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Let’s Teach ‘Em Values!

Published onJun 06, 2023
Let’s Teach ‘Em Values!

Thomas More’s Utopia envisioned a collectivist society united by religion and stripped of private property. Such a society is far from achieved in present-day Europa, although the ideals of living in a continent free from corruption or power struggles are not completely out of reach across, as many international reports indicate (e.g., World Bank, 2023). At the same time, these reports show that some European countries approach the ideal of More’s Utopia more than others, an observation that can also be drawn based on the results of one of Tilburg University’s unique research projects, namely the European Values Study (EVS), a large-scale survey research program on basic human values (see also Luijkx, Reeskens & Sieben, 2002). This project is ideally suited to not only describe but also explain why the idea of Europa as a Utopia is in hindsight albeit not yet fully achieved. Moreover, EVS can also make a valuable contribution to teaching, which is one of the reasons it has a prominent place in some of the courses at University College Tilburg (UCT).

Alkeline van Lenning aimed to make UCT a Utopia among higher education institutes, for instance by reducing socioeconomic barriers to student enrollment, or by involving students to a high extent in improving the quality of the program. Simultaneously, the international nature of the program brought together a vibrant mix of students from all corners of the world, each with their own background gathered in a backpack that will define their professional future. This mix of students’ backgrounds facilitates achieving an important aspect that Alkeline has been working on at the Tilburg University level, namely the Tilburg Education Profile (TEP) (De Regt & Van Lenning, 2017). Thanks to Alkeline’s and others’ innovations in the education profile, our education is not only about the transfer of knowledge and skills but contributing to students’ character-building was made explicit.

In our contribution to the Liber Amicorum for Alkeline van Lenning, we would like to discuss the relevance of the EVS in crafting skillful and knowledgeable students with character. In the second section of this chapter, we briefly introduce the EVS and its relevance to Tilburg University; in the third section, we turn the EVS into teaching material useful for the Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) program; followed by the illustration of how teaching on European values is done in the Learning Project course. Last but not least, the fifth and final section concludes with challenges and opportunities of teaching European values at UCT.

Background and Relevance of the EVS

The study of values in Europe (for an overview, see Luijkx, Sieben & Reeskens, 2022) goes back to the 1970s, when a group of social scientists, mixed with theologists, were curious about the influence of the declining relevance of religion on people’s belief systems. Put differently, would secularization, which was unfolding at a different pace across European countries, entail that individualistic instead of traditional values were becoming more prominent? Simultaneously, scholars were interested in what further European integration would imply for cultural unity across Europe: would the expansion of the European Union export the values dominant in the founding member states to new members? Both questions require not only a comparative but also a longitudinal approach to the study of values.

With these empirical questions at hand, the EVS was born and has since been intertwined with Tilburg University. While empirical questions made the study of values societally relevant, at a more theoretical level, the EVS enabled the empirical verification of some relevant sociological theories as well. Most prominently, during the 1970s, Ronald Inglehart (1977) pushed the idea of a ‘Silent Revolution’ and more broadly modernization theory. He claimed that exposure to material wealth during one’s formative years brings about post material values with a focus on the quality of life, freedom of speech, tolerance, and egalitarianism. Value change at the societal level takes place because of generational replacement: younger more progressive cohorts that have grown up in times of material affluence gradually replace older cohorts that have been socialized in uncertain times through natural processes.

The EVS is ultimately suited to test the idea of value change: every nine years (to allow for a test of generational change), national teams across all European countries (going beyond the current 27 member states of the European Union), collect survey information on relevant moral, social and political values among a representative sample of the adult population. So far, five waves of data have been collected. The contemporary use of advanced quantitative analysis techniques, such as multilevel modeling (cf. Hox, Moerbeek & Van de Schoot 2017), has contributed substantially to the empirical study of value change. Relying on the EVS, the idea of values change by generational replacement has received support; however, at the same time, modernization theory also received criticism (e.g., Said, 1978; Haller, 2002), for instance, because of its Western view, its unilinear direction and material focus (the idea that more economic progress breeds more post-material values), or the idea that post-material values are conducive to democracy.

In more updated versions of his theory, Inglehart (1997) addressed some of these criticisms, for instance by claiming that path dependency (historical legacies) makes that countries do not necessarily display more post material values despite economic modernization. Using cultural maps, Inglehart (more recently in collaboration with Christian Welzel, 2022) demonstrates that different clusters of countries can be discerned. Further, with the election of Donald Trump in the US and the referendum in support of Brexit, Inglehart in a joint effort with Pippa Norris (2019) studied why there is such a strong appeal to populist politicians despite rising material security. In their claims, Inglehart and Norris argue that the exposure to post-material processes (such as increasing same-sex marriages and abortion rights) leads an old and conservative cohort to cling even more to material values.

