On Transmitting Values: A Conversation with Amitai Etzioni - ASCD
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November 1, 1993

On Transmitting Values: A Conversation with Amitai Etzioni

As important as English and science and math are, integrating the teaching of values in the curriculum is more important.

Communitarianism is “the new kid on the political block,” Peter Steinfels wrote in 1992 (New York Times). Defying the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” Communitarianism is a new social movement whose ideas were echoed in George Bush's endorsement of family values as well as in Bill Clinton's call for community service.

“Communitarianism does not uphold the individual's rights at all costs, nor does it impose moral solutions in an authoritarian way,” Amitai Etzioni, founder of Communitarianism, explains. Instead, it is rooted in the beliefs that “strong rights presume strong responsibilities” and that “moral standards should be based on consensus.” In this interview with Educational Leadership, Etzioni explains the Communitarian agenda for schools.

You're associated with a movement that talks about a need for a balance between rights and responsibilities. What does that mean for schools?

Today about half the families no longer see it as their duty to pass along values from generation to generation. Unless somebody embraces the agenda of instilling values, children won't have the strength of their values to fall back on. Yes, even when we teach values, children later may abandon them. But you have to give them some values on which to go. It sadly falls on the shoulders of the school. If we don't do this, then just as we have adults who are deficient in writing and science, we will find that adults won't have the character and the values needed to be decent members of the community or decent employees or decent soldiers.

Yes, but the question always is, Whose values should schools teach?

Every time I discuss this, someone asks that question—as if it's the trump card. Most people feel that this question is such a strong counter-argument that after they ask it, they can walk away from the discussion.

But the fact is that there are lots of values we all share. Nobody argues that discrimination is morally appropriate. A lot of people, unfortunately, engage in it. Nobody argues that lying is better than truth-telling. Philosophers might argue the margin of white lies, but I never heard somebody say, “I think lying is morally good.” Nobody's saying it's appropriate to engage in sexual harassment. There are lots of values that you can transmit before you get to the argument about whose values you're going to teach.

Yes, but some teachers are afraid to teach values because parents in their communities are vocally opposed to schools' taking on that role. The community does not agree on common grounds.

Yes, there are certain topics—pro-life, abortion, gay rights. These are the exceptions to the rule. But I'd like to see the community that says we should teach lies instead of truth-telling or discrimination instead of the opposite. If the community is asked if they want certain values taught, they will tell you they do.

Besides, there is no way of teaching subjects without teaching values. So let's be upfront about that and have explicit curriculum. If we don't, we are going to teach values only in hidden and almost devious ways. Let's have discussions about the values we want to transmit.

You mention the “hidden curriculum,” a more subtle way schools teach values. Can you explain what that is?

If you allow the classroom to be unruly, you transmit a message. If you give higher grades to white children than you give black children, you transmit a message. If I smoke in my college classroom, I transmit a message. Everything has a moral dimension. For instance, when I taught ethics at Harvard Business School, I was told I had to grade on a curve and I couldn't give more than x percent the highest grade. And I had to fail 10 percent. Well, that sent a very competitive message to the class. That was a message about values.

Every teaching act has a moral dimension. Today a lot of teachers require group assignments as well as individual assignments to emphasize that they want to teach cooperation. I believe that every year content should be examined in terms of what value message it sends, but we should also ask ourselves what message the hidden curriculum is sending.

How should schools go about planning a character education program?

I think a good way is to hold a faculty retreat. The only topics to be addressed should be: What are the value messages we are sending explicitly and implicitly? Are those the messages we want to send? And, How can we structure teaching, the classroom, and school to bring the message we send closer to the message we want to send? You need a facilitator at this retreat because superintendents and principals can be very defensive when it is sometimes pointed out that the message we send is not the one we want to send.

Second, I would want to see some systematic feedback about what's happening from the students' viewpoint. Ask them to fill out a questionnaire without signing their names. So when someone at the retreat says that the students love a particular subject or practice at the school, and somebody else says, “No, they don't, you know,” then the group can sift through the survey to find out how the students understand what you say. As you know, often things we think we said are understood another way. Therefore, we need that feedback.

