Teaching Values in South India: An Experiment in Education

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century January 27, 1988, p. 82. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Several of the teachers of values education believe that only a Christian perspective can renew the foundations of public morality. Does Christianity provide universal values that can influence the reconstruction of a great Asian civilization?

In 1986 India’s department of education issued a remarkable document that acknowledged, among other things, that "India’s political and social life is passing through a phase which poses the danger of erosion [of] long-accepted values. Not only are the young ignorant of, and often contemptuous of, ancient Hindu visions of life, but the ‘modern’ values of secularism, socialism, democracy and professional ethics are coming under increasing strain."

That statement is from the "Draft National Policy on Education," an attempt to chart directions for the 5,200-some institutions of higher learning that have arisen in India during the past century. The document speaks explicitly of "values education." It calls for the fostering of values that "have a universal appeal" and that could help to "eliminate obscurantism, religious fanaticism, violence, superstition, and fatalism."

As in others parts of Asia, what happens in Indian colleges and universities is decisive for the future. The median age in Asia is about 17 and going down; in the West it is about 35 and going up. With well over half the globe’s population in Asia, it can be regarded as the world’s kindergarten, with the West being the world’s old-folks home.

This call for more attention to "values" takes place in the context of a general structural revision in Indian higher education. Colleges may, under certain conditions, be granted a new degree of independence from prescribed curricula. Education is gaining independence from the governmental control brought to India by the British and reinforced by the first generation of national leaders who used socialist ideas (mostly Fabian, some Marxist) about centralized planning in a secular state in their effort to establish a modern nation and to keep militant Hindus and Muslims from each other’s throats.

These developments arise from the simultaneous failure and success of Indian education. On the one hand, recent Indian educational policy has made Indian doctors, managers and engineers competitive on the world job market. It has also brought education to such a level of strength that scholars, programs and institutions are able and willing to take more responsibility and be more autonomous in shaping what gets taught.

On the other hand, the educational system has not provided a vision that can inspire the younger generation to a common moral commitment. The editor of The Hindu, a widely circulated English-language newspaper, claims that 80 per cent of India’s college graduates want to leave the country for one of the Commonwealth nations, one of the Gulf states or the United States to make money. No nation can survive when such a large percentage of its more gifted and trained people want to leave.

Among those most eager to respond to the new freedom and the emphasis on values are some of the leaders of the All India Association for Christian Higher Education, which represents some 2,000 Christian colleges. Under the umbrella of this organization, Christian professors are beginning to develop new courses, new syllabi and new collections of case studies for discussions of ethics. All of these developments are new in several senses. In most places such efforts simply did not exist previously. Elsewhere, they represent a major step beyond the required religion courses which were mostly catechism, only slightly removed from compulsory chapel.

Values education has taken place in India from time immemorial, but often by means of those informal structures of learning by which everyone everywhere is nurtured into specific cultural attitudes about right and wrong, good and evil. And to be sure, in the deep background of these structures were the great scriptures and epics as interpreted by the Brahmins, which have shaped the fabric of the whole culture. More immediately, morality was mediated through the extended family (with all its connections to caste) , which remains very powerful in India; sometimes in those temples where pundits gave discourses about the perennial struggles of good and evil; and most frequently by the practical decisions of the panchiat, the intercaste village council of the five leading elders. In recent centuries, law, which is everywhere a bearer of morality, was-under the control of the Muslims. then the British and then the secular government. But none of these structures seems to have effectively generated a moral code for a society in transition.

The new courses are being developed as a kind of unofficial substitute for what is often done by theologians, ethicists and social theorists. In India, theology, ethics and social theory as critical sciences are not widely developed, and topics treated by these fields appear in local communities primarily as confessional commentary, caste practice or expressions of communal interests. There are outstanding Indian intellectual leaders in these fields -- one thinks of such figures as M. M. Thomas, Russell Chandran, C. T. Kurien, M. N. Srinivas and a dozen or so younger scholars also likely to become known around the world -- but in the colleges the concerns for values these names represent scarcely appear.

