Because attitudes and values deal with the shoulds—what people should do; the standards they should live by; or the things they should value, endorse, live up to, or maintain—the question of what values to teach is controversial. One person’s standards for behavior differ from another’s, and conflicts arise. Each parent wants her children to learn a different set of values.

Obviously, teachers will not teach children what religion they should believe in or what political party they should vote for. Those are family preferences. No teacher can tell a child or a parent that the values he holds are wrong. On the other hand, teachers who do not raise questions about values, ask children to examine their own feelings, or promote the values inherent in our democracy may perform a disservice to our democracy by avoiding those topics. If teachers do not actively promote the values of our society, children learn nothing about democracy; rather, they learn that they can do whatever they wish.

The values that do matter, and are worthwhile and even necessary, are those that are consistent with the values of democracy. In schools for young children, the universal attitudes and values consistent with the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy are those that are taught (Hayes, 2003). Stemming from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, these attitudes and values have been described in various ways by the different commissions on the social studies.

According to CIVITAS (2003), the following dispositions of citizens are most conducive to the healthy functioning of constitutional democracy:

  • Civility, including respect for others and the use of civil discourse
  • Individual responsibility and the inclination to accept responsibility for one’s own self and the consequences of one’s own actions
  • Self-discipline and adherence to the rules necessary for maintenance of the American constitutional government without requiring the imposition of external authority
  • Civic-mindedness and the willingness on appropriate occasions to place the common good above personal interest
  • Open-mindedness, including a healthy sense of skepticism and a recognition of the ambiguities of social and political reality
  • Willingness to compromise, realizing that values and principles are sometimes in conflict, tempered by a recognition that not all principles or values are fit for compromise since some compromise may imperil democracy’s continued existence
  • Toleration of diversity
  • Patience and persistence in the pursuit of public goals
  • Compassion for others
  • Generosity toward others and the community at large
  • Loyalty to the republic and its values and principles

Similarly, the National Council for the Social Studies (1998) suggests that, within the context of the social studies, children learn the value of fundamental rights: life, liberty, individual dignity, equality of opportunity, justice, privacy, security, and ownership of private property. These also include valuing the basic freedoms of worship, thought, conscience, expression, inquiry, assembly, and participation in the political process.

The National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools (1998) believes that civic virtue—American democratic traditions and political institutions; ideals, human values, and achievements; and the understanding and transmission of citizenship—is not just a matter of observing outward forms, transmitted from the old to the young. It is also a matter of reasoned conviction, the end result of teaching people to think for themselves.

By focusing on those values that (1) are congruent with our democracy, (2) are necessary for children to become participatory members of a democratic society, and (3) predispose children to learn, the social studies can meet the intent of the three commissions on the social studies.