You also want to make school a more personal place. How would you do that?

I recently asked a high school teacher what the school would do for a student who was feeling traumatized by his parents' divorce and whose grades were falling like crazy. And I hoped to hear that there was going to be a way to reach that student in a personal way, but the teacher said that he probably wouldn't even find out about the problem until six months later when the computer would spit out a letter to the student's parents saying the student failed in three or more subjects.

That's an example of why I want to reduce the impersonality in high school. I want each class to have one teacher who stays with the group for three value-rich classes—such as civics, geography and history—so the teacher can form a relationship with the students. Only when you build a relationship can you transmit values.

What do you say to those educators who feel they already have enough to do to teach curriculum subjects without also teaching character education?

As important as English and science and math are, integrating the teaching of values in the curriculum is more important. When I meet educators who say “You know, our plate is already overloaded,” I say, first, we should give you more resources, and, second, if it's not possible, I'm willing to take something off the plate to make room for this, and I'll bite the bullet. Take off the home economics or Spanish or something, but don't take off teaching values, as that's what school is about. Teaching is impossible unless it happens.

But that's quite controversial. Schools have always seen their mission as preparing students for the future—making them effective readers, writers, citizens.

It took me a long time to understand it, but the psychological trait you need to be an effective person and a moral person has one common denominator—that is, you must control your impulses. A moral person is somebody who, when he or she feels an impulse, can defer responding long enough to pass judgment about the appropriateness of that action. That's what separates us from the animals. The animals give in to their impulses; we pass judgment. All the rest is details.

If we would automatically do what's right, then we would be saints, right? But what we have is struggle where one voice says, “I want to do this,” and the other voice says, “I shouldn't do this.” That's the human condition—that we have the struggle. With saints and psychopaths, one of the two sides always wins. But the rest of us continue to struggle. What education tries to do is to enhance the capacity to defer impulses, and, second, make the right judgment. Now, the capacity to defer impulses is exactly what you need to do math and reading and writing and be a good worker. The capacity to defer impulses is half of what we should teach; the other half is to be sympathetic to others.

So you're saying that character education is not something to add to the plate, it's the whole plate—in the sense that it's the foundation for everything else teachers do?

That's my trigger point: Education is character formation. I'd like to tell you a story. When I was in 2nd grade, I lived in Israel in one of those boarding schools that was also a community farm. My friends and I slaughtered one of the chickens that belonged to the kibbutz, and we literally were caught red-handed. Our punishment was that the teachers assembled the whole school, not just the 2nd grade, but the whole school, and asked us to explain ourselves. Our peers wanted to punish us harshly. They wanted to prohibit us from ever going on a school trip. And the teachers had a very hard time controlling the jury.

But, you see, that's the only thing I remember from 2nd grade. And the point of the story is that education is certainly character formation. What you do in the corridors, what you do in the cafeteria, what you do on the breaks, what you do in the parking lot, and the ways you conduct yourself tell the students your values and shape their thinking about life.

Don't you think that peer pressure has changed, though? The teachers aren't the only ones who influence today's generation. Kids today have a culture of their own, and are influenced by so many things.

Right. Peer pressure can support what you're doing, or it can undermine what you are doing. And, it's the core of a good school that the teachers and the coaches and principals can influence the peer culture. If the peer culture is unsympathetic to the school's values, you don't need me to tell you you're in trouble. So, what we have to do is start early in grammar school.

It's really a challenge to influence youngsters who have strong counter-values. And I'm not just talking about kids in the ghetto but also kids in the fancy suburbs. I once lived on the Westside of New York, where my children went to school with movie stars' children. And one day they were invited to a birthday party where the party favors were bicycles. My children came home with some very wrong standards of what it means to be a successful person. And so, I had to spend a lot of time getting them back to the notion that you do not measure yourself by how valuable the party favor is.

I know there are incredible external pressures in the schools, for instance, where everybody in the neighborhood uses drugs or where gold chains are the measure of your success. No doubt about it, educators have a tough job. I don't deny there is an enormous challenge. But, I can't imagine how you can educate children without trying to teach positive values.

You have some specific ideas about how schools and community can work together to teach positive values to high school students. Tell us about those plans.