The new courses and materials are being created mostly by educators in the nontheological sciences -- Christian mathematicians, linguists, physicists, biologists and economists who use theologians, ethicists and social theorists as occasional consultants. The class outlines include religion (often based in Bible study) , morality (frequently centered in Victorian virtues) and social problems (heavily laced with metaphysical views of Indian cultural history) These topics are being woven into a new mix which includes a dedication to an interfaith sense of the urgent need to reconstruct the spiritual and moral values of the nation.

What was striking to the outside observer in these events was that the inevitable interdisciplinary conversations dealt primarily with the transformations of traditional patterns of life -- transformations that seem to some so glacially slow that everything should be done to speed them up, and to others so incredibly rapid that people and morality were getting lost in the swirl of change. Of particular concern to many was the shift from a "joint family" structure, with arranged marriages, to a more nuclear family constituted by "love marriages." This shift reflects some increased emancipation of women as well as the transition from a "communal," subsistence-agrarian economy to an increasingly "societal," exchange-urban one. The change has produced enormous anxiety, conflict between the generations, and a fear that India will go the way of the West with its high divorce rates, broken families, loss of extended support systems, and commercialized libertinism.

Much concern was also expressed about the apparent increase of religious and communal fanaticism in India, as the generation that marched with Gandhi for a tolerant, nonviolent, independent and national spirit fades into history. Several of the teachers of values education believe that only a Christian perspective can renew the foundations of public morality -- even in a Hindu context -- just as it was the encounter with Christianity that prompted Gandhi (and many of his generation) to revise the dominant understanding of Hinduism. (How Christianity is to relate, as a minority faith, to pluralistic environments is one of the key topics to be taken up at this month’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Tambaram -- the meeting in that city near Madras of the International Missionary Council which included the Third World in a way that anticipated the current influence of the "newer churches" in the World Council of Churches.)

The educators are also alert to the continuing problems of poverty, although Indian college students frequently have to be taught to perceive directly what is simply part of the peripheral background of their daily lives. Depending on which figures one adopts, some 40 per cent of the population is below the poverty line (defined here as the inability to get access to 2,200 calories per day) Once the facts are acknowledged, teachers say, the appropriate value responses must still be discussed. Many students see the poverty of some as the natural structure of existence -- as the result of inevitable karma or as kismet. Of course, these ideas are challenged by Christians and Marxists, but neither has yet successfully challenged the facts of mass poverty.

As is the case elsewhere around the world, Marxist parties and institutes try to offer an alternative to fatalism, but party leaders appear to be little interested in serious social change. For the most part, the Marxist parties seem to reflect the effort by competing communal groups to form majorities that can keep Hindu and Muslim militancy at bay while taking some modest strides toward a welfare state. Christians are frequently involved in these efforts. Among some academics also, Marxism has provided the common terms of discourse. It supplies not only the slogans of student organizations but also the vocabulary for much analysis of the political-economic situation, especially in Christian circles. However, very few policies in Christian institutions or in public life are actually decided on these bases, in part because class analysis simply does not and cannot take account of the cultural factors that shape much of what is decided.

Teachers say that college students are bored by the analysis of political-economic problems anyway. They want to get jobs with transnational corporations in a big city or, preferably, abroad, and join the middle class. They are the "new class" in Indian society. They want to be independent of traditional values, they are suspicious of Marxist parties (even if they vote for them) and of too much piety in church (even if they attend services) Yet they experience a crisis of moral drift. They would like to be inspired, but traditional forms of inspiration simply don’t work in the economic, political and social world they are being trained to enter.

