Values Education Accord Elusive, E.D. Discovers
Washington--At the close of a two-day conference here on character education, one participant declared optimistically that "this may be the coming of age of this topic."
The speaker was Chester E. Finn, Jr., assistant secretary and head of the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement, which sponsored the event. "There is a public hunger for schools to deal with morality," he said.
But the discussions among 23 scholars and public- and private-school representatives this month did not elicit easy prescriptions for doing that.
"We did not come up with four tasks and six values we could all agree on," said Ivor Pritchard, a research associate with oeri who moderated the discussion. "That wasn't the goal."
The conference was designed as a forum to discuss rough drafts of 12 papers commissioned by the research office on moral education, Mr. Pritchard said, and represents the first attempt the office has made to delve into the subject. The papers were not related to moral-education projects funded two years ago by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.
The final drafts of the papers produced for oeri will eventually be published in some form, either by the department or a private publisher, Mr. Pritchard said.
Difficult to Measure
The concept of character education encompasses a wide range of subjects, participants said, including parental responsibility, the insights of religion, and behavioral standards. Teaching it not only involves pedagogical methods and curricular content but also the atmosphere of the school, they said.
Their discussion of philosophical foundations for the notion of "character" ranged over the Greek philosophers, the Founding Fathers, the Bible, and such thinkers as Immanuel Kant and Lawrence Kohlberg, John Dewey and Emile Durkheim. The works of such writers as William Styron, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville, were also discussed.
Participants seemed to agree on three principles:
Morality cannot be measured as easily as reading or math skills.
Morality probably should not be taught directly with a "morals curriculum."
Moral education does not necessarily produce moral individuals.
Despite these stumbling blocks, schools still should engage in some sort of moral or character education, participants said.
"I think that the best that we can do in public education is to foster certain very broad commitments to4a set of consensus values in the early grades of the elementary schools and then later induct students into the historical and contemporary debate surrounding those values,'' William A. Proefriedt, professor of education at Queens College of the City University of New York, wrote in his paper titled "Moral Education in a Pluralistic Society."
Thomas Lickona, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, described a pilot project in which parents and teachers tried to develop a set of principles that could then be fostered in the classroom.
Parents often do not understand their role as the primary moral educators of their children, he said. "But when you sit down and wrestle with this, people can hammer out a consensus," he said.
Others cautioned against that approach. "School-parent partnerships are such a nifty notion, but look at who is there at the meetings and who is not," said Rebecca Canning, vice chairman of the Texas State Board of Education. "The people there are the ones willing to come to a consensus."
Kenneth Strike of Cornell University agreed, maintaining that moral education should not depend on a community consensus. For example, he said, "if there's no consensus on honesty, then are you going to promote dishonesty?"
He was also pessimistic about the ability of school systems to consciously instill values. "Anything you are going to teach about moral education has to fit into a weekend seminar for teachers, and anything you can learn in a weekend seminar is probably not worth learning," he said.
James A. Williams, assistant superintendent for intermediate and secondary instruction with the Dayton, Ohio, public schools, advocated "direct moral education."
"Students understand expectations, dos and don'ts," he said.
Gerald Grant, professor of education and sociology at Syracuse University, described a project in which he taught high-school students to study their school in an attempt to improve its intellectual and moral climate.
He is writing a book on project, titled The World We Created at Hamilton High, to be published by Harvard University Press in February.
"The primary responsibility for creating a moral society rests with the faculty itself, with the kinds of people they are," he said. The process of examining the school has caused teachers to look at their own actions more carefully, Mr. Grant said.
Last year, the school's faculty was presented with the information students gathered on cheating, race relations, leadership, and the moral climate of the school, and have formed a committee to discuss ways to improve its environment, he said.
The Education Department's research office spent $33,000 for the 12 commissioned papers and about $27,500 for the conference, Mr. Pritchard said. In addition, 10 of the participants invited to act as "reactors" to the papers will be paid $1,000 each to write a short paper on their reactions to the gathering.