Also, at Tilburg University, we continue our efforts to keep the study of values relevant. In the first place, there are ongoing research projects on innovations in the methodology of studying values (e.g., Luijkx et al., 2021). Secondly, substantial research questions are being addressed, such as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the stability or volatility of values (Reeskens et al., 2021), on attitudes towards immigrants (Muis & Reeskens, 2022), or on gender attitudes (Vandecasteele et al., 2022). We also address questions of value polarization (Muis, Reeskens & Sieben, 2022), or the question whether Ukrainian values resemble Russian or European values more (Reeskens, 2022). A third, and one of the most important parts of the efforts at Tilburg University, is to make insights from the EVS available and of use for a wider audience, for instance in the Atlas of European Values (Halman et al., 2022), the novel Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence of European Values, and in the European Values in Education (EVALUE) project (see and Krause, Sieben & Claes, forthcoming).

The Atlas of European Values as Teaching Material

Insights from the EVS, and insights on teaching values from the European Values in Education (EVALUE) project, are particularly relevant to the LAS curriculum. Central in the course Learning Project “Values and Civil Society” is to make students acquainted with and teach them to conduct sociological research applied to questions relevant to the study of values in Europe. Packed in the second year of the social sciences major, the course is ideally positioned in between analytical courses (e.g., “Statistics 1+2”) and the Bachelor Thesis of the third year that requires students to conduct social science research independently.

The outline of the Learning Project relies heavily on the recently published Atlas of European Values (Halman et al., 2022). To display how united or divided Europe is in its values, the Atlas shows relevant maps and charts based on information from the five waves of survey data from the EVS, supplemented with relevant additional context information, such as interviews with EVS national program directors and influential social thinkers and social science theorists.

The information in the Atlas is grouped into six relevant domains: Identity, Welfare, Migration, Sustainability, Solidarity, and Democracy. These six themes fit the Zeitgeist, as they, to a large extent, relate to Ursula von der Leyen’s six key themes inscribed in her political agenda, for instance, in the ‘New European Green Deal’ (chapter on Sustainability), ‘Protecting Our European Way of Life’ (chapters on Identity and Migration) or ‘A New Push for European Democracy’ (the chapter on Democracy). It is these six themes that are paralleled in the Learning Project course at LAS.

All maps and charts in the Atlas of European Values are rather descriptive; as authors, we wanted to refrain from over-interpreting the patterns displayed in maps or charts. For instance, in some maps in the chapter on Sustainability (Chapter 4), we find that environmentalism is most strongly embraced in North-European countries, as well as some countries in the Balkan. While avoiding strong claims about precise causes, we do know from existing research that in some parts of Europe (the north), elevated environmentalism may flow from economic modernization: because of material wealth, populations have embraced post-material value patterns that include environmentalism. However, in other parts of Europe (such as the Balkans), experiences with environmental degradation may have created environmental awareness among their populations. This example shows that some social phenomena can be explained by multiple sociological mechanisms.

Teaching ‘em Values

The rather atheoretical nature makes the Atlas of European Values well-positioned to contribute to both the transfer of knowledge and skills and character building in the Social Sciences major of the LAS program. After almost a decade of teaching in the program by the first author, the experience is that students in this program are very sharp, but also very opinionated in the sense that they have strong ideas about social issues. To position these strong ideas in a bigger framework of scientific findings, it is necessary to immerse LAS students in the scientific method, which is often laid down in the PTR (Problem-Theory-Research) cycle.

To this end, students of the Learning Project are first of all introduced to the main theories undergirding value change and relevant insights that cover the six themes of the Atlas (Halman et al., 2022). While the ‘Silent Revolution’ and modernization theory (Inglehart, 1977) have a prominent position throughout the course, each values domain (or chapter in the Atlas) is served with particular theories relevant to understanding differences and similarities in values across Europe. For instance, in the session on solidarity, students are confronted with insights that social trust (trust in strangers: people with whom we are not previously acquainted) is higher in, for instance, egalitarian societies (Uslaner, 2002) and in societies with a Protestant tradition (Delhey & Newton, 2005); or they learn that political system support entails the distinction between diffuse support for the democratic principles of the nation-state and specific support for the current way of governing the country (Easton, 1975). The growing gap between stronger democratic aspirations and declining evaluations of incumbent politicians explains what Pippa Norris (2011) refers to as a democratic deficit. These examples illustrate that, first and foremost, students are transferred knowledge and are familiarized with how to find a relevant problem statement as part of the PTR cycle.

However, this step of the course aims to contribute to character building as well. By navigating students through the Atlas of European Values, the course also engages with two concepts that are at the core of values education, namely values clarification and values communication (cf. Krause, Sieben & Claes, forthcoming). Values clarification considers the values and opinions that individuals may have on a specific topic and the multiple scientific perspectives that explain why there are similarities and differences in these opinions. Values communication, on the other hand, is the capability to apply the obtained information on scientific perspectives in own argumentations, to have an open attitude towards other standpoints and arguments, and finally, to evaluate these in order to formulate new argumentations. Both values clarification and values communication are crucial elements of powerful knowledge (Béneker, 2018) and powerful teaching (Roberts, 2017), leading to higher-order thinking in students (Brookhart, 2010).

