Teaching Values: Critical Perspectives on Education, Politics, and Culture
reviewed by James Lawson - 2005
Title: Teaching Values: Critical Perspectives on Education, Politics, and Culture
Author(s): Ron Scapp
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 041593107X, Pages: 198, Year: 2003
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In his recent inaugural parade, George Bush acknowledged the University of Texas marching band by raising his right hand, with the index and pinky fingers extended, in the schools Hook em Horns salute. Unfortunately, President Bush was unaware the worldwide viewing audience included Norwegians, for whom the same salute is reserved to acknowledge Satan. The episode, a simple misunderstanding when put in the proper context, illustrates a problem with reliance on a single notion of values and culture. Ignoring the value of multiple perspectives blocks understandings and can create divisions among different cultures.
In Teaching Values: Critical Perspectives on Education, Politics, and Culture, however, Ron Scapp asserts a crucial educational consequence of such divides:
Todays educators are forced to enlist and join one side or the other in the ongoing culture wars. Those who attempt to stay out of the trenches find themselves nevertheless hunkered down dodging the venomous fusillades of insults continuously being fired from both sides; remaining neutral is equally immobilizing. (p. 167)
The scars of the so-called culture wars extend well beyond the halls of academia. In fact, the more serious consequences of the stagnation of the dialogue Scapp hopes to revive are found in the classroom. Both teachers and students are caught in the middle of a struggle to control future generations. If Scapps work has any influence on the players, we may see schools become lively laboratories for inquiry whose results can serve to continue the cultural dialogue.
Scapp, who is the director of the graduate program in urban and multicultural education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, uses critical examinations of recent events or conflicts in the education world to stake a claim for postmodernism in the current debates. Scapp succeeds because he carefully acknowledges and responds to critics and leaves room for a renewed dialogue to replace the current academic trench warfare.
The potential damage of adversarial interactions overwhelming dialogue is made clear when Scapp considers the growing popularity of publicly funded school choice. The individual freedom to choose a school in line with ones personal views isnt necessarily bad, but when that choice is the product of an unwillingness (or at some point, inability) to engage fellow citizens in dialogue-based inquiry to reach common ground, it becomes an outlet for people to agree to disagree on values. In the short term, conflict is avoided, but in the long term, meaningful change is impeded. If the conversation stops, we concentrate on defending and promoting our version of the truth, whichever of the many divergent approaches to schooling it may be. Schools are important as victims of the tension, as well as the sources of a solution.
The critical examinations Scapp explores have repeatedly emerged from the cacophony of complaints, frustrations, and confusion voiced by hardworking teachers in the Mt. St. Vincent teacher education program he directs (p. 7). He offers insights for teachers struggling to incorporate critical reflection in their planning and teaching and presents his arguments in a manner that encourages dialogue rather than the adversarial stance so common today.
Scapp asserts that social justice is the goal of any good inquiry. If social justice is the goal, then, he argues, teaching in an extramoral sense will help. Teaching in an extramoral sense allows teachers to question their own biases and evaluate how those biases affect their students and empowers students to participate in the social conversation over the values and ideas we want to pass on to the next generation. Scapp writes: Teaching in an extra-moral sense demands something more of the participants; it requires the willingness and the ability to genuinely reconsider and reevaluate the beliefs and stories one holds dear (p. 166).
Scapp offers an understanding of values capable of accommodating multiple meaning perspectives as an important aspect of teaching in an extramoral sense. Since the world is constantly changing, our values must allow for the contingency of human knowledge. In this world, multiple meaning perspectives carry weight, and dialogue between these perspectives is essential to intelligent action. Scapp argues values embracing this concept:
Whatever values are, they are simply not what many people claim them to be, namely, the ethical indices that guide one through life. Values are the articulation of what a given community takes to be its desired result, priority, or preference. (p. 170)
Scapp effectively responds to the arguments of both right and left that suggest that such a new understanding of values ignores truth with a capital T and amount[s] to de facto nihilism (p. 20) by asserting that his understanding of values avoids the pitfalls of arguing for values as specifics, which
quickly becomes little more than the establishment and repetition of sound bites, slogans, and anthems. Rather than rigorously thinking through the issue of values, many involved in the debate simply seek the advancement of their version of the truth. (p. 166)
A belief in only one real version of the truth does not bring about the comfort of consistency and certainty without substantially increasing the difficulty of dialogue with individuals or groups who do not share those convictions.
Teaching Values increases in credibility because of the dialogue-friendly tone employed. Scapp resists attacking only conservatives and makes a strong argument that postmodernist thinkers should consider their own contributions to the dialogic stalemate:
Many on the left and those who identify themselves as postmodernists have either forfeited the issue of values to the right out of the fear of even sounding moralistic or have used methods and jargon that have so alienated even sympathetic audiences that the right has managed to take control of and dominate the debate about values in the United States.
Ron Scapp has contributed a valuable work that intentionally leaves the reader to consider issues for herself. His examinations reveal how a multiple-perspectives approach can enable new understandings of important issues. The reader is left to consider how the heuristics we rely on to process experiences are constructed and defended. Scapp eschews specific facts or specific values in favor of a critical examination and a dialogue between multiple meaning perspectives. He effectively acknowledges and responds to his critics while allowing room for a future conversation, the contents of which I eagerly anticipate.
E. D. Hirsch (1988), one of the conservative scholars engaged by Scapp, defends his list of specific facts necessary for cultural literacy by stating that effective communication requires shared culture, and that shared culture requires transmission of specific information to children. . . . Only by accumulating shared symbols, and the shared information the symbols represent, can we learn to communicate effectively with one another in our national community (p. xvii). Hirschs concern in regard to the national community should raise concerns in todays international environment.
In an increasingly interdependent world, in which a seemingly innocent shared symbol among Texans is beamed to Norway, where it is a shared symbol of evil, knowing the meaning of Hook em Horns in America isnt enough. More important is the awareness of other perspectives and the ability to critically evaluate multiple perspectives. Ron Scapp provides the education community with a thoughtful and accessible perspective on these issues.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1988). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage.