Japan this social stability is being maintained at the cost of economic stagnation and a moribund society. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from Japan: conformity to certain cultural values seems to be entirely compatible with tolerance of idiosyncrasy in other areas of life – indeed, there is a rich tradition of eccentricity in Japan, as there is in Britain, though it is rarely commented upon – and a case can be made that such conformity may be one of the important conditions of tolerance.

In this regard, it is sometimes said that Britain – particularly England – lacks a visible national culture to which we cleave, which is not true, although we do not have the overtly vibrant and colourful panoply of costume, dance, food and music that others share. However, Britain does have a democratic culture which goes much deeper than the periodic ritual of voting in elections, which even autocratic regimes mimic in an attempt to legitimise their uninterrupted rule. This culture rests on three largely invisible pillars of our culture which uphold our democratic way of life, and the democracies which have derived from the British tradition: the scientific method, individual liberty and the rule of law. In fact, these are not uniquely or characteristically British (although Britain was, by historical happenstance, an important crucible in their development), but requirements for anything that pretends to being a universal culture. They are also the foundational principles around which a debate about tolerance and intolerance can be drawn up.

Around these three principles I would say, there is absolutely no discussion and they should be the bedrock of our educational system and social institutions without compromise. However, while affirming those principles absolutely, that does not mean that there is no movement within them. Participation within the life of society means contributing to the actual content that they embody, ensuring the continual development of the society and its culture.

For example, there is a clear distinction between the scientific method and scientific knowledge. The content of scientific knowledge is continually updated based on research, and even longstanding and respected theories are challenged and overturned. There is no sacred knowledge in science. However, the scientific method is fundamental to the acquisition of valid knowledge. Although there are philosophical debates about the exact nature of the scientific method, there is no dispute about the fundamental role of theory and evidence, developed and applied with a rigour concomitant with the character of the research in question.

Similarly, we uphold the principle of the rule of law, which means that no one, however privileged, wealthy, famous or powerful, is above the law or beyond its reach. Yet, clearly the law evolves over time to reflect the changing complexion of society, its priorities and developments brought about by new technologies and changing demography, to update the concept of justice. While never perfect, there is a system of checks and balances in place, which means that the law attempts to serve the common good rather than the interests of vocal minorities. Clearly injustices occur, and sometimes these are systemic, but the system is self-correcting over the long term.

Democratic societies are by their nature highly individualistic. Contrary to the criticisms of some collectivist cultures, this does not mean that they are selfish and hedonistic; in fact, democratic societies are marked by a highly developed spirituality and morality in which respect is conferred to the individual soul, which is considered free and responsible. It is this concept, though, which is continually under attack from the enemies of democracy, who believe we must act and even think in accordance with their precepts, whether they be religious or political. For example, a lot of religious and political capital – on both left and right – has been invested in the hijab, as symbol of women’s oppression or expression of religious freedom. To this I would only comment that if designers were to make the hijab a fashion choice freely and widely adopted by British women based on beauty, style and convenience, I cannot see how anyone could reasonably object.

What should we do in the face of intolerance, of the kind that believes that a life not dedicated to their ideology is a life of no value, such as we saw demonstrated last week on Westminster Bridge? We should do as we have done: review our security arrangements and carry on as normal. Apply the law rigorously in the prosecution of illegal action. We should continue to apply our scientific reason to illuminate the dark areas of the soul in which irrational superstition can fester. Above all we should carefully apply the principle of individual liberty. Individuals are free and responsible for their actions, not their family, community, religion or ethic grouping. Even if all terrorists were Muslims, which is not the case, this does not carry the implication that all Muslims are terrorists. To reach that false inference is not just a breach of logic, but does violence to our democratic culture and its belief in individual liberty.

