Alejandro H. Rodriguez-Giovo

Alejandro H. Rodriguez-Giovo

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Academic Affectations

Values and Literature in Education: a Reliable Nexus?

When one is considering the role of values in education, three essential aspects of the matter need to be addressed:

1) What are the values in question?

2) How can they be inculcated?

3) How, if at all, can the effect of the above-mentioned inculcation be monitored?

In this essay, I propose to examine these issues within the context of a large multicultural, international school in which about 140 nationalities are represented – namely, the International School of Geneva, where I teach – and from the perspective of a teacher of literature – in my case, English literature.

1) What are the values in question?

The nature of my school – and of other, similar institutions – makes it less easy to be confidently prescriptive about values than would perhaps be the case if we had in mind an establishment that was operating within a stable community with deeply rooted traditions, widely shared assumptions and a consistent ethos or moral outlook. But even in such a compact and predictable social environment it is not necessarily obvious how values can be identified and inculcated, or how active and deliberate a role schools should play in this process.

I remember a young cousin of mine aged about six, who, in response to the inevitable question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” would startle his doting relatives by saying: “I want to be good.” One might legitimately wonder whether sheer “goodness” is not a perfectly valid and valuable vocational goal – indeed, whether it should not be the axis of the entire educational process. But even if we were to grant that much, we would still be left with the problem of reaching a consensus on what exactly this “goodness” involves.

In the compact, homogeneous community to which I refer above religion can be, in addition to traditions and mores, a powerful, morally coalescing factor. It has also the advantage of explicitness and precision in the form of sacred precepts which are regularly and systematically expounded either during formal worship or in classes specifically dedicated to religion in school. In such an environment religion takes on the principal responsibility for defining what is right and not right, whereas the judicial system determines merely what is legal and illegal. Schools can then get on with the obvious business of fostering knowledge and skills in the light of what is approved or disapproved by the creed and the law of the land, both of which presumably reflect the profound, time-honoured values that are self-evident to the overwhelming majority of the community’s members, if not always easy to articulate.

I have posited here an “idyllic”, perhaps utopian (some would say stifling) social environment insulated from different approaches to or interpretations of virtue and vice and unaffected by relativism, nihilism or anomie. A school that draws its 4,000 students from dozens of different cultures and scores of nations throughout the world and is, moreover, situated in a social context that defines only what is legal and illegal, but has undergone for decades an erosion of clearly stated convictions regarding the more subtle but crucial distinction between right and wrong – such a school evidently has to cope with a radically different set of circumstances.

The International School of Geneva was established in 1924 with a non-profit status in order to provide the children of the League of Nations’ and International Labour Organization’s delegates with an education that was not constrained by the idiosyncratic outlook of any particular country. The idealism that gave rise to the School’s foundation, as expressed in its charter, makes clear that values are, or ought to be, at the heart of the institution’s existence. Prominent among these values is “internationalism” which, as I understand it, is taken to mean understanding, tolerance and respect towards nationalities, cultures, religions and ethnic groups other than one’s own, and an active concern for the fate of human beings everywhere, regardless of their origins and social condition.

The International School’s founders launched the institution with an emphatic sense of mission. However, an abundance of evidence – some of it anecdotal but nonetheless reliable – strongly suggests that as the decades have gone by, the spirit of internationalism within the School has expressed itself in an increasingly passive manner. In other words, mere broad-minded tolerance and laid-back acceptance of others, however different from oneself, have taken root and been thoroughly assimilated as part of the School’s practical, everyday ethos, whereas manifest interest in morally relevant issues, even if restricted to a purely intellectual or philosophical plane, not to mention active involvement in worthy causes, have declined substantially.

The School now finds itself at a crossroads: either it resigns itself to being a gentle and congenial but otherwise nondescript institution that stands for nothing in particular but happens to provide convenient courses and qualifications for a wide-ranging international clientèle, or it recovers its original sense of mission and passion as a standard-bearer for the core values that are shared by all mankind and are essential to our understanding and conception of humanity.

But this leads me back to my original question: can these values be identified reliably and can their universal validity and applicability be taken for granted? If the answer is “no”, a bona fide international school would be unable to pursue any particular set of ethical goals within its academic and pastoral programmes, beyond purely practical and administrative arrangements, without inevitably espousing a cultural bias that could reasonably be criticized as inconsistent with its avowed internationalism.

