Literature as a Source of Information and Values

By Estes, Thomas H.; Vasquez-Levy, Dorothy | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Literature as a Source of Information and Values


Estes, Thomas H., Vasquez-Levy, Dorothy, Phi Delta Kappan


Stories create opportunities for readers to consider values that guide human action in both the imaginary context of the story and the real context of their lives, Mr. Estes and Ms. Vasquez-Levy remind us.

EVERY TEACHER can recall incidents that turned out to be watershed events. For Thomas Estes (Tom) such a moment occurred a few years ago, when he taught a short story by Molly Picon to a group of Level-4 10th- graders - those labeled as not bound for college. The story is titled "I'll Give You Law!"1 The plot is simple. A boy and his grandmother find a very expensive lavaliere, which the grandmother turns over to the lost-and-found department at the local police station. The officer at the desk explains to her that, if no one claims the necklace within 90 days, then by law it is hers to keep. Every day, she goes to the station to admire the found treasure, and every day, to her relief, she learns that no one has claimed it. Finally, the day of her dreams arrives, and the pendant belongs to her to wear forever and to cherish as an heirloom for her grandson. And then the inevitable - a woman comes to her door to claim the necklace, despite the police officer's protest that by law she has no right to it.

The dilemma arises on the next-to-last page of the story. When the class got to this point, Tom asked the students to predict what the grandmother would do. Would she give the necklace back or keep it? What would the students do if they were in the same situation? We don't know exactly what the students got from the conversation that followed. They had read enough stories to know how this one would end, and Tom knew enough not to tell the students what they should say, but there was no way he could be truly neutral on the question either. At that moment, Tom realized that this story was about values - and that perhaps all stories are.

Stories create opportunities for readers to consider values that guide human action in both the imaginary context of the story and the real context of their lives. Stories provide insight but never closure. As we reflect on the students' experience with this story, we realize that the whole curriculum of schooling is, at a bedrock level, about the same thing: how we should conduct ourselves as human beings in relation to one another. In what follows, we elaborate on that insight and explore what it would mean for teaching all that we can to all those we teach.

We assert at the outset that the debate over whether we should or should not teach values in the schools is empty, fodder for bad letters to the editor from the extremes of the political and religious spectrums. The argument is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. We always teach values. The choice lies in which values and in how we teach them. The choice not to teach values explicitly or to maintain a stance of neutrality with respect to value-laden issues teaches volumes to children about values. Furthermore, the values we do teach are conveyed not in what we choose to say about values but in what we choose to do and how we respond to what children say.

As to which values we will teach, that too is a red herring. Our culture, like all cultures, is based on values that are the foundation of our way of being. They're in the Declaration of Independence, they're in the Constitution, they're in the code of every state and are the basis of legal arguments and decisions ranging from the Magna Carta to the suits against tobacco companies. We do not mean to imply that values are easy to deal with - only that we must deal with them both in school and out of school.

We want to comment about the specifics of a values-centered curriculum. Actually, and this should come as good news, we don't need anything to teach values other than what we already have before us. There are values in the history we teach, in the sciences, in the language arts, in the mathematics, and in every curricular and extracurricular endeavor we nurture and promote. …

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