Are there limits to tolerance? Fundamentally, I would say no, as tolerance defines the sort of society we would like to continue to live in. Tolerance does not mean we agree and it does not mean we approve; but it does mean that we keep our disagreement, dislike or disgust of the other in check for the greater good of peace and stability in society. It is the function of the law, not my conscience, to determine where acts against the common good have been committed and to prosecute such acts. I also have my prejudices and my ignorance, which it is the role of evidence-based inquiry and rational discourse to dispel. But no law should compel me to love my neighbour, respect his beliefs or approve his lifestyle. These may come through engagement with individuals from diverse backgrounds, which any rational education should encourage us to do, but compulsion is toxic to the very concept and social realisation of tolerance.



Eliane Glaser, ‘Tolerance and Intolerance’, History Today Volume 64 Issue 2, February 2014.





Reflections on the Nature of Truth in a Post-Relativist Age

If a man says that there is no such a thing as truth, you should take him at his word and not believe him. Roger Scruton

In classical times there were considered to be three absolute values: truth, beauty and goodness, which were considered to be rooted in the unbroken order of things, the relationship of mankind to the cosmos and the gods. In the period of modernity a spirit of relativism pervaded and these values were no longer considered to be absolute. Hume and the sceptical tradition epitomised by Moore’s Principia Ethica have considered the good to be merely the preference of the individual, and aesthetic relativism beauty to be ‘in the eye of the beholder’. However, recent scientific work on altruism and perception suggest that there are objective correlates of subjective feelings of value, in these cases actions and structural disposition. In the case of truth, the feeling of ‘trueness’ should be matched to an objective correlate, which in common with the philosophical tradition I take to be actual existence.

It could be said that our relationship to truth has changed over time. In a simpler age there were the truths of religion and there were the truths of the voices of authority, often those who transmitted the sacred words or who represented divinity on earth, such as kings and emperors. With the Reformation and the Enlightenment those truths began to lose their grip on the imagination of greater numbers and be displaced by the secular truths of science and the provincial voices of a community of experts in various fields such as law, politics and economics. It may be that in our time, under the twin influences of postmodern philosophy, with its radical de-centring of subjectivity and deconstruction of all forms of authority, and the technology of the information society, exemplified by the Internet, we are entering a post-relativist age, one not characterised by the tolerance and compromise fostered by recognising the limitations of knowledge in a relativistic milieu, but one in which, paradoxically, extravagant claims to truth are made in a nihilistic one.

It might be surprising that the notion of truth is still taken seriously, many believing it to have been displaced by a thoroughgoing relativism with regards to omniscient claims. But one of the long-recognised problems of relativism is that it logically undercuts its own suppositions: it cannot be a true statement that there is no such thing as truth. Perhaps the purveyors of relativism have something more specific in mind, the non-existence of ‘Truth’ as an absolute, allied to moral absolutism, and though they might not be entirely out of the woods, this is a known category: that of the assertions of theology, sovereignty and metaphysics. We have become inured to the debunking of authority in these fields. What might be less well known is that science has also lost its privileged place as a purveyor of truth; scientific theories are now generally considered to be useful creations rather than discoveries of the iron laws of nature. It is only in logic and in mathematics that the notion of truth remains largely intact, although even here outriggers of postmodernism, such as feminist theory and ‘queer’ theory have been transvaluating rational thought’s central tenets into the will to dominate and deploying the gambit of victimisation.

It is, though, in the field of politics that the most obvious manifestations of post-relativism are found: the assumption of, and attribution of, bad faith to whatever and whoever takes a different perspective, regardless of the evidence; the concoction of ‘alternative facts’ and the accusation of ‘fake news’ in a zero-sum game in which the rules of civilised discourse and the arduous responsibility of arriving at something like the truth in a complex social world have been laid aside; and the grandstanding assumption of indubitable infallibility based for the most part not on knowledge and experience but on tenuous sources within cyberspace. Today, many people seem content to outsource their thinking and behaviour to the social media corporations. In a more scripturally literate past this was known as building your house on sand.

