Our University – The Importance of Teaching Values

It is interesting that in a short period of time, 12 years, educators go from expressing a keen interest in teaching values, to no interest at all.  I am not sure what makes this discussion so difficult but I do know that students, even in graduate school, are still learning values; they learn them from experience, and study.  Study, of course, is one form of experience.

Members of the faculty of any university know that they teach values, but they would rather say that they teach math, or physics, or literature, or sociology.  I believe that in every one of those actions, values are taught and they become part of the student experience.  Frequently this aspect of the work of faculty members is downplayed.  It suggests a level of responsibility that is a great burden to bear.

We are afraid of it.

Every discipline is taught from a cultural perspective.  Some would say that can’t be so in the case of calculus for example.  It is a trans-cultural discipline.

Not really.

The development of calculus embodies contributions from Newton, Leibnitz, Eudoxus, Archimedes, Lin Hui, Ibn al-Haythan, Seki Kowa, Cavalieri, and Schwarz.  Count the cultural and geographic divides, differences of world view, religious and moral perspectives in this incomplete, impromptu list.  The distinctive cultures that give life to an approach to the world have pieces and parts of many value systems, difficult to see, which, therefore, make calculus appear valueless.

Calculus is laden with value.  We can’t see the lines of demarcation between one culture and another anymore, or how each contributes to a commonly held set of principles, so we think calculus is free of cultural interpolation. In fact it is so full of it we are blinded.

We can’t see the trees for the forest.

To suggest this means that mathematics is trans-cultural, has no value associated with it, and should be devoid of cultural perspective is the same as claiming that my grandchildren have no specific and powerful relationship to my grandparents, and my wife’s grandparents, and their grandparents and so on.

The French revolution embodied the conflict between two value systems: those of the monarchs and their subjects, ever so well represented by Queen Marie Antoinette’s suggestion upon hearing that the populace had no bread, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” , “Let them eat cake!”   In an effort to unite the people of France, the framers of the revolution purportedly rallied the masses with the motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, freedom, equality, brotherhood.

These conflicting cultures are stabilized by the infusion of fraternity in the complex questions that vex us all from time to time.  We can see the cultural divides here.  The genius of the revolutionaries was that they understood the importance of fraternity in addressing complex problems.  Fraternity buffers and allows the mixing of differing value systems to be present, not lost, and included, not excluded.  Divergence becomes convergence.

This is exactly why we must teach values at our university; even in subject areas where we don’t think they exist.  Otherwise, economist and thinker E. F. Schumacher had a profound warning for us:

Divergent problems offend the logical mind, which wishes to remove tension by coming down on one side or the other, but they provoke, stimulate and sharpen the higher human faculties, without which man is nothing but a clever animal.

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