However, there are solid grounds for believing that the most fundamental values are and have always been both obvious and imperative (in principle, if not in practice) for all mankind, and that they do in fact have objective – indeed, axiomatic – validity. What humanity shares, in terms of moral assumptions and convictions, is incomparably greater than what divides it. This point has been eloquently and cogently substantiated by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis’ affirmation of “natural law” is part of a great philosophical tradition that stretches back to Plato and notably includes Aristotle, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant (“The moral law, Kant argues, is addressed to all rational beings, in the form of a categorical imperative: it has not changed through the centuries, not could it change.” (1)) and, more recently, Jacques Maritain in Les droits de l’homme et la loi naturelle and John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights. The latter asserts, for instance, that there are “exceptionless or absolute human claim-rights – most obviously, the right not to have one’s life taken directly as a means to any further end”(2) , which echoes Kant’s principle that humanity must never be treated as a means only, but always as an end in itself (3). It was perhaps Marcus Tullius Cicero, however, who defined most clearly and vigorously the notion in question:

True law is Reason, right and natural, commanding people to fulfil their obligations and prohibiting and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is unchangeable and eternal. (…) Any attempt to supersede this law, to repeal any part of it is sinful; to cancel it entirely is impossible. (…) There will not be one law at Rome, one at Athens, or one now and one later, but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and everlasting law (…)(4)

The Declaration of Independence of the United States, referring to “the laws of Nature” and “unalienable Rights”, famously affirms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Despite the rationalist implications of this statement, such “truths” obviously need to be nurtured and reinforced in the early stages of each person’s life by parents, society and, not least, school. The question, then, is how; and it is a question that, as I have indicated above, acquires particular complexity in a school that aims to provide an unbiased education for students representing a wide range of cultures. Although these cultures are unquestionably united by shared fundamental values, their distinguishing characteristics, however superficial they may turn out to be on close examination, must be accommodated.

2) How can values be inculcated?

I have argued elsewhere (5) that there is scarcely an academic subject at school from which a moral or ethical dimension is totally absent, and that each teacher, within the sphere of his or her responsibilities, will ideally take an active interest in values and highlight their relevance to the subject at hand throughout each course – in addition to providing a positive role model through his personal conduct. It is evident, however, that because man is at the heart of their concerns, the humanities and the arts are intrinsically and spontaneously more fertile in moral implications than the sciences. As a teacher of English literature, I am especially interested in establishing how my own subject can most effectively contribute to the reinforcement of moral awareness in young people.

Most experienced teachers will instinctively eschew a heavy-handed admonitory approach to values. Those of us whose students are in the 13 to 19 years of age range are well aware of the pitfalls that adolescent psychology has in store for the earnest lecturer whose voice rings with authoritative righteousness. This is not to say that teachers should systematically avoid moral definitions or pronouncements; on the contrary, it is important for us occasionally to make a clear stand, thereby not so much to persuade our students of the truth of a particular opinion, but rather to make them aware of each issue’s ethical dimension and implications, and accustom them to seeing life with the “moral squint” deprecated by Cardinal Wolsey in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (6). However, we would be well advised to keep our moral powder dry for use on judiciously selected occasions; continual sermonizing will cut little ice with adolescents (or with most adults, for that matter), and perhaps even produce an adverse response, given the rebellious urges characteristic of that stage of human development.

On the other hand, teenagers are also typically receptive and responsive to altruistic idealism, and the noble impulses that naturally swell within them should be appropriately cultivated and fortified so as to maximize their chances of survival when the cynicism of adulthood sets in. This is where literature comes into its own. At its best it not only entertains superbly, but also informs and subtly nudges the reader towards what in the Chinese philosophical tradition is known as Tao, “the correct way”; in other words, the essence of what mankind has always held to be good and true.

In The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis famously makes the point that that the greatest literature is characterized by “intense moral preoccupation” and “a marked moral intensity”(7), though I would add that such intensity and preoccupation are more often successful in arousing a sympathetic response in the reader if they are conveyed with subtlety and in such a way that the reader is allowed to feel he has arrived at the intended conclusion freely, as a result of his or her own interpretation of the facts presented in the novel, short story or play. (This generalization obviously cannot be applied unreservedly to poetry, where form and content often constitute an indissoluble, organic whole.) Thanks to its dead-pan discussion of how best to cook children, amongst other monstrous considerations, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” has lost none of its power as a scathing condemnation of the exploitation of Irish peasants by the English ruling class; had it been written as a straightforward, indignant diatribe, few would remember it today.

