How Can We Teach Virtues and Values?
When we endeavor to train young people in values and morals, how can we teach effectively? The most important piece of the puzzle is that we practice the virtues we want to cultivate. If you want to be honest, tell the truth. If you want to be charitable, start by giving in small ways, and do not be discouraged when you are selfish. Also, remember to pray for yourself and your family, because it is only by the grace of God that we gain anything of value, including virtues.
But, in addition to setting a good example and obtaining God’s assistance through prayer, what else can we do? It is also significant to consider what we teach in morality, what techniques to use, and why. It will help us to consider the differences between values education and virtues education, and what we can learn from both.
Values education is a modern phenomenon, and it teaches basically that the way to promote moral behavior is to define what is most valuable in life, and then make choices that support those ends. Values education replaced virtues education, which taught that we must build habits of good actions, so that in times of distress we will habitually choose the good. Values educators rightly critiqued the virtue system by saying, “you cannot teach someone to do the good without telling them why they are doing it”. Unfortunately, this critique often included a dismissal of virtues education, which is not incompatible with values education.
Virtues education’s critique of values education could be stated as “you cannot expect someone to do the good without training the person in how to do it”. The fact is, sometimes we do things that conflict with our values, and we know it. Why do we do this? Virtue theory would say we were not fully trained. We need the proper skills to do the good, and like all skills these are not just innate, but must be developed. In the same way that we will perform poorly in sports if we do not practice, and we will fail tests if we do not study, so too we fall short in morality without practice.
As a morality teacher, I have a professional interest in the way morality is taught. As a father, I have a personal interest. As a Christian, I have a profound interest, considering the eternal weight of our choices. Moral questions are central to the Christian, the parent, the educator, and the citizen… to everyone!
So maybe we can take the best of both values and virtue education. Teach young people to do right, but thoroughly explain why. Help young people to develop the skills that they will need to practice virtue in daily life, even in environments where practicing virtue can be difficult. Tell them why you choose to do right. Show them how you have been able to choose the best option, when other choices might be so tempting. Teach them virtue with actions and with words.
(Adam Storey, Theology Teacher, Dowling Catholic High School)