After the confrontation with these six domains both by values clarification and values communication, students also have a better understanding of their own position. By weighing these positions, they choose which map or graph they find most appealing to elaborate on this topic in a literature review and a full empirical paper. Both aspects are beneficial for building character as laid out in TEP because students become increasingly aware of themselves in their surroundings.

In the second step of the course, matching with the theory-part of the PTR-cycle, students deepen their understanding of the selected problem statement by consulting relevant empirical papers to propose theoretical mechanisms. After a thorough reading of the literature, students need to derive testable hypotheses in the form of “there is a positive relationship between X and Y” and they ideally take it to the next level by adding a mediating mechanism, such as “the positive relationship between X and Y can be explained by Z.” By engaging with existing studies, students broaden their insights into the respective topics; making sense of these studies and proposing testable hypotheses requires skills relevant to social scientists.

The third step of the course is that students analyze survey data (preferably EVS) to test these hypotheses, relying on the skills acquired in the Statistics 1+2 courses of the LAS program. However, the Learning Project is tailored to applied research, implying that some abstract statistical ideas needed to be brought into practice. To do so, the course has lab sessions that ask students to respond to some predefined research puzzles, gradually becoming more complex, and each time from the idea that these incremental assignments resemble empirical research questions that students could have formulated, too. These lab sessions equip students with the tools necessary to analyze data relevant to their research question and thus enhance their research skills.

Last but not least is the interpretation and presentation of the results. A non-negligible part of the course is dedicated to paper writing. From our own experience as social scientists and teachers, mastering this skill is an enduring process that goes beyond one single course. Nevertheless, to complete the course, students need to tie together all pieces in an empirical paper and give a response to the proposed research question so that they have completed the full PTR cycle.

Values and Utopia at UCT

The intake of this contribution was to clarify that while More’s satire of Utopia might have been fiction, across Europe, some countries live up more closely to some ideals of Utopia than others. In the Learning Project, students get acquainted with insights on variation between countries in what Europeans find important. This way, we hope to achieve a Utopia for Social Scientists, which consists of analytical students that can turn empirical observations into a relevant research question, consult the relevant literature to propose testable hypotheses, conduct sound empirical research, and draw relevant conclusions from the results. Combined, our approach simultaneously introduces the students to the empirical PTR research cycle and contributes to knowledge and skills transfer, as well as to character building as laid out by the Tilburg Education Profile, proposed by Alkeline and others. We, however, see some challenges and opportunities to the teaching of a course on European values at UCT.

First of all, the fact that many students are so opinionated makes it sometimes quite an endeavor to ask them to verify their argumentation empirically. To give but one example, LAS is an international program, which makes students who enroll in the program comfortable with diversity. Nevertheless, from empirical research, we do know that not everyone in the population is equally accepting of immigrants (e.g., Sides & Citrin, 2007), and often for very plausible reasons (e.g., because of economic considerations or status anxiety). By applying the concepts of values clarification and values communication into the Learning Project course, we hope that students become more aware of their own standpoints and argumentations and become open to those of others. After all, strong opinions sometimes hinder a neutral and social scientific evaluation of arguments but also stimulate us, teachers, to guide students through the PTR-cycle of empirical research.

A second challenge, but also an opportunity, is the fact that many students in the LAS program (and beyond) are allergic to quantitative social science research. While qualitative research is important in itself, the tradition of values research aligns with studying survey data, requiring social science statistics for ‘Understanding Society’ (the motto of Tilburg University). For many students, not limited to UCT, this is a big hurdle to take, often because students are overwhelmed with research methodologies that remain at a high level of abstraction. In collaboration with colleagues of the Methods and Statistics Department, we hope to clarify that under each number in a survey data set, a real human being appears. This way, we want to create a Utopia of students no longer afraid of numbers.

Third, and beyond the control of Tilburg University, are the opportunities that contemporary debates bring for a smooth introduction of relevant theoretical models. Some examples are the rise of populism and people that are attracted to it, the increased conditionality in the access to welfare benefits as a result of electorates that endorse conditional solidarity, or addressing climate change with people that are environmentalists but are lukewarm to ideas like windmill parks because of the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. The study of values in Europe aims to contribute to students that are knowledgeable, skillful, and have the character to master current relevant and complex social problems.

Fourth, and specific for LAS, is the added value of diversity in students’ backgrounds. The student body is quite mixed in both socioeconomic and ethnocultural respects. The different viewpoints that flow from this diversity enrich discussions in class, as there are students in the room that are able to talk from their own experiences. For instance, when discussing Putnam’s “Making Democracy Work” (1993) on the role of social capital in democratic governance, it is beyond imagination if an Italian student can bring in their perspective on regional divides across their country. Such first-hand experiences easily bridge between raw textbooks and personal narratives.

Last but not least, the final opportunity of teaching a course on European values at UCT is to receive the continuous support of the managerial team, and in particular, Alkeline van Lenning. Without any doubt, teaching is one of the noblest professions, having the honor to shape the next cohort of bright graduates. Nevertheless, at times it is also challenging because action (or the lack thereof) also creates a reaction. In the stimulating environment of LAS, there is always a great understanding of these processes necessary to achieve Utopia.


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