Value Judgments in the Classroom
AUGUST 01, 1958 by PATRICK M. BOARMAN
Professor Boarman is in the Department of Economics,
It took Sputnik to awaken Americans to the noxious effects on American secondary schools of a quarter century of "progressive education." Increasingly, we are recognizing that a wrong-headed emphasis on "life adjustment" courses to the neglect of standard disciplines such as mathematics and languages has enabled the
While the Soviets are bending every effort to disseminate the values of communism both at home and abroad, not a few professors at American institutions of higher learning are showing increasing concern at the intrusion of values of any kind into the classroom. Once again we are hearing the well-worn cliché about the exclusion of value judgments from the lecture hall and the need to preserve the scientific objectivity, i.e., the moral neutrality, of higher education.
"Too many of us [teachers]," opined a colleague of mine in a student newspaper, "are frustrated preachers, frustrated world-savers, forgetting we are not hired for our values (hiring criteria which would violate academic freedom). A teacher who seeks converts from his captive, receptive audience is bullying, however kindly. In shaping values he is doing somebody else’s job (probably the student’s) while neglecting his own… Should the historian advocate democracy, or the sociologist deplore segregation? Even when the instructor is confronted pointblank with an answer-demanding student, the answer is NO; education and propaganda differ in goals and therefore in techniques. Having political, economic, and religious views is everyone’s right, but not a teacher’s classroom privilege."
What precisely are the "values" which are so feared? Values involve commitments to a priori moral positions. To have values means to have standards in terms of which things or events or persons are judged as good or bad. To believe in the inviolable dignity and worth of every human being, for example, is to make a value judgment. To believe that man has certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is to accept without further argument certain "values." To be in favor of honesty, fair play, and respect for parents, to be opposed to murder, robbery, involuntary unemployment, and unnecessary suffering, to stand for human freedom and against totalitarianism — all these constitute value judgments or moral judgments.
Is it possible or even desirable to exclude such values or value judgments from classroom discussion?
Values in the Physical Sciences
Historically, the movement to eliminate value judgments from scientific inquiry is associated with the flowering of the physical sciences in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods. Advances in the physical sciences required an open mind and a willingness to throw overboard unproved hypotheses in the light of new evidence. At the same time, certain cosmological doctrines inherited from the past (e.g., the earth is the center of the universe) proved extremely difficult to dislodge because of their association in the minds of many with the theology and the system of values of Western Christianity. A disastrous and thoroughly unnecessary conflict between science and religion was provoked by the refusal of some ecclesiastical authorities to relinquish the erroneous idea that the truths of Christianity are somehow bound up with the Ptolemaic cosmology (witness Galileo’s difficulties).
There is, of course, no logical or essential connection between physical phenomena or physical laws and a given set of values, but this realization came only after a period of frustration for the pure scientists — hence, the early and persistent animus in scientific circles against value judgments and value systems. On the other hand, not a few of the most competent scientists of the modern era (the names of Max Planck and Pasteur come to mind) were devout Christians, that is to say, they held strong opinions about man, his place in the universe, his ultimate destiny. These men lived and worked within the general framework of their Christian assumptions though they did not regard these value premises as immediately relevant to the investigation of physical phenomena. They saw, at any rate, no incompatibility between their belief in science and their acceptance of the idea that there are some values which are valid for all men, as men. It was left to nineteenth century positivism to attack value judgments per se, to claim that all values are relative, and to spread the false and irrelevant notion that the ideal scientist is one who makes the fewest possible value judgments.
Man Must Have Values
Now if there are sound reasons why value judgments should be banished from the pure scientist’s laboratory (if not from the other areas of his life), this is certainly not true of the social sciences. For the social sciences do not deal with inorganic materials nor primarily with biological functions nor even with the organization of ant colonies. They deal with man, the source and subject of values. Man must have values; the "valueless" man is a monstrosity and he does not, in fact, exist. Consequently, the social scientist cannot be indifferent to what is "good" or "bad" for man.
Indeed, the premises of social scientists are themselves value judgments. The sociologist who endeavors to trace the causes of disintegration of the family assumes that "integration" of the family is "good." The economist who probes the causes of business cycles assumes throughout that the involuntary mass unemployment generated by cyclical fluctuations is a social evil. It is the latter assumption, indeed, which gives point and significance to his inquiry. The political scientist who contrasts democracy with totalitarianism, or slavery with freedom, assumes in his premises that the human situations these words describe are either good or bad. In short, the point of departure for the social scientist is a value judgment of some kind.
