Volume 9 Number 4
Chess, Choices and Citizenship
01 August 1996

Joy Weeks asks whether schools can impart the values which undergird free society.

In the late 1960s I met a young man who had started a school for several hundred children in the Harijan (formerly known as untouchable) community where he lived in Delhi. He wanted to know how he could educate these children to be responsible citizens of a democracy and not slaves of a dictatorship. He had found that when he was present, all went well, but when he left them to less forceful supervision, chaos reigned. How could he motivate them to choose self-discipline rather than have it imposed upon them?

Countries whose citizens have known only political dictatorship are faced with just this dilemma. So are we in the so-called 'free' societies.

In 1994, on a visit to China with a group of secondary school teachers, I often heard the term, 'building the spiritual civilization' . We discovered that the Chinese were concerned about how to keep the balance between the fast-growing market economy and the wider needs of a vast population. What inner motivation would enable those who could now amass personal wealth to remember those who could not?

It seems that the search for how best to communicate values is universal.

Some years ago I heard a German industrialist describe the two high schools from which he drew his employees. One had better academic results, but the other produced young people who were ready to learn, eager to take responsibility and who were good communicators and honest in their work. He soon decided he was better off employing those from the second school. Exam league tables are not the only criteria for success.

Hypocrisy is perhaps the greatest block to communicating values. As a young teacher, with a class of 13-year-olds, I was delighted when two of them asked me to check their desks for tidiness. 'Wonderful,' I thought, 'they've at last taken my nagging to heart.' Their desks were immaculate, not only that day, but for the rest of the week. The next Monday they came to me and asked if they could help me tidy my desk. When I had badgered them about their desks, I had completely ignored the state of my own.

If we want young people to become good citizens there needs to be consistency between the values which are publicly expressed and those we expect of them. What messages do young people receive today?

They hear politicians saying those things which match their particular party line regardless of the truth and appealing almost exclusively to electors' material aspirations. They hear of fraud and of huge salary rises for the heads of industry - and, at the same time, they are told that public spending must be cut and teachers and nurses must accept low salary rises. And they see the people they love deciding that they can't make a go of their relationships, and society accepting this as normal or inevitable.

Teachers and parents are becoming increasingly worried about where society is going. Unease has been expressed about the lack of personal integrity of many young people coming into the world of work, as well as their lack of practical skills. It is unfair to expect schools to uphold values which have been rejected by society as a whole, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility altogether.

The received wisdom seems to be that it is well-nigh impossible to teach values in school. Teachers who try to deal with questions of relationships, personal ethics and spiritual values are accused of indoctrination and moralizing. Yet it appears to be acceptable to talk about social justice and the environment. Important though these issues are, I cannot believe they are so much more important than love, honesty, trust, selflessness or forgiveness.

In not talking honestly and positively about what goes into the creation of good relationships, we leave our young people with no guidance and precious little choice.

One way of communicating values is through involving young people in challenging and imaginative initiatives.

For instance, a corner shop owner in an inner-city area in the United States found that he was always lending money to the local children. One day he suggested that they could earn the money instead, by coming for an hour to learn chess. Within two years they fielded a team which came ninth in a national chess competition. In the process, they discovered that they were not stupid, that they could apply themselves to a task and that they could master complex strategies and solve problems.

When I was in India I got to know a small group of teenagers from a school near Bombay - two Muslims, a Christian, a Parsee and a Hindu. One day they were talking about corrupt politicians. I wondered aloud if there was any form of corruption nearer home which they could do something about. They admitted that they had cheated in their exams and that cheating was widespread in their school. After considerable debate, they decided to own up to the authorities and to announce to their class that they had decided not to cheat in the next exams. Later they wrote a play on the subject and performed it in other schools as well as their own. Cheating declined considerably.

About 12 years later, on another visit to India, I met one of the original group of students on a suburban train. She reminded me in vivid detail of those days and told me it was the most exciting time in her whole school life.

Discovering the values that make sense of life should be an exciting, adventurous and active process.
Joy Weeks

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