While not the source of the problem, it does not help that current theories of truth within philosophy are based on very narrow criteria. The two prevailing models of truth are the correspondence theory of truth, in which statements made about reality correspond to the facts as they are known and the coherence theory of truth, in which statements have logical coherence with other validated propositions. The correspondence theory of truth goes back to Aristotle but has had modern exponents in Russell and Austin. Russell, for example, stated that for a statement to be true every linguistic element in the statement, such as the relationship between a subject and object must correspond to a factual reality. While commonsensical for many mundane, concrete descriptions, this would seem inadequate for any state of affairs in which interpretation is called for; for example, how would one determine that even the simple judgement that a particular road was a long road was objectively true?

A sister theory of correspondence theory is Tarski’s semantic theory of truth, which states that a proposition of the form /“snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white/, the two occurrences of the phrase belonging to the primary language and metalanguage respectively. This establishes the condition of whether a ‘true’ or ‘false’ truth value can be attributed to a statement cast as a tautology, but not whether the referent of the statement is true or not. A parallel example would be the statement /“kryptonite is green” is true if and only if kryptonite is green/. The conditions for attributing a truth value are the same, but the referents have a different ontological status. Since kryptonite does not exist outside of the imaginary world of the Superman comics, kryptonite is neither green nor any other colour. So although this would satisfy Tarski’s conditions for attributing a false truth value to the statement, it seems to me that that would not be evaluated on a par with a statement such as “sulphur is blue” in which an attributive error, rather than a category error, had been committed.

Both these versions of correspondence, to my mind, suffer the same limitations. The first is that they limit themselves to so-called real (i.e. physical) objects, whereas many of the things that language speaks of are non-physical, abstract or imaginary. The problem is their positivistic notion of existence, the reduction of reality to basic fundamentals over which they claim there is no dispute. However, there is no existence which is not problematic. Take, for instance, the proposition that the earth is round and orbits the sun. It was once consider heretical to make public such a belief.  Today the denial of either of these accepted facts is considered a mark of eccentricity or perversity. But how has the proposition “the earth is round and orbits the sun” been established as true*, since very few have had the opportunity to experience this directly? It is on the basis of an established intellectual tradition that the word has percolated down even to the least intellectual through school textbooks and popular culture. Every piece of so-called evidence could have an alternative explanation. We take it in good faith that the experts who assert that it is so have the means to evaluate the evidence and the theory that binds the evidence into a coherent explanation as fundamentally sound. For all that, the emergence of the internet has spawned and hosts a multiplicity of flat-earth conspiracy theorist websites and other alternate ways of seeing reality, from committed ufologists to millenialist movements and crackpot therapeutics, that have eroded faith in reason and empirical evidence among much of the public.

“The world is all that is the case”, according to Wittgenstein at the opening of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, according to which whatever is true must be an existing object or an existing state of affairs, such that stating Y of X must be true if X exists and Y is a quality that pertains to X. However, in order to address the divergence between ordinary language and the range of objects or events found in the phenomenal world of human experience, it is necessary to part company with positivism and its insistence on ‘atomic facts’ and take a phenomenological position that whatsoever we speak of has a proper mode of existence. In other words it is necessary to expand the range of fundamental ontology, over which truth values can be asserted, to include at least social ontology and the ontology of the psyche. It seems to me that there are six categories of knowledge to which the label ‘truth’ can be attached, though I am not dogmatically committed to this: the truth that nature, great art and great acts reveal to us; the truths contained in sacred texts and institutions; authority, the mystique surrounding it and its pronouncements; matters of fact encountered in the everyday; theories, such as those of science, the humanities and philosophy; and tautologies, as in mathematics and logic. The only thing that binds these together is the requirement that their ‘truth’ be conceived as related to a mode of existence. That is to say, that nothing can be said to be true unless it is held to exist in some manner.

