Christina Easton is a 2nd year PhD student in Philosophy. Her research looks at whether liberals can justify teaching liberal values to children. The tables have turned for Christina: prior to becoming a PhD student, she spent 8 years teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies in secondary schools.

What’s the puzzle in your PhD topic?

Can we justify teaching liberal values such as tolerance to children? This question took on a new urgency when in 2014 the Government announced that schools “have a duty to ‘actively promote’ the fundamental British values of democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance”. I think that liberty and tolerance are important. But I’m also aware that they are quite distinctively liberal values, and that not every parent values them. The disagreement over these values is a problem for liberals, precisely because of their commitment to these values. If we value freedom, surely we should allow parents the freedom to choose what values their children are taught? And if we value tolerance, shouldn’t this extend to tolerating those with illiberal values?

Some might argue that for schools to uncritically adopt the requirement to teach ‘British values’ would be to indoctrinate children into liberalism – a clear example of liberal hypocrisy! My research responds to this challenge by looking at whether we can give a justification for teaching liberty and tolerance that is consistent with the liberal values themselves. At the moment, I am thinking about what it means to give a ‘neutral justification’ for a policy, and whether this is even possible and desirable.

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If it does turn out that we can justify teaching tolerance, we run into problems as soon as we come to teach it. As a school teacher, I would regularly encounter potential dilemmas about what it means to be tolerant and what to teach as the limits of tolerance. For example, the GCSE curriculum for Religious Studies involved teaching about the conservative religious view that homosexual behaviour is sinful. If this view is presented by the teacher as a valid opinion, does this amount to being intolerant of homosexuals? If the teacher does the opposite and presents the conservative religious view as unacceptable, does this amount to being intolerant of some religious people? Thus, my research also requires thinking about what it means to be tolerant and how this would inform curriculum content and pedagogy (teaching approach).

Why is this important?

It seems to me that disagreement over what is of value will always be here. So, we need to teach children how to negotiate controversy. Values such as tolerance seem key to this. But there’s a fine line between teaching values and alienating parents. If parents withdraw their children from state education, this might divide society further. We need to think about how to tread this balance and whether consistent, persuasive justifications are available for the policies that are adopted.

Although the thesis will mostly be philosophical discussion based on a critical reading of related literature, the ultimate aim of my research is to be able to produce some clear guidance for schools on the best way to interpret the British values policy and put it into practice. How should schools understand the policy? What specific topics might they take up in order to teach these values? What pedagogy should be adopted? For example, should teachers always leave values ‘up for discussion’ or should they allow students to question them? Perhaps in the future this could lead to working with schools helping with teacher training and development of teaching resources.

How are you investigating this?

I’m a philosopher, so most of my time is spent reading, thinking, writing and discussing! However, I keep up-to-date with policy developments and responses from the education sector. I’m still involved with teacher education and have lots of friends who are teachers, which helps with keeping up to speed with what’s going on ‘at the chalk face’.

Since my thesis is primarily philosophical, I won’t be interviewing teachers or students. I mostly read the work of philosophers, critique them, and think about the implications for policy. But that doesn’t mean that empirical research in the Social Sciences isn’t important to me; I read relevant studies and draw on these in my philosophical thinking.

If you could force one person to read your thesis cover-to-cover, who would it be?

Michael Gove. He was the one who first slipped the ‘British values’ clause into the Teacher Standards, with little explanation or justification. More importantly, it angered me that Gove adopted policies that reduced the importance of Religious Education (and other Humanities) in the curriculum. These classes are one of the few places where students get to engage in open discussion and learn how to deliberate in an intelligent, tolerant manner. If we want citizens to know how to disagree well, they need more opportunities to practise this, not fewer!

Thinking sensibly though, it would be more use if it were to be read by the current Education Secretary!

You can find out more about Christina’s research here.