Springfield, MO

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Value-neutral approach impossible in teaching

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"What a teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."

Karl Menninger

"Value: to be strong, to be worth. Worth; that property or those properties of a thing which render it useful or estimable; what makes a person of some account ..."

The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language

Throughout my experience in education, nearly every issue related to the schooling process has been debated locally, at the state and national levels, and often without a clear-cut consensus about which is best.

We have debated complicated matters, such as how to finance education, and some seemingly simple issues, such as how to teach reading.

One thing that has been firmly established is the fact that education is so important to the well-being of the individual and our nation that the accident of one's place of birth, or the wealth or lack thereof of the family or the school district must not be the determining factor in the quality of the educational program the government is obliged to provide.

It is the state government that has the constitutional duty to provide for the schooling of each child and youth through the senior year of high school. This is the legal obligation of the state of Missouri.

Whether a family avails itself of the state-supported program of education is left to the family. The family may choose a private school, or it may decide to home school its children. But the state-supported educational opportunity must be there for all the children of all the people.

Regardless of how firmly established the importance of education has become, there is still continuing debate on many educational issues.

One such issue is whether the school should be involved in teaching values.

Some believe that the school should be value neutral and leave the matter of values to the family and its chosen institutions, such as the church.

The problem here is that no teacher can stand before a class and remain value neutral. The teacher's dress, smile and warmth speak volumes about a set of values. Whether the teacher is well-prepared, and the respect the teacher shows for the students, demonstrates a system of values which every student can feel and understand.

I have heard some say that the school must stick to the facts and leave the application of those facts to the family. So long as a child or young person can ask the question, "Why?" there is no way to avoid discussions which most assuredly help develop one's system of values.

One responsibility of the public school is to teach children and youth to become good citizens. This will require an understanding of the important documents upon which this nation was established.

The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution set forth a system of values that have stood the test of time and have provided for our people the greatest degree of liberty and personal freedom known to all mankind. These are values without which we Americans would not be who we are.

Music may well be the single greatest influence in the lives of our teenagers today. Yet it is not neutral, for music also introduces values. My experience with school music programs is that they are wholesome and well-balanced.

Get there early, stay late and clean your tools on your own time. Put more than you expect to take out. Give more than you expect to get. These are values most of us hope will permeate our society.

Perhaps the reader believes there is no one taking so stark a view as to insist that the schools refrain from exploring values. That is not true. This issue confronts school administrators and teachers more often than one may think.

One can argue that the real issue is one of indoctrination, especially about personal issues such as one's religious beliefs, moral standards or code of ethics and other matters best left to the family.

There is a difference here!

The school knows, or should know, how to distinguish the difference in teaching about these personal or family values and those clearly within the purview, duty and responsibility of the school.

Personally, I do not want the public schools to contradict my grandchild's beliefs about religion, our families' beliefs about the sanctity of life or its origin and other issues which the schools have traditionally left to the home. I would be angered if another adult in any setting were to ridicule my grandchild's belief system which the family teaches.

However, somewhere along the path of one's growth and development, there will be those who will knowingly seek to confuse, ridicule and contradict the belief system espoused by the family.

This is very unlikely to happen in a public school setting. However, the best protection for the family is to see that its children are well-grounded in the family belief system and have regular family discussions about what we believe and how we think. To do less is reckless.

Beyond this, there is a whole world of knowledge and ongoing discussions about right and wrong which our children will confront every day of their lives.

Someone will be teaching the young people we love what to believe and how to think, what is important and what is not important. The family must not leave this matter to chance.

(Arthur L. Mallory, EdD, is a former president of Southwest Missouri State University and former commissioner of education who resides in Springfield.)

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