Virtues, not values

Nov 2013    

Character formation is an essential part of a person’s education. Virtues like being trustworthy, upright, altruistic, just, peaceable, filial and loving are what any country, and church, would be proud to see in young people. This is perhaps why our government, as part of a continued wish to develop people of good character, introduced the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) programme as a way to counter the dangers of compromised moral standards.

But even before the CCE was introduced, character formation has been a concern of our government for a long time. So it is not something new. Those of us old enough may remember earlier experiments with religious knowledge, the old civic education, and the introduction to Confucian ethics.

Many of these experiments have been dropped or modified, as any dynamic education system would do. Perhaps they were assessed to have failed in serving the purpose which they were designed to produce. That is why we now have new syllabi to meet new challenges in the hope that they will produce the desired result.

In introducing the CCE (The Straits Times, November 10, 2011), Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat referred to the programme as “values-driven”. He stressed that “character building is part of our effort in holistic development of our pupils”.

As a pastor and an ethicist, I welcome any move to help shape the character of our students, although my preference when discussing “character formation” is to focus on “virtues” and not “values.”

Virtues – like the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, courage, and prudence – can withstand the test of time. These virtues are timeless and borderless, and serve the common good well.

Values, on the other hand, may be less reliable, and can fade away, subject to changing trends and preferences.

I do support the government’s effort to nurture our students to become people with “self-confidence, determination, resilience, a sense of responsibility and the ability to work with others” along with being able “to apply moral reasoning”.

But while our young people may be shaped to an extent by the “values” taught through CCE, what about outside the classroom? Dominant “values” promoted in the workplace, media, social and political environment may actually subvert or contradict these taught values.

The idea of “service and care”, for example, may be eroded by the need to measure and reward a person’s civic service and political office based on the income of top-earners in the community. Prospects like better salaries and more perks as rewards for public service may overshadow virtues or undermine values taught and encouraged in the classrooms.

The important things and contributions in life should not carry a price tag, as Harvard Professor Michael Sandel has reminded us in What Money Can’t Buy (2012). If we want to help our people serve and care, service and charity must not be undermined by a money-based ideology that is preoccupied with monetary rewards.

The Education Minister also correctly pointed out that character formation cannot be left to the schools “to do it alone. Parents play the critical role, and the influence of peers, mass media, social media and the broader society are significant, if not more significant than what we do in schools.”

Relying only on the CCE programme should not be the solution to ensuring that our children grow up with the right virtues. Christian parents, it is your responsibility to ensure that the home is infused and shaped by Christian teachings, and that you model for your children the moral standards set by the Christian faith.

To ensure that the teachings are clear and wholesome, it is also up to our churches and Christian leaders to provide clear teachings drawn from the full counsel of Scriptures.

If Christian parents and our churches are more attracted to the teachings and values of the world, our children cannot be expected to do otherwise. They will be distracted and begin to be shaped by these values, which fall outside the perimeters of our faith, and will begin measuring achievements by wealth and prosperity.

Character formation is a desirable component of sound education. But what virtues should we cultivate, and where do we draw them from? Are the virtues we say we desire really what we want to nourish and nurture, or are they just wishful thinking – when the actual values we promote and happily take on board undercut the virtues which are time-tested?

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon is a Methodist pastor who is concerned about Christian social engagement and societal well-being, and is an active member of the Methodist Welfare Services. He is a full-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College.


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