Commentary

On Pedagogy and the 'Time-Honored Virtues'

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Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has begun his term by making a number of remarks about the importance of building "character" as an aim of education. These statements have generated considerable public interest. The policy implications of his priorities are not yet clear. But the concern for pupil character has a long history in the fields of philosophy and psychology as well as education. If we understand more of this history, we can better appreciate the impact of the Secretary's apparently novel viewpoint.

It is evident that Mr. Bennett is using the word character in the traditional sense, defined as observable conduct: actions or words, or the withholding of actions or words. Ultimately, such conduct was seen as the outcome of internal states of mind. However, "good character" gives first priority to correct acts. Some of the sense of the definition is expressed in the Boy Scout motto, "Do a good deed daily."

Good character is expressed in acts that are tied to many time-honored virtues: honesty, tact, courage, obedience, persistence, generosity, loyalty, and the like. Its underlying philosophy assumed that 95 percent of the time we know what is the right thing to do; the problem is that we lack the will or determination to do it.

Thus, character had to be cultivated through habituation--routinely encouraging and demanding appropriate conduct from learners. As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines. Students will then acquire the "strength of character" to routinely carry out such conduct without outside monitoring. Essentially, a complex form of behaviorism is involved. Indeed, many authors, such as Plato and Aristotle, deliberately remarked on the parallels between elements of character formation and the training of animals.

Character was taught by "environments," a medley of elements that combined to produce the necessary good--or bad--effects. The elements were composed of forces such as role models, "wholesome literature," appropriate rewards and punishments, frequent occasions for the practice of virtue, and regular demands from adults and older youths for appropriate conduct. Often a religious, ethnic, or national tradition served as a source of example and justification.

None of this means that the teaching of character is founded on anti-intellectual premises. Traditional approaches recognized that occasional gray-area questions arise in practicing good character. Thus, in the Iliad, Achilles, one of the Greek leaders, refused to participate in the attack on Troy because of his private dispute with Agamemnon, the Greek general. Achilles's withdrawal severely handicapped the Greek attack. Whether his sulking was justified must have been a natural subject of discussion among Greek youths memorizing the Iliad in the fourth century B.C.

But despite such inevitable occasions for constructive controversy, the central theme of works like the Iliad directly stresses topics such as loyalty, courage, persistence, and respect for guests. Undoubtedly, one cause for the traditional focus on action--especially on doing the "hard things"--was a recognition that reflexive reliance on reasoning and analysis could encourage a form of casuistry in the young. They might use their intellectual training as a shield, to invent excuses for not doing the good things for which they lacked the will (or "character"). Contemporary Americans who have worked with adolescents have sometimes remarked that many young people do have a disposition to explore and try to get by on flimsy excuses.

In all other cultures, and for most of Western history, the formation of good character has been the principal goal of education, in particular, and of youth upbringing in general. Often, such efforts did not work well: There were deficiencies in resources and misconceptions about correct procedures. Many adults deliberately exploited young people for selfish and evil reasons. But despite such obstacles, the general principle, among serious and substantial people, has been that the character of an institution's graduates would be the prime test of an education system.

This statement would be unqualifiedly accepted by Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, or the turn-of-the-century commissioner of education, William Torrey Harris--himself a professional philosopher. Indeed, John Dewey wrote a book titled Morals and Education. At the same time, it is now evident that many--though certainly not all--educators do not consider themselves substantially concerned with the character of their graduates. How and why did this decline occur?

Many gradual changes in the structure and organization of our schools and colleges transformed those institutions into environments where fostering good public character is more difficult. Schools grew larger, encompassing narrower age groups of pupils. Their academic programs became more varied and segmented. Pupils were enrolled for longer periods of time and more pupils were compelled or pressured to stay in school than in the past. Teachers were hired, paid, and supervised in more bureaucratic, less personal ways, and asked to work in less collegial fashions.

Many philosophic changes also have occurred in the ways we look at schools and pupils. We are less willing to make strong (including character-related) demands on pupils and faculty. The demands we do make have more to do with purely academic matters rather than simultaneously stressing appropriate conduct in a more holistic fashion. Greater emphasis is given to pupil choice, and so pupils are more licensed to avoid doing things they find unpleasant. We are unwilling to develop wholesome out-of-school alternatives for those who are not profitably using school, or to expel or flunk out such pupils if they disrupt the learning of others. We have tended to define the issues usually encompassed by "character" in largely intellectual terms and are more concerned with students' "thinking right," as compared to actually doing right.