A lot of kids work outside of school now. I believe that we need to get together with the corporations and plan a program in which schools channel kids into approved workplaces. These workplaces would be structured so that the jobs would have an educational content. Hours that kids could work would be limited to no more than 15 a week, and kids could not work after 10:30 in the evening.

So many of the experiences in places where many kids work today are anti-educational. The work often prepares them for the 19th century, not the 21st century. The procedures are regimented. I'd like to say to our schoolkids, “You know, there are 20 corporations you can work for, but we appreciate 10 and not the other 10 because these 10 make a good effort to teach you skills that you can use later.” And then maybe give kids school credit for that work experience, but not for work for the other corporations.

I think large corporations could be very responsive to public pressure to do this. Today the business community has a great interest in educational partnerships. But so much of what they do for schools is basic—like donating new equipment. I'd much rather see businesses restructuring their work experiences for students.

When we talk about values education, we're talking about an area that some people disparage—and about a political issue. Do you think a number of people who embrace the character education movement might be confusing morality with political correctness?

Every good thing can be abused. In effect, most medicines have a toxic element in them. If you give them in small amounts, or the right amounts, you heal, and if you give too much, you kill. The notion of value education can be abused, too. I don't want to talk about the Huxtables or Murphy Brown as examples of positive values or negative ones. I want to teach those values we share, not those that divide us. Divisiveness is the last thing we need.

As for political correctness, I do believe you can teach people about their own heritage and about other people's heritages. But we need to teach both the diversity and the unity. It's the superiority of the democratic system. We should teach the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, black history, the Civil War, the Holocaust. But you cannot teach hatred of other groups. There are fretful things in history, and we must learn to share the pain, but we must not direct people to hatred.

Are you seeing an increased need for ethics to be in place for teachers and administrators before they can prepare children to act ethically?

Wait a minute. I don't mean to suggest that to teach ethics and to be ethical means you never sin or never transgress. Teaching values doesn't mean teachers should live in a fishbowl and be all the time on their best behavior. On the contrary, I think it's very important to prepare teachers and children for the fact that even with the best intentions, you transgress, get carried away. It's just part of the process. But what we must do—a thing we often are least likely to do—is make amends. I have a whole file full of people who, when caught red-handed, attack the system and say they've been misunderstood, rather than make amends and make the community whole again.

How does this all fit into your Communitarianism agenda?

Communitarianism is basically a new movement trying to shore up the foundations of social, moral, and political elements of society. We're publishing books and journals and holding councils. We have a long way to go. We're just three years old. We have three major agenda items. First, we want to see commonly held values embodied in society's rituals, habits, and institutions, especially in our schools and neighborhoods. Second, we believe we need to adjust the balance between rights and responsibilities. Society can't function if everybody takes and nobody gives, and that's happening, mainly because we uphold rights but not responsibilities. Finally, we want some political reform because we believe that special interests are out of line and the public interest is suffering. But that's a long agenda.

Are there policies related to schools that you support?

Student rights have been reinterpreted to make it very difficult to suspend students. And the school is often the victim in the process.... We'd like to see school bus drivers tested for drugs. They may not like it; it's a violation of their privacy. But when there's a danger to children's lives, it's a reasonable trade-off.... These are the kind of things we support.

What about students' rights to free speech in student newspapers? Do Communitarians think the courts have tipped the balance toward rights and away from responsibilities?

I would take the freedom of speech side of this issue. However, I don't think student newspapers need be run by the school in the first place. Let the students raise the money and write the newspaper. It would be very educational. And then the school would not be responsible for the content. It's always a signal of value when students do something responsible together.

You have much faith in the power of consensus. But isn't it true that knowing what's right doesn't always influence behavior? How would you respond to students who have been taught values but who show absolutely no remorse for doing wrong?

Well, all my education skills would have to come to play with those students. First of all, I'd better have a relationship with them. Then I'd better have a conversation. I can't say, “Hey, be good.” That's not education. I'd have to say, “Hey, why do you feel this way?” We'd have to have a conversation based on a relationship; otherwise it's not going to take. Preaching is not educating. That should be my punch line.

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