This brings me to the second limitation of these theories: that they do not establish the conditions upon which correspondence between a statement and the actual state of affairs described can be said to hold or not to hold, other than to affirm or deny that they do. In fact, the conditions of truth for an object or state of affairs can be said to be met when they are defined in a dialectic of conceptualisation and evaluation, that is, their mode of existence is both conceptualised and incorporating – even implicitly – a method by which the assertion of existence can be judged. For example, if a unicorn were to be defined as a horned horse, then any statement that contained a reference to unicorns, such as “I encountered a unicorn in the forest” would be easily refuted as no such creatures exist; however, if it were defined as a mythical horned horse, then the same statement would be taken allegorically or dramatically. Less obviously, we do this with everyday objects. How would one know that a particular object was a cup unless we had imbibed a concept of a cup that was continually validated in our everyday experience? Contrast this, then, with the bafflement or indifference with which we encounter unfamiliar objects for which we have no conception or understanding of their use.

The conflict between religion and science is largely about conflicting ideas of truth and the misapprehension from both sides of the nature of the truths that they are promoting. A less restrictive ontology could broaden our conception of what we consider part of the real. A case could even be made for the existence of God as an object of faith that can only be apprehended through a life of faith. However, both religion (at least of the more fundamentalist varieties) and science (allied to atheistic fundamentalism) believe that religion is advocating truths that are evidentially demonstrable, as an alternative or equivalent to science, for example about the origin of the universe or the origin of life. But this was not the view of truth that was promulgated by classical religion, such as the theologies of Augustine or Averroes (Ibn Rushd), nor indeed by the more open-minded modern commentators. The palaeontologist and evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould has spoken of the ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of science and religion, in which both address the same realities from different perspectives. Simply put, we could say that science addresses the facts of reality through theory and data and religion addresses the meaning of reality through stories and metaphor. Even though atheists experience the awe-inspiring nature of cosmic reality, they are hampered in expressing this in the reductive language of science and frequently take refuge in the spiritual language of parable and metaphor.

Of course, definitions are not always attached to statements, nor should they necessarily be, as this would be an imposition on the beauty and simplicity of language. Most statements are understood in context anyway. This favours a coherence theory of truth in which statements are anchored in others which are verifiable, though I have argued that we need a broader range of the conditions in which verification takes place. I think one of the great dangers of the post-relativist age of information overload and reductive horizons is that we are losing the ability to contextualise the utterances of those with whom we may not share the same outlook in a broader framework of accommodation, and instead are tempted to defend our small islands of privileged truth in bouts of hyperbolic rage.

*Or approximately true, as the earth is flattened at the poles, and it is more accurate to say the earth and sun revolve around a common axis.

Adam Smith and the Rationality of Self-Interest


Since Adam Smith the prevailing view in economics has been that the free market operates through a principle of rational self-interest. Much as Darwin later identified the underlying mechanism for the variety and dynamism of nature operating at the individual level, so Smith atomised the creation of wealth to the individual’s self-interest: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. The notion of rational self-interest, though, needs to be subject itself to rational scrutiny, as it may contain assumptions about human nature which may limit the idea of the type of society which is possible.

Taking Smith’s own assertion at face value, what is it that constitutes the traders’ “own interest”? Clearly, making a living for themselves, which means the buying and selling of goods to and from others, the point being that trade presupposes the existence of others going about their business. Although we can safely assume that Smith had in mind an economy of more than three or four persons, and sustained by more than meat, beer and bread, pleasurable and sufficient as that may sound to some, for the purpose of this thought experiment let us assume a minimal economic model of four players, the butcher, the brewer, the baker and “I” representing the expectant diner. In such a model, it seems clear that whatever the self-interest of each individual is, it cannot be considered in isolation, but only in relation to the self-interest of others. The three traders and “I” rely on each other and can only participate in the market if each is solvent. Therefore, logically, trade in this state is not a zero-sum game, but depends on a certain level of parity, in which only incremental competitive gains are allowed.

