Everyone agrees that values should be part of a good education. This is often expressed alongside a general feeling that there has been 'erosion' in values in large sectors of social life and among important groups of people. However, this agreement is less solid than it seems. If we try to push beyond the initial feelings, we encounter difficulties. There are difficulties about what values are and which ones are important. These difficulties mirror existing divisions in society, mainly political, religious and economic ones. And when we try to understand the role of values in education, matters get even messier. There is poor understanding and little agreement about ideas and methods that are useful in bringing about a 'good' education in values.

The above confusion does not stop educators from attempting to make values part of the curriculum. Government committees do prescribe 'good values'. These are usually presented as lists of desirable traits and attitudes that students need to internalize. Popular literature and newspaper articles egg us on from the sidelines to teach values to children in schools. Families and priests often take it upon themselves to instil values, often with an iron hand.

This is not a happy state of affairs. Apart from the idiosyncratic and often authoritarian nature of the approach, its efficacy is also in doubt. I want to argue in this essay that values education is too important to be left to chance or to experts. We need to question current approaches and explore new ideas and understandings in this area. This essay does not attempt to present a theory of values, not because theoretical issues are unimportant. They are, but there are equally important practical issues. Fruitful approaches need to have liberal doses of both dimensions.

Why values?

Animals do not seem to worry about values. In fact they do not seem to worry much at all. We do worry, mostly unnecessarily. But perhaps we would do well to worry about values. Of the things that sets humans apart from other animals, our capacity for concern for others and also our awareness of our feelings and motivations seem significant. These capacities enable us to question the quality and meaning of our lives and to behave in ways that can enhance or diminish that quality for ourselves and other people. In fact we are no longer at the mercy of natural elements. It is through our social relationships and in our inner lives that we 'create a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven'.

Thus, human well-being, personal and collective, depends on our nature both as social beings and feeling, reflecting persons. These capacities are present in the child, rather unformed, but it takes years of relationships and understanding to enhance and enrich them. And that is where education comes in, both for the good and the dubious.

I contend that values are important ingredients of our ability to care, to reflect and to nurture, and generally behave in ways that bring out the element of sensitivity. I do not claim that they are the only ones. Let me attempt a loose definition: 'Values are composites of judgements, attitudinal states and feelings that elicit ethical and behavioural responses in personal and social settings.' Seen this way, values are part of our biological repertoire, but also very much part of our social and personal capacities. Values are also, in a broad sense, part of our ethical sensibilities and help constitute our ethical environment.

I hope I have shown that values are important enough for education to be concerned with. Now what should be the nature of that concern?

What values are not

I have tried, in the above definition, to distinguish values from belief, ideas or general principles. This is important. If values were merely correct belief, any laundry list of 'good values' would suffice. And the educational challenge would be just to get students to accept one set of beliefs rather than some other. This has been tried. The results have not been pretty. We do not have a clear understanding of why we advocate one set of values rather than another. Students are left to choose between different sets of values and end up dealing with the conflicts that result. Some become 'mercenaries' in their value orientation; others are burdened with guilt and uncertainty.

I would like to highlight two aspects of the nature of values that are important for our discussion. The first aspect is an extension of the ideas in the last paragraph. Values are more than just belief or preference. They are part of our capacity for feeling and reflection. This implies that values cannot be taught like a subject or an intellectual or practical skill. Value orientation and sensitivity are learned, in the widest sense of the term, and are acquired in the context of relationships.

The second aspect calls attention to the way values are held. Are values a private matter or a matter of personal choice? Many think so. I would like to differ, cautiously. There are many features of values that are the result of personal reflection and questioning. And there is individual variation in the way values develop. At the same time, it is clear that values emerge in a social setting. Social attitudes and social relationships, including education, are critical to the development of values in adults and the young. We must therefore remember that values, while not ephemeral, are dynamic and interpersonal. This implies that the personal—collective dichotomy is not useful in our exploration of values and values education. I shall dwell more on this later.

Some challenges

The discussion of values education is often muddied by the apparent multiplicity of legitimate values. There simply are too many of them. Many seem to be in conflict with each other and it becomes impossible to reconcile them. We need a way of thinking about values education that will accommodate the plurality of values inevitable in a liberal democratic society. Things were perhaps simpler for our distant ancestors. Relative homogeneity of societies and their stability in time made values and their transmission less challenging. We do not enjoy that luxury.

The second challenge relates to a point I mentioned earlier. Human technological capabilities and their impact on the world are leading to rapid and potentially destructive large-scale changes in the natural environment. We are at a point where our actions can dramatically alter the living conditions not just for the present inhabitants of the world but for future generations as well. Needless to say, this issue is intimately linked to our values and ethical outlook and education needs to confront this urgently.

Values education may also be a matter of discarding existing ways of thinking and feeling, as much as it is about discovering new ways. This is easier said than done. We seem biologically susceptible to set ways of thought and action once we adopt them. Change and novelty is enticing and fearsome at the same time. What aspect of education can help?

Education and values

The reader may, understandably, feel intimidated by the seeming complexity of issues and all that values education is called upon to perform. There is cause for optimism, though. There is much in our dispositions that supports a coherent values education. And, as I emphasized, values education is not about discovering or choosing correct values; it is more about discovering those aspects of personal and collective functioning that support well-being. I would like to present four general themes that are connected to education in fundamental ways that could help us achieve a more sophisticated understanding of values and values education.