The list of literary works in which art and moral integrity are felicitously blended is, fortunately, so extensive that I can no more than pick a few plums from my own, limited and idiosyncratic range as a reader. Huckleberry Finn, with its subtle and humorous but thorough indictment of racism (too subtle, alas, for some – there are public and school libraries in the United States that persist in banning it from their shelves, and a bowdlerized, “politically correct” edition has just been published (8)), is an example of a text that is richly rewarding both as a prose masterpiece and a source of ethical insights for the purposes of a school course. Macbeth charts almost clinically the deliberate descent of a capable, intelligent, sensitive man into the wastes of sheer nihilism. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory questions stereotyped notions of sanctity and backhandedly offers a vision of a more meaningful spirituality. Antigone defends the primacy of the individual’s conscience, which is an expression of “the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven”(9), over the pragmatic ruthlessness of la raison d’état. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde both warn against reckless scientific meddling with the human body and mind. Aldous Huxley displays, with chilling equanimity and plausibility, the long-term results of such meddling in Brave New World. John Keats demonstrates the vulnerability of imagination and emotion, however deeply experienced, to the relentless force of cold, empirical reason in “Lamia”. Animal Farm, The Grapes of Wrath, Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies, Emma… One need not look far to cite titles of works that are permeated with Leavis’ “moral intensity” but sacrifice neither artistic excellence nor entertainment value to their ethical concerns. With such works, values speak for themselves, and a teacher’s involvement can be restricted to ensuring that they are read and understood, lest a zealous and simplistic exposition of their moral “message” bring about an “overkill” effect.

There is a major category of literature, however, which is equally accomplished and thought-provoking but morally difficult, confusing and ambiguous or downright cynical and destructive. Here a teacher’s guidance is perhaps more crucial. Take, for instance, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The social criticism in this novel reflects Thomas Hardy’s sound moral concerns, but its ultimate view of the human condition utterly bleak and despairing. Because of its narrative power, Tess (not to mention Jude the Obscure) can have a profoundly negative effect on some young readers. It is therefore desirable that the teacher should provide uplifting alternatives to Hardy’s relentless pessimism and help students to situate the latter as only one possible view of human existence among others. The same could be said with respect to Philip Larkin’s powerful but stark and desolate poem about death, “Aubade”, which can be usefully contrasted with John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10” or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”.

Problems of a different kind, also requiring sensitive handling by the teacher, arise with a text such as The Merchant of Venice, which, if read superficially, may easily be misjudged as anti-Semitic. The artistic mastery of great writers can often dazzle and mislead relatively inexperienced readers into accepting at face value what the author is in fact cleverly condemning, as, for example the philosophical self-justification of the articulate Nazi officer in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Deutsches Requiem”. Recently, for instance, I have found it necessary to help some of my 16 year-old students see through the seductively polished and cosmopolitan cynicism of the roué narrator in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and perceive the unattractive selfishness that in fact lurks behind that suave, clever, world-weary façade.

In one way or another, literature constantly affirms, reflects or, occasionally, denies values; but even in the latter case moral awareness can be enhanced if the text is illuminated by the commentary and guidance of a skilled, dedicated and ethically constructive teacher.

3) How, if at all, can the inculcation of values be monitored?

“By their fruits ye shall know them” (10) appears to be the most obvious and commonsensical yardstick with which to measure the effectiveness of a school’s (or parental, or societal) cultivation of healthy moral attitudes and beliefs in young people. However, the scale, logistics, parameters and time span involved in a survey conducted on this premise are obviously impracticable for a variety of reasons. Yet the significance of research conducted on a more modest scale with the personal development of a supposedly representative sample of former students being monitored during a realistically limited period on the basis of rigorously defined criteria, shrinks accordingly. With regard to such criteria, moreover, who can determine, with any degree of statistical reliability, how thoroughly values have been assimilated in other individuals, or even in himself? The “fruits” referred to above are open to a variety of interpretations, and can manifest themselves in ways that are far too subtle or intimate for systematic investigative methodology, no matter how refined, to pin down. Can we even ascertain, if we were being interviewed by a researcher, to what extent works of literature to which we were introduced at school have contributed to shaping our own moral convictions and, by extension, to determining our own behaviour? It would appear that our consciousness cannot always grasp the partly imperceptible processes whereby the most basic ideas and essential beliefs form themselves in our minds from early childhood onwards, let alone (except when a work has an epiphanic impact on us) establish verifiable causal links with particular books.