Now, suppose that one of the traders defects from this cooperative model in order to gain an economic advantage over the other two. This could be due to simple greed, or it could be due to a fear that one of the others will jump first. In game theory, a branch of mathematics concerned with the logical outcomes of people behaving rationally under given conditions, this is known as the prisoners’ dilemma, based on a specific example, but generally states that when a player has more to gain individually by cheating than by cooperating with a partner, but more to gain by cooperating with a partner than by them both cheating, they will nevertheless both end up cheating and so end up with the worst result. The reasoning runs as follows: if I cheat I will end up with the best result (even though the other person will end up with little or nothing); I would like to cooperate, but if I can think of cheating so can my partner, and if my partner cheats I will end up with little or nothing; therefore, it is in my interest to cheat. The logical result of rational self-interest is that both partners cheat and end up with less than if they cooperated.

Suppose that the baker, in order to gain a competitive advantage over the butcher and the brewer, starts selling meat and beer, judging that “I” the customer will flock to his store for all my necessities; if he succeeds and drives the butcher and baker out of business, he will have gained all my custom and “I” will have gained a more convenient shop. On the downside the baker will have to diversify the business, which will require more work and may result in a loss of edge in the former area of expertise, opening the potential for targeted competition. The baker will also have lost two important suppliers and customers, and potentially made two enemies. From “my” perspective, disregarding the loss of esteem “I” may have had for the baker (for the moment), this places me in a more vulnerable position economically as, if the baker were to go out of business, “I” would have nowhere to buy my victuals.

There is another scenario: in this one the brewer and the butcher do not fold but respond to the baker by similarly diversifying, thus depriving the baker of any advantage gained by jumping first. They gain no advantage over the former cooperative scenario and take on the disadvantages that the baker had previously assumed; there is not even the prospect of my undivided custom. However, there is a payoff if the brewer, butcher and “I” conspire to deprive the baker of trade. Some experiments have looked at the relationship between our sense of fairness and spite. They turn on adding a new element to the prisoners’ dilemma. If the option for the exploited to pay for the punishment of those who defect is added the outcome is very different. Despite the exploited losing even more, they experience satisfaction at seeing the exploiters punished. Moreover, in future rounds group cooperation is far more common.

In real economies, as opposed to simplified models or experiments, there is a huge capacity to absorb the effects of defection, to the extent that the both perpetrators and victims might imagine that there are no consequences for the defector, hence no justice. This capacity is not unlimited, however, and the timescales for restitution – at least for exposure – are growing shorter in this increasingly connected world. Humans are highly attuned to fairness or the lack of fairness in a situation. This may be one of the reasons for the continuing appeal of socialism; it responds at a deeply atavistic level to the inherent injustice of so much of the world’s economic poverty and institutionalises grievance against those who are seen as unjustly favoured (such as bankers in the current climate). The same is probably true of the wave of populism sweeping the developed economies which harness, similarly through partial truths and vicarious appropriation, the dispossessed’s resentment against the winners from globalisation.

Keynes was one of the few economists who attempted to integrate human irrational impulses into his economic theory. Mostly, though, they have been ignored in the pursuit of pure rationality, exemplified by the extreme mathematization of orthodox economics. Rational self-interest as a real-world strategy does not exist in a solipsistic vacuum, however, but must take account of human feelings and sociality, even absorbing short-term disadvantages for longer-term benefits. Most economists despair at the irrationality of voters who turn their backs on the benefits of the free market, specifically global free trade, in favour of the planned economies of socialism or the protectionist policies of the right wing populists. In light of the scenarios considered, though, this does not necessarily violate the principle of rational self-interest, but it reveals that in open societies the concept is more complex and subtle than often thought. Swings in political culture, while manifesting irrational tendencies, may from a broader perspective be reinforcing economic rationality by reining in the irrational outcomes of defection from cooperation, that defection being entailed by supposedly rational objectives.

