Dialogues on learning for sustainable development: We cannot teach values to our students

This is part two in a series of entries on some attitudes towards transforming higher education in the face of societal challenges.


“We cannot teach values to our students”

Some claim that any learning goals related to values and norms would be akin to brain-washing students, something that in itself would be at odds with fundamental academic … values. It seems that we hold to some values, but are very afraid to make them explicit in our education.

In learning for a sustainable development, the oft-forgotten affective domain in the taxonomy of learning goals by Krathwohl, Bloom et al. (1956) becomes important again. The affective domain describes abilities that concern our own norms and values, as well as those of others. However, it does not in itself require learners to hold to particular values to attain specific learning goals. They may have competing values, be aware of them and attain high goals related to the affective domain. Rather, the affective domain concerns your awareness of values, and the degree to which you are able to act in accordance with the values that you hold to. A normative competence means understanding values and the relationship between values and actions. Although some say that we as academics are, or should be, agnostic as to the values we and our students exhibit, we nevertheless expect that all of us respect equal values of all people, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or religion. We expect all academics to value scientific methods higher than other ways of making sense of the world such as religious epiphanies. We expect academic results to be avaluated on the merits of arguments, not the gender or ethnicity of the author.

We also expect physicians and nurses who are educated in how the human body and the interventions of modern medicine work, to use their abilities in the best interests of patients, and to care for their general well-being. We expect them to abstain from interventions that would cause more harm than good, and and we expect them to learn about and prescribe new health-promoting schemes such as dietary restrictions or cardiac exercise as different disciplines obtain results about their effectiveness. You may have been trained as a physician to administer drugs or suggest surgery as the primary means of intervention, and thus prefer to use the tools you have been trained in. Still, you are expected to assess the outcome of all possible interventions, including not intervening at all, in the best interest of the system you are manipulating (the patient or population of patients).

Engineers are expected to be trained in devising new (socio-)technical systems, reconfiguring how people work, socialize and understand the world. They design transport systems, energy systems, food production systems and everything in between, for the purpose of improving the quality of life for all members of society. Economists are expected to understand the concept of value, and optimize how we distribute means in society to provide value. The purpose of this activity is, again, to improve the overall quality of life in society. However, for engineers and economists alike these expectations are rarely if ever made explicit, but we rather hope that their cognitive capabilities will allow them to devise solutions that automatically promote a prosperous society. We know of course that engineers may be quite willing to employ their skills in the service of fossil energy companies that extract ever more oil and coal, or to create weapons of mass destruction. They may work to create social media platforms with targeted content that cause citizens to obtain a skewed perception of reality. Despite this, engineers and economists are trained to think about all change caused by new systems as ”development”, and all development is considered net-positive by default. Also, development is mainly thought of in technical terms. Note that there does not have to be an explicitly stated goal to improve the quality of life in society as long as we think of development as inherently positive regardless of the effects on people or surrounding ecosystems.

Just as engineers may ignore the ultimate purposes of technology they are part of creating, so too may economists ignore the value of everything that is not currently monetized, and believe that value is or should always be monetized. Economic development is only thought of in terms of the sum total of monetized goods and services and not the values of everything people value and do free of charge in families and communities alike. A nuclear disaster is likely to increase economic activity in a region that has to relocate thousands of people, sanitize soils and dismount and isolate reactors. Maybe we would like to capture the value of a living planet, and a thriving human community on that planet, in better terms than we currently have.

Maybe we should hold our economists, engineers and other specialists that we train through higher education to the same ethical standards as medical professionals, in that it is imperative

* to only implement that which is likely to improve the overall system, whether a patient or a community,

* to understand the whole system that you are trying to implement some changes to, and

* to assess the whole-system outcome of the interventions that you create.

When educators abdicate the responsibility to train people to this end, they cannot say that the expected result of higher education and specialized training will be that society will be better through higher education. It may just as well become worse, if our students are not expected and trained to care about the difference.


Ola Leifler


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