This realization has not dissuaded all researchers from attempting to pinpoint such links. For instance, Mary Culp, of the University of Alabama, has conducted a study, the purpose of which is to “determine the influence of literature on attitudes, values and behaviour” in first-year university students, taking into account what they have read since sixth grade. The procedure she follows carefully mimics a strict scientific methodology:

A questionnaire on the influence of reading literature was administered to 158 freshman English students at an urban university. The protocols of those students between the ages of 16 and 20 were selected for further analysis. From the responses of this group, a pool of students at either end of the spectrum of influence was established. From each pool, five students were randomly selected for the case studies. Students selected for case studies were contacted by the researcher and asked to come to her office where the purpose and procedure of the case studies were explained. It was emphasized that the student was the “expert” in this investigation. (…) Interviews were conducted along the lines suggested by Rogers (1951), Flanagan (1954), and Strong (1964). An interview guide, which was an adaptation of the critical incident technique developed by Flanagan (1954) and used by Shirley (1966), was used to explore in greater depth the areas touched on in the questionnaire. (…) Students classified themselves as one or more of the following types of readers: an indifferent reader; an observer; a participator; a construct synthesizer; a self-image synthesizer; a decision-maker. (11)

Culp’s conclusion after analysing the data laboriously accumulated by these means is that “each reading of a piece of literature is a unique transaction (sic) between the reader and the work, and that what the reader brings to the work is as important as the work itself” – which is fairly obvious to any reasonably sensitive and experienced teacher, even without the benefit of elaborate research.

Arthur N. Applebee s “ERIC/RCS Report: The Elements of Response to a Literary Work: What We Have Learned” assiduously simulates and ponders even more convoluted scientific processes, only to arrive at the rather limp conclusion that “Literary response is an extremely complex phenomenon; when it is combined with the complexities of the classroom situation the pitfalls for even the most sophisticated investigation are many.” (12) Quite.

Nevertheless, it stands to reason that what we are exposed to from early childhood, which of course includes the behaviour and attitudes of those who surround us, television, films, the Internet and other mass media, as well as literature, must have a profound and enduring formative effect on us, as Bill Watterson sardonically points out in a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip. Sitting comfortably in front of a TV set that is literally bouncing up and down with the truculence, sadism and profanity of the programmes it is broadcasting, Calvin ponders the implications of what he is watching:

Graphic violence in the media.

Does it glamorize violence? Sure. Does it desensitize us to violence? Of course. Does it help us tolerate violence? You bet. Does it stunt our empathy for our fellow beings? Heck yes.

Does it cause violence? …Well, that’s hard to prove.

He adds with a grin:

The trick is to ask the right question. (13)

Endlessly to devise pseudo-scientific research techniques with the illusory – where the human psyche is concerned – aim of achieving clinical objectivity in order to establish what is already glaringly obvious is surely redundant.

In so far as investigation can yield any concrete, practical benefits for teachers, by far the most sensible approach is, in my opinion, action research, as propounded by Jean McNiff in Action Research: Principles and Practice and Teaching as Learning. Every concerned and committed teacher is continually conducting action research, whether or not he is aware of it or dignifies it with this term. The evidence that crops up in classroom situations, whether it is spontaneous or systematically sought, usually provides the most valuable insights that enable teachers to adjust their practices accordingly.

Some years ago I had to re-evaluate my teaching strategy with regard to values – and, indeed, to question the overall success in this respect of the educational experience offered by the International School of Geneva – while discussing the moral intricacies and implications of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus with a final-year International Baccalaureate class (student age range: 17 – 19). While illustrating some point that arose from the play, I expressed what seemed to me an incontrovertible notion: that every human being has, to the extent of his possibilities and means, a responsibility of solidarity towards other human beings, whoever or wherever they may be; in short, to use a Biblical phrase, that we are our “brother’s keeper”(14).

