Professor Terry Lovat on Integrity

(or it could be honesty, trust, respect – any of them really. They all intersect, as we say)

Let’s just call it ‘truth’ for shorthand. The value of truth, truth-adherence, truth-observing, truth-telling – and the (dangerous) counter-value of its opposite.

Apologies if this is too political but I think the time for being overly polite is in the past, having watched the spectre of Trump’s disposition towards untruth take an even more dangerous turn than we’d become accustomed to. Let me start by saying this is not merely about Trump. Far from it. He’s just a pawn that serves to make some useful points about values-based education. 

Mary Trump, the pawn’s niece and a psychoanalyst, refers to her uncle’s virtual hardwiring for untruth. That is, he came to be so accustomed to thought and discourse around falsities that his default utterance became the lie. Faced with the patently and empirically verifiable ‘white’, he’d call it ‘black’ simply because his comfort zone and art was in dealing with the thinking and discourse entailed in falsity. In a word, it became easier for him to fabricate than to address the facts. I think Jurgen Habermas would say that untruth became the ‘cognitive interest that drove his knowing’. Darcia Narvaez might speak of his morality being captive to ‘vicious imagination’, an ego obsessiveness that drowns out the communal ethic that should underpin moral imagination. In other words, over time, he lost (if he ever had it) the capacity for coping with, perhaps even conceiving of, truth – however rationally proffered and/or empirically evident. 

I take this thought in two directions, both relevant in my view to values-based education.

First, the problem we saw in him dealing with the truth of election loss was emblematic of his approach to the pandemic, climate change, BLM, Middle East ‘policy’ (ahem), et al. The more the informed advice, the rational argument and/or the science said one thing, the more he’d push in the opposite direction. The near insurrection that resulted from his incapacity to accept the election loss was a stark representation of the damage that’s been done in those other areas. The lesson is that hardwiring for untruth has its consequences, the more so as it transitions from one man’s delusions to taking root in popular consciousness. It’s then the re-telling of the Emperor’s New Clothes story in all its scariness. When untruth as a counter-value becomes the norm for a sufficient number, we see (in descending order from the bleeding obvious to the only slightly less so): how easily democracy can be unhinged by coup-like behaviour; how an eminently controllable pandemic can devastate; how foreign policies aimed at a measure of justice can be tossed out and replaced with the nakedly unjust; and how the human community can stand by and watch its one and only ‘blue dot’ in the universe become less habitable. The take home message for values-based education: Integrity (honesty, truth, etc.) are not just fluffy niceties. They’re essential to the human condition, to everything (democracy, health, justice, and a life-sustaining planet) that we hold to be most precious.

Second, the educability question. Are values caught? Can they be taught? We know the questions are as old as the ancient Arabs and Greeks, and probably a whole lot older. I think most of us hedge our bets and say it’s a bit of both. Mary Trump’s analysis of her uncle seems to suggest both are in there somewhere in the forms of a highly dysfunctional family ‘caught’ and a unidirectional tutelage ‘taught’. So, how should education respond to the lessons from the paragraph above? Well, certainly not by hunkering down to ‘back to basics’, as seems to be the pattern in so many places in the past couple of decades. This is what Habermas would describe as empirical-analytic knowing impelled by the cognitive interest in control, or what the neuroscientists, Mary Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, would describe as rational systems disembodied from emotion and social conscience. One might suggest that ‘back to basics’ education actually contributes to the kind of hardwiring we see in Trump by retarding intellectual depth, so rendering the brain less capable of dealing with the complex, the multi-layered, the enigmatic, the ‘greys’ of this world, and certainly less capable of encompassing compassion. 

The biggest single lesson we learned from the Australian Values Education Program (2003-2010) concerned the power of a finely balanced ‘values pedagogy’ (as we came to describe its holistic effects) to instil enhanced intellectual depth. In a word, through the combination of a values-oriented learning ambience and a values-focussed curriculum discourse, students could both experience and come to understand (to feel and know) why integrity (truth, etc.) mattered – as well as come to see the inherent dangers of untruth. Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of curriculum material, be it in Literature, History, Science, etc. that illustrates what happens when people opt for, or are subject to, untruth. 

I think we showed these things ARE educable. Maybe not for all (no promises poor Donald would ever have been any different) but educable for the majority, including, I say optimistically, for at least a portion of those who instead of getting sucked into saying, “oh, aren’t the Emperor’s new clothes resplendent?” might join with the youngster in shouting out, “Mummy, that man’s got no clothes on!”  Indeed, I suggest education’s greatest single charter is to ensure a future generation that can recognise nakedness when they see it. If education doesn’t do it, what will? This is the importance of values-based education as a far-reaching alternative to the instrumentalism that dominates in so many Western education settings. 

Professor Lovat, IVET Affiliate, who lives in Australia, is well known internationally for his scholarship about values