Don't Say That! Does "Values Education" Have Any Actual Value?

Republicans and Democrats both get pretty exercised over "values" education, what teachers are allowed to say, how things are phrased in textbooks, whether some groups are allowed to meet and when.

Erstwhile indoctrinators on the left and the right may forget how little time our kids spend in school, under the best of circumstances. For kids, school is the equivalent of a part-time job, never more than 35 hours a week. That's including lunch, gym, and recesses. Moreover, it's a part-time job from which you get entire summers off—and an extraordinarily generous Christmas vacation, plus spring and fall breaks.

In any given year, a student will spend hardly a quarter of his or her total waking hours in any classroom. And that's after not going to school at all their first five years or so—the period developmental scientists say is critical for developing personality.

The other three-quarters of their time, kids are hanging out with their friends, observing their parents, watching lots of TV, texting, Twittering, YouTubing. During that majority of their time, they're likely to hear all manner of stuff about gays, about prayer, about sex, about patriotism, about evolution, about life, and form their own conclusions.

Some have blamed several modern social ills on the fact that, half a century ago, prayer was banned from U.S. classrooms. But for the first century of American history, most Tennessee kids didn't get to pray in public school, either—partly because most didn't have a public school to go to. Universal public education, once controversial in itself, is still relatively new in the big scheme of things.

In the last century or so, public school has proven its value in teaching the four basic math functions and reading and writing, the essential skills of getting along in the world. That's important, and it's amazing how much teachers accomplish, given the small slice of a student's attention they ever get.

Whether grade-school students are persuaded by evolution, or not, or whether they get sex education, or not, or whether they pray, or not, or whether they hear the word gay, or not, during this small fraction of their childhoods—is it likely any of that will have a permanent effect on their outlook?

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I can still name most of my grade-school teachers, and picture their faces. I can tell you the subjects they taught, and maybe how well I did in their classes. The classroom anecdotes I remember vividly are mostly the funny ones.

I do not remember whether a single teacher was a Republican or a Democrat. Did any of them go to church? I don't recall. I don't know whether they had sex or with what gender. Did we ever discuss values? If we did, I snoozed.

I remember mainly spelling words, the long division, the better stories we read, multiplying fractions, and that some of teachers were nicer than others.

Did we study evolution? Beats me. I learned about evolution from National Geographic, mainly through the continuing adventures of the pith-helmeted African adventurer Louis Leakey and all the cool skulls he kept finding in Olduvai Gorge. When I was 8, my favorite word was Zinjanthropus. I pinned up evolutionary charts in my bedroom. I liked evolution a lot, mainly because I valued this evidence that my ancestors were mostly monsters.

We did say the pledge every morning, at least in elementary school. I remember that mainly because we made fun of it, substituting better words, us boys cracking each other up on the back row. "Tar-nation, Under-wear...."

A boy's duty, I understood by the time I was 9, was mainly to his pals, and it was, most specifically, to make fun of everything witnessed in school. Are kids different, more submissive, more respectful—more susceptible—now?

I had an unsettling revelation, a few years ago, in Washington. My wife was in conferences, so I set out to see all the museum stuff I'd never seen. I was awed by much of it, but found myself in the company of several school groups. Alone, I noticed what everybody around me was saying. For kids between the ages of 7 and 21 or so, everything—and I mean everything, including Lincoln's top hat, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Constitution—was valuable mainly for its joke potential. Every time boys entered a room, they scanned it for things that would make the other kids laugh. And I recalled it was exactly the same when I was a kid. I sometimes think museums, and maybe also "values education," are mainly for grownups.

Are kids' values permeable by deliberate indoctrination, listening to a teacher who's not a permanent part of their lives—in a classroom in a 50-minute format? Based on my experience with it, the classroom would seem an ineffective place to teach values, or reverence for any deep-seated belief.

I'm not quite old enough to forget that subverting what the teacher says is always much cooler than the alternative. I bet you're not, either.

Is there a perverse dynamic here? Might values education tend to produce the opposite of what it's pushing? A conservative, God-fearing, and patriotic American public-school curriculum in the 1940s and '50s produced far-left-wing provocateur-fugitive Abbie Hoffman—along with an entire counterculture that extolled the joys of free sex, drugs, eastern religions, and denim.

A more liberal curriculum in the 1960s and '70s, banning prayer but including evolution and sex education, produced Sarah Palin, Stacey Campfield, and a whole neo-con generation.

No scientific sample, obviously. But some could conclude that teaching evolution and sex education in schools radicalized some students' innate right-wing tendencies—after an earlier curriculum revolving around patriotism and religion radicalized others' innate left-wing tendencies. Maybe students just want to prove they're different from their teachers, to prove they're independent and all grown up.

Or maybe what values any school is pushing at any time doesn't really matter in how anyone turns out. Human beings tend to think for themselves, and come to their own conclusions. Teach a kid to read, and he or she will go from there. You can't do much about what happens next.