The response from about half of this particular class – the more vocal half, at that – to this idea was negative to the point of indignation and hostility; it transpired that quite a few of the students adhered to half-baked concepts of Social Darwinism and regarded the fate of destitute, diseased and malnourished multitudes in the Third World, in contrast with their own comfortable and privileged existences, merely as evidence of the “survival of the fittest” notion. I had been responsible for inculcating values through literature in this particular group of students for the last sixteen months; the School had, in some cases, shared this responsibility, in an even wider sense, with their parents and society for the last sixteen years! I have since been examining, monitoring and pondering in a more focused and systematic manner what I am achieving or failing to achieve through the particular selection of texts and the teaching approaches that I combine in my courses, and tentatively implement changes whenever I can arrive at some meaningful and reasonably trustworthy conclusions; but I suspect that the entire School’s strategy may need to be reassessed, in the light of its professed ideals.

The widespread and profound malaise concerning what, if any, impact schools are having in promoting values has been examined by Neil Postman in his lucid study The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. Irrespective of novel techniques, approaches and solutions based on yet more research, however, I persist in affirming the obvious: a continual and comprehensive exposure of young people to the core values of the human race, in a variety of engaging ways – not least through literature – must in the long term result in the assimilation and, with any luck, implementation of these values by all but a tiny, psychopathic minority of individuals.

Consider the following story:

An antiques dealer, wishing to expand his range of expertise, enrols in a course on ancient jade carvings. Two months later he comes across a fellow antiquary in the street.

“How are you getting on with your jade course?”

“Actually, that’s a really sore issue. You know how expensive the course was? Well, when I arrived for my first class, I was ushered by a Chinese man into a darkened room furnished only with a chair and a table illuminated by a spotlight. He made me sit, placed a jade sculpture on the table and left me alone with it for an hour. That was it. Every succeeding ‘class’ followed the same pattern; only the carving was changed. I can tell you, by the sixth week of this rigmarole I was feeling pretty fed up and ripped-off. Then, on the seventh week, the so-called instructor places before me an obvious, recent fake – you know, translucent stone, dyed green. That was the last straw. So I gave him a piece of my mind and cleared out.”

There is doubtless more to good teaching than this, but the bottom line is that students will naturally come to recognize, appreciate and respond to real jade, if it is unfailingly provided to them.


(1) Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy (London: Mandarin, 1996), pg. 460

(2) John Finnis, Natural Law and Naural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 223 -226

(3) Scruton, op.cit., pg. 460

(4) Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Right and Wrong”, in Roman Readings, edited and translated by Michael Grant (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1967), pp. 42 and 43

(5) Alejandro H. Rodriguez-Giovo, “Invaluable Values”, Skepsis (Issue 4, November 1996), pp. 20-22

(6) Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (London: Heinemann, l97l), pg. 10

(7) F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1980), pp. 16 and 18

(8) Guy Adams, “Twain’s classic loses the N-word for modern age”, The Independent (Thursday 6 January 2010), pg. 5

(9) Sophocles, The Theban PlaysAntigone, translated by E. F. Watling (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), pg. 138

(10) Matthew 7:20

(11) Mary Beth Culp, “Case Studies of the Influence of Literature on the Attitudes, Values, and Behavior of Adolescents”, Research in the Teaching of English (Fithian, Illinois: Volume 11, Number 3, Winter 1977), pp.245-253

(12) Arthur N. Applebee, “ERIC/RCS Report: The Elements of Response to a Literary Work: What We Have Learned”, Research in the Teaching of English (Fithian, Illinois: Volume 11, Number 3, Winter 1977), pp. 255-271

(13) Bill Watterson, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (London: Warner Books, 1996), pg. 198

(14) Genesis 4:9


Cohen, Louis and Lawrence Manion, Research Methods in Education (Fourth Edition), London: Routledge, 1996

Hopkins, David, A Teacher’s Guide to Classroom Research (Second Edition), Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995

Lewis, C.  S., The Abolition of Man, Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks/Collins, 1990

McNiff, Jean, Action Research: Principles and Practice, London: Macmillan, 1988

Postman, Neil, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, New York: Vintage Books, 1996

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Dear Mr Rodriguez,

Greetings. I hope that you are well.

Reading this article about “Brave New World” and its resemblance to the 21st century sent me back to the late 20th century and your English class:

Best regards,
Tucker Brabec ’99

Tucker Brabec

November 26, 2015

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