Make Known the Premises
To say that the social scientist necessarily begins with value-loaded premises does not mean, of course, that he has carte blanche to indulge in an emotional orgy of mere opinion, for if he did, his activities would cease to deserve the name of science. His obligation as a scientist is to state his premises, i.e., his value judgments, clearly and explicitly and then to construct syllogisms from whose second and third terms, at least, value judgments have been excluded. In the social sciences, this is sometimes hard to do (which doesn’t excuse us from making the effort).
To illustrate: one way of solving the problem of poverty in old age (note the value premise) is to enact an all-embracing federal welfare program for this purpose. A plausible case can certainly be made for this type of program. But there is an alternative solution, viz., more effective mobilization of the resources of the private sector of the economy (by increasing the scope of private insurance programs and of private pension plans, and the like). If we assume that both types of solution, the governmental and the private, are equally economical and efficient, then the economist who generally favors big government and takes a dim view of private enterprise will tend subconsciously to favor the governmental solution. A value judgment will enter his syllogism even in that portion of it which he believes to be "value free." Likewise, the economist who supports an increase of private activity in the welfare field because he fears the ultimate consequences of unrestrained growth of central government, will have admitted a value judgment to his conclusion as well as to his premises.
It might be added that economic science itself is meaningful only within the context of a value, to wit, freedom. The laws of supply and demand presuppose the freedom of producers and consumers to respond to the stimuli of the market and thereby to make effective their respective value judgments. The economist’s diagrams of the elasticity of demand and the marginal efficiency of capital posit freedom just as the physicist’s equations posit a finite universe.
Students May Agree or Not
The point of all this is that it is hardly possible to exclude values or value judgments from the social sciences. Obviously, every effort should be made to prevent their intrusion into the stages of argument which follow initial premises. Where this cannot be easily done, the values in question should be made explicit and their relevancy justified.
It is far more insidious for a teacher to present his arguments and his position in a classroom as if these were completely value free (when in fact they are not) than for a teacher to state his premises frankly and openly and then go on to seek the truth that flows from these premises. A teacher who prides himself on his ability to leave his values outside the classroom, who tries to pretend that he is indifferent to infanticide, wife-beating, racial intolerance, and involuntary unemployment is probably either a monster or a hypocrite.
When values are clearly stated, students are free to agree or disagree with them. But where values are concealed in the name of a specious objectivity, students will be brainwashed without being aware of it; they will be hood-winked, even though unintentionally.
It is, indeed, disturbing to find increasing numbers of social scientists acting as if values had nothing to do with them. The explanation is to be found, partly, in the social scientists’ deep sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the physical sciences (physicists produced an atom bomb, after all, but economists can’t even cure a mild recession). This inferiority complex impels the social scientists to ape the wholly inappropriate techniques and attitudes of the physical scientists (including the latters’ ability to ignore value judgments, at least in the short run). But not all the abracadabra of mathematical formulae and esoteric jargon with which we fondly imagine we are conferring exactitude on the social sciences can turn man into a molecule or an atom. Behind the curves and graphs and equations and the mysterious terminology stand free human spirits, incomparable and unique. And while we can estimate with some precision what man will do as a member of the herd, we cannot, no matter how hard we try, argue away his values. Values are a part of man and therefore a part of the study of man.
The idyllic period is past (if it was ever justified) in which we can abstract from value judgments in the social sciences. If we persist in our ostrich attitude, we may discover all too soon that, like Archimedes, we have been drawing geometrical tables in the sand while conquering hordes have been breaking into the city. Even the "purest" of our scientists, the atomic physicists, have been doing rather considerable moralizing of late as they awaken to the horrendous possibility of their "science" being used to exterminate the human race.
Avoiding a Moral Vacuum
If a list of the most inspiring and influential teachers of the past could be drawn up, it might well show that the majority were men who were strongly and even passionately committed to certain values and who communicated these values both in the classroom and outside it. Education is, after all, not a one-sided process aimed exclusively at the communication off acts and the development of skill in correct reasoning. Education of the whole man is also moral, that is, it involves the inculcation of values. To abdicate this responsibility in the name of a spurious scientific objectivity is to create a moral vacuum in the minds and hearts of our youth.
Safeguards of the Spirit
But we must face the truth, that in the modern world genuine protection is no longer to be found in material safeguards alone.
The only real protection remaining is the spirit of man. Consequently we cannot afford to compromise with moral principles. In the moral world there is no golden mean between virtue and vice, there can be no averaging of opposites. Our obligation, even in selfish terms of survival, is not to find an accommodation with evil, but to oppose it and in the end to overcome it.
David Sarnoff, The Moral Crisis of Our Age