What shall guide their lives? Teachers say that many non-Christians think a Christian education better prepares them for the world of urban life, international economics, love marriages and democratic political life than the available alternatives, even if they do not want to convert. (Depending on the college, 60 to 80 per cent of the student bodies and 40 to 60 per cent of the faculties are non-Christian.) "Values education" thus becomes a way of presenting a Christian ethical universalism in nondogmatic terms. The most important points, it is often said, might also be found in Muslim and Hindu thought. even if they are not accented by the traditional representatives of these religions.

The Christian teachers who are taking up these problems read and use the Bible without a sense of the hermeneutical crisis which has preoccupied academics in the West. They then link their interpretations to the sciences they teach, to the culture in which they live, to the expressed needs of their students, and (often preconsciously) to the metaphysical questions that the religious traditions of India have posed for centuries. The results echo faintly the stances taken by Puritans, Pietists and Wesleyans, who, in their own ways, were also in controversy with feudal societies and mystical speculations, and were simultaneously open to the dialogue between religion and science in an attempt to shape a new future. It would not be surprising if a new "Indian Social Gospel" were to come from these developments. Already slated to be established this year in Tambaran is an institute for research on Christianity and contemporary thought for educating and training leaders in Indian church and society.

No one knows where all this will lead. Only a few examples of the attempt to link values with the arts and sciences have been published (see, for example, A Vision for India Tomorrow: Explorations in Social Ethics, edited by J. Daniel and R. Gopalan [Madras Christian College, 1984]) But already evident is a sense of social conscience linked to economic development; a theology of vocation that replaces the ascriptive caste definitions of occupation; a theistically based universalism conducive to science and human rights; and a modernizing, cosmopolitan outlook in a land where the sacredness of the cow signals both the power of tradition and a preference for the agrarian life.

These developments raise a substantive question about the role of the middle classes, a question with implications beyond India. Here, as in other places of the world, the educational fruits of the 19th-century missionary movement produced an energetic middle class that was new to traditional societies. It did this by challenging the religious authority by which elites legitimated their domination, and by introducing new religious possibilities that could legitimate new behaviors by those under domination.

Today, modern scholarship is translating and writing commentaries on the great texts of the world’s religions at an unparalleled pace. The views of world history’s greats are at hand. At the same time, the world church has become alert to the poor and the oppressed who have no voice, and many are being given one as we properly offer our prayers, our resources and our time to aid the dispossessed.

How are we to deal with the new and rising middle classes of the Third World, represented by these Indian teachers and college students? They are at the cutting edge of modernization in their culture. What shall Christianity around the world say to those who are neither part of the elite nor in poverty but on the way to new kinds. of leadership?

Part of the answer to this question will depend on what role we think the educated middle classes will play in the church and in the future of civilizations, and what part we think religion plays in shaping social morality. I suspect that religion deeply shapes social morality, and that Christianity implies both a social duty to care for the poor and the oppressed and an intellectual duty to understand the great philosophies of the elites that have shaped cultures for centuries. But the more difficult and ultimately more fateful question is whether Christians can define and refine those basic ethical principles that can support, sustain and guide tomorrow’s middle classes (which we want the poor to rise into and the elites to heed)

It may be as much of a sociological law of history as we can presently establish that it is the middle classes who determine the destiny of modern civilizations. When they are strong, democracy, human rights and economic productivity tend to prevail. When they are not strong, the result is the polarization of the rich and poor and a fluctuation between the tyrannies of the right and those of the left.

In their own unassuming ways, simply by trying to be good teachers for their students, Christian teachers in the Christian colleges of India are taking up questions that are the most crucial for Asia’s future. They are embarking on a historical experiment -- which will surely last more than a lifetime -- that tests this question: Does Christianity provide universal values that can be transposed into a new idiom for a new class and thereby influence the reconstruction of a great Asian civilization? Or does Asian change have to pass through the Maoism of China, the "killing fields" of Indochina, the tyrannies of a Pakistan or a Korea, or the robotics of Japan? On these matters, the still quite modest efforts in the Indian colleges just might be worth following.