Teaching the right values: a challenge for Catholic schools

Teaching the right values: a challenge for Catholic schools

Greg Craven

Professor Greg Craven is the Dean, College of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. The following is the edited text of his address at the Parents and Friends Federation, Annual Conference Dinner, Royal Kings Park Tennis Club, Perth, 12 June 1999.

My starting point is to try to recall something about my own education and values: I was taught by the Presentation Sisters at primary school, then by the Christian Brothers at St Kevin's, Toorak. I have forgotten a lot of what they said and I am sure that I rejected various things that I was told. But what struck me in later life is how much one absorbs incrementally, not as a narrow rule, but as values - as a general theory of life that gave rise to a whole series of suppositions that one could draw upon.

I can remember being at a dinner party once at Melbourne, after I had become a lawyer, and various people were talking - some were Catholics and some were not. Someone said, "I was reading a magazine called Self the other day." All the Catholics laughed, and people said, "What's so funny?" And we said, "We were always taught that the idea of self was not something to be celebrated; it was something that one had to moderate in the interests of other people and of right and of decency."

Fundamental value

It strikes me, looking back on that, that what we had imbibed was a fundamental value that the individual is not the centre of the universe, not the greatest expression of reality; that there is something greater than that. That is the sort of value I think one can and must imbibe from education; not a series of narrow rules, but of fundamental values from which ethics flow. If you do not have those basic values, then your particular ethical suppositions are worthless.

Values are a Catholic concept. There is an intimate relationship between Catholicism and values; they are inseparable. Why? Because, at its intellectual heart, Catholicism is about a concept of truth - truth revealed, truth objectively discernible, and truth authoritatively expounded. The motto at the University of Notre Dame Australia [Fremantle, Western Australia], taken from the Gospel of St John, is: "In the Beginning was the Word, but Truth was there before we were there." Clearly discernible from that truth are a plethora of values about life, personal integrity and humanity.

Catholicism as a religion and a philosophy is therefore inherently interested and focused upon values, values which derive directly from its truth. It means, for example, that Catholicism intimately predicates something about the value of individual dignity. Hence, as a value, racism is an impossible position for a Catholic. It also says things about the value of life, again based on inherent Catholic truth, e.g., support for abortion is an impossible position for a Catholic.

For a Catholic, for Catholicism and for Catholic education, values are our core business. That can be a problem in a world that does not like values. We live in a world that not only dislikes Catholic values, it dislikes any values. It is essentially suspicious of values as a means of restraining and conducting human behaviour. There is no such thing as an objective value. Any suggested value is just a cultural constraint. Any position or value is as good as any other position or value. Any ethical position is as good as any other ethical position. There are numerous philosophical positions aiming to prove precisely that point of view.

Effectively the world argues there is no such thing as an objectively-based value, indeed, no such thing as values at all. Those arguments are directed at Catholicism and the Catholic Church with venom. Our opposition to abortion is said to be not really based on a proposition about the value and sanctity of human life; it is based on some outdated cultural constraint. Our opposition to euthanasia is deconstructed in the same way. Those arguments are directed at the Catholic Church for precisely the reason that the Catholic Church is one of the very few organisations in society that still believes in and forthrightly asserts the notion of "true" values.

The consequence is that we are faced with a world in which people tell us we have to be value-free, that law must be value free, politics must be value-free and education value-free, because to have values is to impose them on the conscience of another.

Value stance

In fact, there is no such thing as a value-free education. Every method of education involves taking up a value stance. The only question is, which stance are you going to take up? For the stance that education must be value-free is the most value- laden stance one can possibly take, precisely because it usurps the relevance of values and asserts that the objects of those values therefore are not worthy of special respect.

For example, we must not teach something about abortion because it involves imposing our values onto students. Translation - by not teaching that, we are implicitly saying there is really nothing much terribly wrong or unusual about that. We must not teach anything about the dispossession of the Aboriginal people because that is political and we cannot push a political view containing values. Translation - there was nothing much terribly wrong with what happened to the Aborigines.