 It is a fact that free trade has had a beneficial effect on a global level by bringing millions out of poverty, but also that in doing so it has had a devastating effect on traditional jobs and communities in the developed world, not to mention the effect it is also having on the environment. It is little comfort to be told the truth midway through life that one must retrain for a new career in the digital economy because your job has been exported and be prepared to uproot oneself, family and community. These people vote; and in line with rational self-interest they will, in sufficient numbers, vote for those who promise an end to such deprivation, for this is less about declining standards than about economic survival. Among these voters there are true believers; yet probably many more vote with suspended disbelief to punish those in power and the rich even at the cost of punishing themselves. When the euphoria of populism dies down and the reality of broken promises sets in, there will be a reaction and hopefully this will see movement towards a more cooperative economic culture, in which social concerns are integrated into the market ethos.







In Defence of the Open Society against its Enemies

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude (Karl Popper)

It is just over 70 years since the publication in 1945 of Karl Popper’s most widely known and influential book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the war years while in exile from Austria, Popper considered it to be his contribution to the war effort, as it sought to expose the faulty philosophical foundations of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism. Popper identified, in particular, the tendency to historical prediction or ‘historicism’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the social forms advocated by these ideologies according to supposedly scientific laws of historical development. Thus his criticism can be considered an extension to political philosophy of his earlier and more important work on epistemology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (published in German in 1934), that is, a critique of the epistemological foundations of these ideologies, and indeed of all ideology. The open society, exemplified by liberal democracies, Popper considered the only form of government able to effect political change without bloodshed and to undergo evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) development through piecemeal change and problem-solving. Notwithstanding the debates within scientific and political philosophy having moved beyond Popper’s contemporaneous concerns, his central epistemological concept of falsifiability, with its entailment of transparency and truth-seeking, has particular relevance to this information age, but is a principle which is markedly absent from interactions within the present political, economic and social fields. Some commentators see in this the demise of liberal democracy. I believe that while open societies have vulnerabilities, they are both more robust than these commentators allow and need to be more strongly advocated than we seem willing to do at present.

To drop the anti-historicist baton for a moment, if history has any point, or purpose, it is the struggle for human freedom. While freedom can be variously defined, all freedoms reside in empowerment, whether that be political, economic or moral freedom. What is certain is that all people, everywhere, desire these freedoms, even if, in some cases, that appears to be the freedom to relinquish their freedom by merging into the collective, the rigid, the backward, the insular, the dysfunctional and of course the criminal. These are the enemies of the open society that must, paradoxically, be tolerated even as they are resisted, even those who utilise the freedom of open societies to proselytise their diatribes against freedom. This paradox nevertheless elevates open societies above all other, for they enable the conditions that – given enough time – expose false theories and beliefs, false promises, false policies and false lifestyles to scrutiny and the unremitting evidence of consequences. Freedom involves risk and risk-taking; open societies can seem chaotic, but it is the chaos of dynamic disequilibrium from which innovation and change emerge. However, to reaffirm the anti-historicist perspective, it would be wrong to assume, pace Fukuyama, that liberal democracies represent the end point of history; they embody, imperfectly, a principle of the growth of knowledge that has had precursors in history that were prematurely extinguished, but appeared fully-fledged in Europe in the eighteenth century: that is the scientific method.

The scientific method is not exclusively about the accumulation of scientific knowledge in a narrow sense that is the specific concern of scientists; it is rather a generalised account of how we learn, which is given specificity in the scientific context. Knowledge as such is the interaction between ideas, in the form of theories, beliefs or opinions, and information, in the form of facts and data about the external world that constitute evidence. This much was practiced by Aristotle and the Arab scholars of the golden era of Islamic civilisation, but it was Francis Bacon who systematised it as a method and laid the groundwork for modern experimental procedures. After Bacon the general assumption was that gathering sufficient data was the basis for sound theorising. Popper however pointed out the logical error in such an inductive approach, in that no number of confirmatory examples was sufficient to verify a theory, but a single counter-example was sufficient to falsify it. Instead, he insisted bold imaginative conjectures should be subject to repeated attempts at falsification. This raised the epistemological threshold considerably for the acceptance of theory, to such an extent that practicing scientists, like the rest of us, largely ignore these strictures in the pursuit of knowledge, and accept the balance of probabilities. Popper’s deductive theory is more like a theory of truth; truth which, according to philosophers like Kuhn, can never be realised, but only approximated more closely. Nevertheless, it remains as a reminder of the standard to which, logically, we should subject our beliefs, opinions and theories.