It is, of course, also notorious that the extra-school world has undermined youth character development in more ways than can be listed in a long book--among the often cited culprits, the media, the availability of drugs and alcohol, single-parent families, and too easy money for some to spend in wrong ways.

The education-research community has also contributed to the decline in pupil character. In the early 1930's, a body of character-related research appeared that tended to discredit school efforts. This research, by Hugh Hartshorne and Mark A. Mays, concluded that various character-formation activities conducted in schools--service clubs, teacher lectures, etc.--had little or no relationship to the conduct of students away from the actual learning activity. When the researcher William Kohlberg remarked disparagingly about the "bag of virtues approach," in comparison to the utility of his theories, he was actually summarizing the Hartshorne and Mays findings. But the implications of their findings have probably been overemphasized. Later re-analysis of their data by Roger V. Burton showed that they had statistically underestimated the effects of the programs studied.

It is well known that we can only expect moderate and incremental results from efforts to form or change human conduct. In other words, as the tradition of character formation recognizes, it takes many things, persistently applied over many years, to strongly form a human being. There are no quick and easy fixes.

The topic of fixes leads to a question: Where are we now? Many public and private schools are now applying wholesome, pro-character policies to their routine operations. For instance, the "For Character" school-recognition program, active in the Chicago area, enlists, identifies and honors both public and private schools whose policies foster pupil-character development and academic learning. The schools, rated by objective criteria developed through long discussions by the program's advisory board, complete assessment forms, submit narrative information, are subject to site visits, and finally are judged by an impartial awards committee. In general, the staffs, students, and often parents in the honored schools are engaged in substantial academic programs that are simultaneously encouraging pupils to do good things in and around their schools.

This approach contrasts with what is now occasionally called "character education," a term that implies a discrete academic program--essentially some item of curricular material that might be taught, for example, as part of a social-science class. Traditional character education was not uninterested in the matter of curriculum; traditionally, good character would be formed by all elements of the curriculum--history, literature, philosophy, poetry, the music sung in class, or the proverbs copied in handwriting exercises. Furthermore, such curricular concerns had to be integrated into efforts to generate observable acts of good conduct, as well as discussion about doing good. In sum, some piece of plug-in-curriculum--depending on its content--could be constructive. But it should only be a small part of a holistic "for-character" approach.

What forecasts, then, can be offered about the effects of Mr. Bennett's efforts? The Secretary today is re-emphasizing a rich and honorable tradition, with substantial intellectual content. Also, he is responding to an expressed public concern--citizens routinely rate "pupil discipline" their top frustration with education. But when these Americans complain about discipline, it is likely they are really expressing their dissatisfactions with the pupil-character situation. Indeed, with the rates of youth homicide, suicide, and out-of-wedlock births soaring, it seems we have significant hard evidence about a decline in youth character.

But there are many obstacles to vitalizing the Secretary's concerns. Because character, good or bad, is the product of many forces, it is difficult to definitively assign responsibility for corrective action. It is particularly hard for a federal official to manipulate many of the diffuse policy levers that direct such forces. For example, federal categorical aid programs tend to heighten in-school bureaucracy, but it is difficult for the Secretary to simply abolish such Congressionally mandated programs. Moreover, the intervention of the federal courts has often handicapped policies developing good pupil character, such as the maintenance of wholesome, in-school discipline, yet the Secretary's influence on the courts is quite modest. Indeed, since Mr. Bennett presumably blames recent federal interventions for some of the character decline, it is even harder to justify further federal intrusion.

But we should not underestimate the susceptibility of American education to skillful, wholesome, jawbone control. The Secretary has a bully pulpit and because many public educators are now acting in consort with his concerns, they should welcome his support.

The tradition Mr. Bennett is trying to revitalize has undoubtedly been naively ignored for far too long. Indeed, one may even argue that the track record of the character-education tradition compares favorably with our current approaches, which have coincidentally been associated by some scholars with growing youth alienation. One cannot say where matters will end. However, Mr. Bennett is calling for an intellectual controversy that can considerably benefit our children and our country.

Vol. 04, Issue 33, Page 36, 30

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