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The War for Children’s Minds: Liberal Values and Why We Should Defend Them

reviewed by Ann Chinnery - April 12, 2007

coverTitle: The War for Children’s Minds: Liberal Values and Why We Should Defend Them
Author(s): Stephen Law
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415378559 , Pages: 198, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

In The War for Children’s Minds, British philosopher Stephen Law takes on the question of how to raise children to become good, moral citizens. The war he refers to is a war over moral and religious education, and the battleground is public schooling. On one side are the Authoritarians—those who believe that making children good means teaching them to defer to a higher authority on matters of right and wrong. On the other side are the Liberals—those (including Law) who contend that children should be taught to think independently and critically about moral issues in order to arrive at their own reasoned understanding of right and wrong. The key differences between the two sides are 1) their views on the source of moral authority, that is, whether moral truth comes from without (e.g., from a religious leader or text), or from within the individual (based on autonomous reason); and 2) whether, and to what degree, children have a right to freedom of thought and expression.

Law wrote The War for Children’s Minds for parents, teachers, and policy-makers, not for fellow academics; and his aim is to correct popular misconceptions about liberalism, relativism, and the role of reason in morality and moral and religious education. He rejects the alarmist rhetoric and “collective hand-wringing” in the popular media about society’s moral decline since the 1960s, claiming that it is not a matter of having lost our core values, but rather that we have different ones now. Where conservative critics point to increasing crime rates, family breakdown, and a more relaxed attitude toward sexuality as signs of moral decay, Law says that in many ways the general changes in attitudes towards the environment, racism, women’s rights, and homosexuality are in fact changes for the better. Retreating to Authoritarian approaches to moral and religious education will not, he insists, lead to a better society in the long run; rather, genuine moral progress is best facilitated by developing children’s capacity for independent rational moral thought.

The most common criticism against a liberal education has been that encouraging children to think independently and critically about moral issues will inevitably lead to moral relativism. And values clarification, an approach prominent in the 1970s and early 80s, certainly did nothing to dispel that concern. Even though the intent of values clarification was not to undermine morality, the program’s emphasis on the process of moral deliberation over the particular content of students’ moral decisions contributed significantly to its demise. At its worst, values clarification left students with the impression that competing moral judgments are nothing more than a matter of preference that ought to be tolerated as we would differing preferences in style and taste. It is no surprise, then, that by the early 1990s values clarification had become so unpopular that early values clarification advocate Howard Kirschenbaum (1992) said, “Some administrators today would rather be accused of having asbestos in their ceilings than of using values clarification in their classrooms” (p. 773).

Law acknowledges that a liberal education may indeed result in children coming to hold values and beliefs different from the ones their parents want them to hold (e.g., around the ethics of eating meat, political intervention in foreign conflicts, gay rights), but he maintains that the range of values and beliefs that could stand up to rational scrutiny is limited. Thus, while reason may not be capable of providing an ultimate foundation for morality, it “still has a vitally important role to play when it comes to determining what’s right and what’s wrong” (p. 121, emphasis in original). As such, Law says, a liberal education along the lines he describes in Chapter 3 can actually provide an effective defense against relativism (p. 96).

One of the more interesting sections in the book, in my view, is Chapter 10, where Law claims that a good liberal education is also a kind of character education. However, he cautions against those in the character education movement who see it as a way of smuggling conservative religious values into mainstream education and as an “opportunity to drill children into mindlessly accepting their own religious and moral beliefs” (p. 129). While opposed to Authoritarian approaches, Law’s liberal education parallels character education’s emphasis on the cultivation of certain habits and virtues. But rather than emphasizing behavioral habits such as hard work, cleanliness, and obedience to authority, Law wants to cultivate certain habits of mind, such as “listening to different points of view, calmly and carefully considering them,” and the virtue of thinking critically and independently, and taking seriously one’s responsibility for making moral judgments (p. 128). This new way of thinking about character education could be especially helpful, I think, for progressive educators in the United States who want to meet the requirement of having some form of character education in their classrooms without having to resort to the “traditional values” curricula currently flooding the market.

Law’s appeal for philosophy in schools and for the cultivation of autonomous reason as the best way to honor children’s right to a good education is certainly timely in this age of increasing fundamentalism in the United States. However, The War for Children’s Minds does not quite live up to its promise. In writing a book for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, it would have been helpful if Law had teased out more fully the differences between the prevailing social, political, and religious climates in the United States and United Kingdom. He mentions early on in the book that American evangelism has ensured that anti-scientific views, such as young-Earth creationism, are finding their way into schools not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom, Russia, and Eastern Europe (p. 13). But he overlooks the fact that a growing number of American children from fundamentalist Christian families are being removed from state-funded schools to be home schooled by their parents, precisely because of the schools’ more liberal approaches to curriculum and pedagogy—a phenomenon rarely seen in Britain. In terms of style, Law relies unnecessarily on a few key quotes by conservatives Jonathan Sacks, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Melanie Phillips to underscore the urgency of his project; and he is guilty of painting rather broad-brush descriptions of Islam, Communism, etc.—shortcomings which could have been easily corrected by his editors without compromising the central argument of the book. Those comments notwithstanding, Law’s main point in The War for Children’s Minds—that we need to reclaim the Enlightenment values of reason and autonomy as central to moral and religious education—is well worth revisiting, and the book is a welcome contribution to the conversation.


Kirschenbaum, H. (1992). A comprehensive model for values education and moral education. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(10), 771-776.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 12, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14196, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:17:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Ann Chinnery
    Simon Fraser University, Canada
    E-mail Author
    ANN CHINNERY is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Her research interests are in ethics and moral education. Recent publications include "On compassion and community without identity" in Philosophy of Education 2006 , and "Cold case: Reopening the file on tolerance in teaching and learning across difference" in Philosophy of Education 2005. Her current research addresses the challenges of preparing teachers for work in increasingly diverse classrooms.
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