There are numerous implications of the theory of knowledge for the open society. First, we should be free and educated sufficiently to think boldly and imaginatively about any subject. Secondly, individuals should be free to express any opinion and respect no orthodoxy in the pursuit of truth. Thirdly, beliefs, opinions and theories of whatever kind, whether philosophical, religious, moral or scientific, should be considered tentative, however plausible or implausible, until there is confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence. Fourthly, while persuasion is a legitimate means of transmission of ideas, coercion never is. Fifth, there should be some presumption of respect for people as individuals as free and rational, though not necessarily for their beliefs. Sixth, society as a whole, and at regional and local levels, should be attempting to manage conflict and be committed to finding solutions to problems. Seventh, there should be transparency and the free flow of information. Eighth, there should be a universal commitment to the recognition of and correction of error. Ninth, open societies should empower their citizens, economically, socially and politically, that they can participate fully in the life and development of their society. Tenth, we as individuals should be committed to the improvement of our lives and our societies. These seem the most obvious corollaries.

Modern liberal democracies are not paragons of the open society; it remains something of an ideal. They are rather experiments, each of which have particular virtues and are grappling with particular vices. Yet they embody enough of the principles to be far preferable to any other social form. This alone explains why millions of people are on the move to escape persecution, war and poverty, or the grinding weight of custom and inequality, and make their way to developed countries. This creates problems for open societies, but by their nature they are solution-generating and self-correcting. It is, of course, on this basis impossible to determine what the solution to any particular problem, for example mass immigration, should be. In the short term I suspect there will be a number of solutions, some more viable than others, and hopefully we will learn from the best and improve our strategies. In the long term, the only solution is to transform all societies into open societies. This, though, can only be accomplished on the basis of the principles outlined in the paragraph above, not through military conquest. We have sufficient problems of our own to address. This naturally gives space to the enemies of the open society, the ideological opponents of freedom, to attack the very idea. They cannot do this, of course, resorting to the principles and strategies outlined above, but rather by misinformation and coercion, and, more subtly, by undermining belief in freedom (and its attendant responsibilities) and restricting opportunities for free speech.

Reason justifies open societies as the only desirable future for mankind and reason is their guiding operative principle. Passionate concern, dogmatism and pessimism are inimical to, and are inevitably generated by ideological opposition to, open societies. Nevertheless, attacks on reason come from some surprising places. Universities, which once were bastions of academic freedom, now incubate extremism on one hand, but on the other, under the influence of anti-rationalist postmodern philosophy, forestall the expression of unpopular or challenging opinions by ‘no-platforming’ certain speakers lest some people feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’, though more probably lest they be disturbed from their dogmatic slumbers.  The law is another area where decisions taken on purely legalistic technicalities can have far-reaching and chilling consequences for transparency. A law being considered at the moment would effectively end the free press in the UK, at least their ability to investigate potential scandal and corruption, by creating a no-penalty right to sue a newspaper if someone considers their privacy to have been invaded. Welfare is another system that seriously endangers individual empowerment and initiative. Compassion, which is a human virtue, experienced by the strong for the weak, can become a vice when it is institutionalised and merely perpetuates that order of power rather than ending it. Low educational ability, despite universal education, much of it free, is strongly indicative of poor life chances in employment, physical and material well-being, prospects for marriage and social status. In many developed countries we are too tolerant of poor educational outcomes and economically supportive of their attendant lifestyles and the subcultures that perpetuate them.