In education, particularly in Catholic education, we have to face the fact that when it comes to values, silence is as loud as or louder than words. A failure to assert the values in which we believe tells our children absolutely that those values are not worth believing in. Therefore, the question for us in relation to education has to be, not whether we teach values, but which values we are going to teach because, whatever we do, we are teaching values.

The answer has to be that we must teach the values that are inherent in Catholic truth.

The need for values has never been more obvious than today. The motivation of many who try to do away with values has been mistaken, if perhaps sincere: they have disliked Christian values and wished to free society of them. But, for a variety of reasons, look at our current condition as the influence of Christian values has declined.


The collapse of communism - a wonderful thing - has nevertheless ushered in an era of unrestrained capitalism, with the worst aspects of Western consumerism. The cult of self and conspicuous consumption clearly worry the Holy Father terribly. And look at a party like One Nation, hostile to the values of tolerance, and accorded a certain degree of respect, precisely for that reason.

We have to teach Catholic/Christian values in our Catholic schools, and be unapologetic in teaching them. If these values derive from the truth, then we should tell the truth about those values. We have to identify those values and illustrate them with positive examples. We have to teach values like life, individual dignity, respect for human beings, and if that means saying there is a right and a wrong, if it means tackling the hard issues like abortion and euthanasia, then we have to do it.

The second thing we have to teach in terms of values is ethics, ideas by which we can order our relationships with other people: honesty, courtesy and truthfulness, all of which directly derive from Christian and Catholic teaching.

This is a major issue in the United States and Europe that has not yet struck Australia in full force. In Australia, we typically do not teach ethics, how to behave, for example, lawyers - and you may consider it self-evident that lawyers are not taught how to behave! When I was a lawyer at the University of Melbourne, I was taught legal ethics. From that whole course, I can remember two rules: don't sleep with your clients and don't steal their

At Notre Dame, we do not do it that way. We do it in an American way: they are taught general ethics the philosophy of ethics, they are taught legal ethics, they are taught ethics in each law subject they do, and then they are required each semester to do 20 hours of community service, undertaking practical ethics by being ethical to other people. That is what teaching ethics is about.

We tend not to do that at schools, yet our children watch television shows which in some ways are quite unethical or even anti-ethical. I can remember sitting down and watching Beverley Hills 90210 with horrid fascination and just recently was forced to watch Dawson's Creek, and I thought "what would be the ethical message from these shows?" Three rules would be: do whatever you like - you count more than anyone; and if you want it - take it!

You cannot expect students to imbibe an ethical position, if that is what they get seven days a week. If you are not prepared to talk to them about it and teach it, why on earth are they not going to listen to this stuff? I think that is a fundamental challenge Catholic schools have to face: how do we teach ethics?

What of civic values or ethics? In conducting ourselves as a society, what are the rules of honest and decent debate? What is encapsulated in that great Australian ethic "the fair go"? What does it say about how we treat each other, about respect, about toleration, about protection of the weak?

Teaching ethics

Finally, how do you teach ethics?

I would suggest a few things.

The first thing in teaching ethics or values is to believe in them. You cannot expect people to teach these in a school if they do not believe in them in the first place. The second is, you cannot afford to be ashamed of your values or to be apologetic. Students who think you are talking drivel will be embarrassed by you and will embarrass you back. They have to see that you believe in your values. You have to have thought about them, know the answers, be trained in a capacity for involvement in debates and win those debates.

We have to be kind in our values and ethics. There is no point in being right if we do not have the fundamental ethic of charity and kindness when people disagree with us. We have to be engaged in an ethical debate that is charitable. We have to adhere to the values ourselves. We cannot be seen to be in a position of saying we preach politeness and being fundamentally rude.

We have to be explicit in our values, to be able to articulate what they are and be prepared to take on the hard issues without hiding. If we are opposed to the ending of unborn life, we have to be prepared to express that and to argue it. We have to take ourselves seriously and not assume that students are going to laugh at us if we take up an ethical position. Students will always laugh at someone who looks laughable, but they will not laugh at those who come across as genuinely believing in what they are saying.

This is the great challenge for us and for our Catholic schools.

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