  1. The individual and the collective - a false dichotomy

    The modern era is marked by the rise of individualism. We have swung, as societies, from rigid collectives that punitively enforce ideas and values, to worshippers of the cult of the individual. Values are now required to 'respect the individual'. We find no irony in saying that 'this is my personal value and I have a right to it'. This seems to bring severe relativism into the discourse of values.

    I believe that this individualised relativism is misplaced. The individual and the group are seamlessly related. And one cannot exist without the other. We need a way of resolving this without trivializing either of them.

    Education has a crucial role here. Educators can help the student gain an understanding of how the personal and the public are related. This could happen in many areas and subjects. This is particularly true of the social sciences, but it can happen through our understanding of the natural sciences too. It also implies that educational environments have to nurture cooperation and not competitive personal achievement.

    A related exploration is connected to the notion of social justice. Most societies are unacceptably unequal in material terms and millions live in severely impoverished conditions. If we accept, as a foundational value, that every human being deserves to live with dignity and well-being, it becomes clear that we need social arrangements that support this. Personal well-being and social justice are inextricably related and one is not meaningful without the other. Education must emphasize this insight.

  2. The importance of questioning and dialogue

    Educational processes that encourage the skills and abilities of questioning are superior and more effective in exploring values. The reasons are not hard to discern. As I mentioned before, values are not merely principles or beliefs. They are more deeply rooted and are related to feelings, emotions and thinking. Unquestioning acceptance of tradition and other people's ideas defeats the possibility of a more nuanced and coherent value orientation.

    Dialogue, in the sense that physicist David Bohm used, is potentially a powerful tool for the educator and the student. Dialogue in Bohm's view is an active engagement between people that involves all their faculties - thinking, feelings and emotions. It is also held in an atmosphere and culture of good will. Such a process emphasizes understanding and well-being and not discovery of fixed values.

    Teachers in our society are rarely used to the autonomy that promotes questioning and dialogue for themselves and their students. Schools are hierarchically organized and students look upon teachers as figures of authority, not as partners in learning. This, difficult as it may seem, has to change, if a different approach to values is to be discovered.

    To recapitulate, a process of dialogue and questioning is the centrepiece of values education. Such a process blurs the apparent but false dichotomy between interests of the individual and the group and should contribute to a more vital value orientation.

  3. You are not what you seem - exploring personhood

    There is a paradox at the heart of human experience as a result of their biological being. We perceive and experience the world and our relationships from the perspective of embodied selves. There is an immediate non-verbal sense in which feelings, emotions and things are mine and mine alone. At the same time it is obvious that selves are not entities like tables and chairs. And personhood is a 'fiction' constructed by our nervous systems on the fly in the conduct of life and survival. This paradoxical state of affairs is at the heart of many a philosophical puzzle.

    At the basic level, the sense of self is non-verbal, direct and constantly renewed. The superstructure of memory, language and cognition enriches and deepens it and constructs a large autobiographical narrative that stays with us through life. This is in spite of the fact that the body, the biological foundation of that narrative, is constantly being renewed in many ways.

    The biologically based capacity for personhood and the complex social relationships around it are, simultaneously, a source of joy and travail. Humans have acquired powers over the environment that no other species can even conceive of. At the same time human relationships and societies are hopelessly in conflict - a source of great suffering and violence.

    Krishnamurti maintained, un-compromisingly, that a profound understanding of oneself is the first (and the last) step in a life well-lived. For him, it is the role of education to point, simply and non-dogmatically, to the possibility of this understanding. This ability to hold one's personhood lightly or not at all is the foundation of value and virtue. An exploration that begins thus is an inquiry, and education has to enhance the possibility of this inquiry.

  4. Awareness and reflection

    As I alluded to earlier, consciousness seems to divide our world radically into the private, inner world of our lived selves and a public external world of other people, events and things. Our lives are driven by our private feelings and self-interest (subtle or otherwise), intensely felt in our flesh and bones, as it were. Our capacity for relationship, empathy and altruism coexist, paradoxically, with this. This division has given rise to conflict and cooperation at many levels - personal, interpersonal and between groups, tribes and nations.

    Scientists and philosophers maintain that this is an inescapable aspect of being human. We are limited, in this view, by our biology. We cannot transcend the two perspectives, the personal and the external. Our ethical capacities, our ability to discover values and to cooperate enable us, at best, to blunt the sharp edge of our violent biological dispositions. All we can do is to create the social conditions and values that promote peace and well-being.

    Many seers, Krishnamurti included, on the other hand, insist that we are capable of the insight that dissolves this paradox. It is to a 'choiceless awareness' and non-personal reflection that they point to as the foundation of this transformation.

    Interestingly, everyone agrees that education is at the leading edge of this exploration. Whether to alleviate the effects or to banish the divisions forever, education and the inquiry that it must engender remains a powerful beacon. Its promise is perhaps yet to be fulfilled but its possibilities remain as fresh as ever.


I have argued that values and an education that supports them are not a matter of instruction. If they are to contribute to well-being, they must be based on understanding and inquiry, not dogma and belief. Education, understood in its deepest sense, must contribute to creating this capacity in students and teachers. This requires us to discard old certainties and conditioning and embrace a process that places values squarely within thinking, feeling and reflection in the context of relationships. In classrooms and homes we need to nurture a capacity for inquiry that negates old dichotomies and divisions of thought. There is no procedure for this that guarantees outcomes, but the journey promises to be exciting.