The aggregate enemy of the open society is collectivism and group-think. The foundation of open societies and our freedom is individualism. If for the moment we strip away all the cultural accretions, we are all fundamentally the same in sharing a human nature, as opposed to an animal nature. The frequent assertion that we are ‘nothing but’ animals, specifically mammals, results in a peculiar type of contradiction: the application of reason to cloak its own phenomenology. For reason is what defines us as human and not as animal. There is a qualitative difference; however much we see a spectrum of intelligence in the animal kingdom, there is, as Marxists would say, a tipping point at which the quantitative becomes the qualitative. Therefore, when talking of individualism, this is not to focus on the individual physical body, which is an adaptive form created by the forces of genetic mapping and environmental pressures, but the mind which is embodied. Reason finds the value of the individual in the unique individual mind and this is the foundation of freedom and equality, which are fundamental to the open society. Cultures and sub-cultures that exhibit the trait of differential evaluation of human worth, whether that is as someone to be controlled, as a possession, as a means to economic or social advance, or a sexualised object, exist still within the sphere of slavery and need to be transformed.

For some, individualism has a bad name. It is associated with selfishness and hedonism, as a denial of spirituality, altruism and collective duty, whether to the family, an institution or the nation. The first thing to say is that these arguments have been used throughout history by powerful individuals and elites to crush the aspirations of people everywhere, and they are also advanced by the ideological enemies of the open society. The second point is that, from a rational perspective, selfishness and hedonism are intrinsically inimical to individual flourishing which is both a pillar of, and a desirable outcome of, the open society. Laziness, greed, addiction, irresponsibility – the besetting sins of all societies – are harmful to the individual and to society, and a rational society should be doing all it can to curtail them. Selfishness, though, should not be confused with self-interest. Our life-long project should be the improvement of our selves. It is the nature of this self, though, that it is of interest, not just to us, individually, but to society as a whole. Society is not more than the sum of its parts, or at least only to the extent that it is an emergent property of social interactions. Therefore, society in the abstract has a vested interest in the flourishing of the individual, which means that as individuals we also have an interest in the advancement of others. This is different to the perspective accepted and encouraged in our present economic culture here in the West, which is implicitly a zero-sum game based on the Darwinian-Spencerian idea of the survival of the fittest, which in reality optimises outcomes for neither the individual nor the society.

Therefore the individualism which is suited to an open society has a transcendent quality, in that the self is continuously engaged in a project to extend its abilities. That transcendence can be counted on at least five major fronts: physical, intellectual, professional, emotional and social, which emerge from aspects of our evolved human nature: survival instinct, sexuality, sociality and spirituality. Each of the fronts  necessitates development centred around a cluster of values, for example – and this is merely a limited selection – ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ for the physical, ‘knowledge’ and ‘reason’ for the intellectual, ‘reliability’ and ‘expertise’ for the professional, ‘resilience’ and ‘warmth’ for the emotional and ‘companionship’ and ‘generosity’ for the social. These fronts are not isolated or competing aspects of the individual, even if in the past they may have been seen as such; they are complementary and collectively reinforcing. As our knowledge grows we are beginning to see a more rounded and more extensive picture of human possibilities. No one ultimately need be excluded from this vision. We already see, through events like the Paralympics, the range of possibilities that are opening up even for the disabled. New technologies promise the eventual elimination or circumvention of blindness and paralysis and the emancipation of their sufferers.

Open societies are not perfect, nor will they ever be; they are imperfect by definition. The difference to other social forms is that this fact is universally acknowledged, and this acceptance sets the stage for a programme of continuous improvement through problem-solving. The defence of open societies is ultimately the defence of a process, not a thing. Some people find this threatening, as they would like to retreat to a closed, unchanging world of certainty. Most of us at some time, if the truth be told, feel like this, but the enemies of the open society experience this as perpetual existential crisis. They should be tolerated but kept on the fringes. The growth of knowledge has enabled us to survive so far in a hostile environment and has succeeded in making human lives better, freer and happier. That is definitely something worth defending.