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'Humanizing and Civilizing'

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There is more in the sudden commitment to character education than meets the eye. The public and the media are preoccupied with highly charged issues when it comes to education. Who should decide what is to be taught, the parents or the boards of education? Are we going to allow books such as Heather Has Two Mommies into the official school curriculum? What about creationism? And are schools going to be subject to national standards on value issues? Meanwhile, several national groups are trying to create a way to help develop the personalities of those who enroll, to insure that they be of good character. And good--these groups are finding--can be defined in ways that insure consensus and parental involvement. To explain what they are after requires a brief visit to rather elementary questions: What does it take to form a person who can first be a civil student and later a civil member of society?

Our culture watches newborn children through rosy-tinted lenses; they are widely held to be "so cute.'' If one looks at them more objectively, one notes that they are rather like other animals: They intake food, expel waste, and shriek. Above all, they show no signs of inborn commitments to moral or social values, and do not develop such virtues on their own. These elementary facts are historically the reason families (nuclear and extended) were entrusted with humanizing and civilizing these newborn two-legged creatures.

Presently, an estimated half of our families no longer discharge this duty in a satisfactory manner. It is ever more widely agreed (in magazine articles such as the Atlantic Monthly cover story from last year, "Dan Quayle Was Right'') that we urgently need to find ways to encourage families to resume attending to their most elementary responsibility: laying the foundations for the moral upbringing of the next generation. To the extent that this is not achieved, by default schools must help discharge this duty, in close consultation with the community and parents.

Private schools in principle face no undue difficulties in putting this matter on their agenda; on the other hand, public schools, still entrusted with 88 percent of America's youngsters, have been embroiled in one controversy after another in attempting to broach values education. Theoretically, the matter can be treated by some form of choice system that would enable most parents to transfer their children to private schools. Realistically speaking, in the near future, a national move to school choice seems rather unlikely. It follows that an important part of character formation of the new generation is left to the mercy of public schools.

The tough questions that immediately fly to mind--Will they distribute condoms? Condemn abortion? and many such--are circumvented by two new nationwide groups that are mounting a major character-education drive. Character Counts! was launched with big fanfare (involving Barbara Jordan and the movie star Tom Selleck) by the indefatigable Michael Josephson, the head of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics. It calls for schools to promote the following six character traits: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. This is to be achieved largely though a public-relations campaign that encourages schools to provide youngsters with flash cards that praise the said virtues, and other such devices.

A much richer and more complex agenda is advanced by a broad coalition of educational groups, the Character Education Partnership, which seeks basic reforms in the curriculum of 75 percent of public schools by the end of the century. Its leaders are an educator, Diane Berreth, the retired C.E.O. of McDonnell Douglas, Sanford McDonnell, and a former school administrator, John Martin.

The Character Education Partnership stresses that the experiences schools generate are much more character-forming than whatever lectures on ethics are delivered by teachers. Thus, if the parking lot is a danger zone, the corridors confrontational, and the cafeteria wild, the moral lesson is that in an uncivil world whoever pushes hardest carries the day; while if they are kept orderly by patrols of faculty and students, the value of civility is well imparted. Similarly, if A's and B's are handed out easily to encourage those who are believed to lack in self-esteem, the lesson is that work does not pay. If high grades are handed out parsimoniously and fairly, they teach that dedication to work is rewarding. In effect, all that the school does is akin to what we long knew about the effects of extracurricular activities, especially sports: They are character-forming. In a draft position paper prepared by the Communitarian Network, schools are urged to conduct an annual retreat in which the school community examines the lessons the school set-up imparts and compares them to the values it seeks to transmit. If the messages are out of step, they should be realigned.

Both Character Counts! and the Character Education Partnership in effect stress their concern with personality traits that enable a person to act in a civil and moral manner, rather than focus primarily on the content of the values that they are going to embrace. First among these traits is the capacity to control one's impulses. The underlying assumption is that aggressive and other asocial impulses cannot be extinguished; a mature person needs to learn to recognize urges such as murderous anger and acquire ways to curb them or channel them into socially constructive outlets. Second, the draft position paper suggests that a well-formed person must have what Adam Smith called "sympathy'': roughly, the ability to see one's self in the other person's shoes. Without this quality, there is little likelihood that children will develop charity, fairness, respect for people other than themselves, or the other virtues that make for a moral and civil person.

Once a person has these twin capacities, one can graft on them commitments to a variety of values. What those are to be is also less controversial than it seems at first. Numerous values are widely shared. No one seriously maintains that lying is morally superior to truth telling; that rape, theft--not to mention killing--are morally appropriate. (Of course, there are special circumstances, rather clearly defined, self-defense for instance, where behavior such as killing might be cast in a different light.) Similarly, while there are considerable disagreements about what constitutes sexual harassment or racial discrimination, very few truly hold that hard-core conduct is morally appropriate.

The Communitarian position paper urges educators to start by imparting these shared values. They then may wish to acknowledge that on some other value matters there are deep differences, and urge youngsters to rely on private institutions to learn more about these. Others favor teaching them cafeteria style: For instance, pro-lifers' beliefs belong in column A and those of pro-choicers are found in column B. I fear that such an approach will foster relativism. These values should be communicated with the full fervor of those who hold them, which is best achieved outside public schools. As Charles Haynes, from the First Liberty Institute, put it: "Students [should] be encouraged to consult their parents and religious leaders for a fuller understanding of how their tradition addresses moral questions.'' We should not try to pack all values into public schools; they are the place for those we all share and a place to recognize the import of other values. In a similar vein, the C.E.P. suggests that schools should not ignore the role of religion in American life. Rather, public schools should teach about religion without lapsing into teaching any particular religious dogma.

Finally, the said position paper provides a rather clear guideline to the challenging question--when it does come to value differences--of whether or not schools should abide by the views of the local community it serves or those imposed from the outside. Should schools distribute condoms or teach 1st graders about homosexuality if the community is adamantly opposed to either? The proposed rule of thumb is that the values of the local community take precedence in all matters but those that violate societywide values as reflected in the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Thus schools should teach the value of free speech and defend it on their premises even if parents favor suppressing viewpoints they abhor (expressed, say, in the student newspaper), but refrain from sex education if this is the parents' collective preference to do so. (If the parents are divided, parents should be enabled to excuse their children from such classes.) The schools should teach that democracy is the preferred form of government even if most parents in a given neighborhood believe that authoritarian, anarchist, or tribal government is superior, but not require children to read Marx if that makes the parents see red.

Most important, the fact that both Character Counts! and the Character Education Partnership have attracted a great deal of interest in the educational community and a large following among parents shows that greater attention to the moral education of the young is moving up on the agenda of public schools. It is not coming a moment too soon.

Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology at The George Washington University, is the founder of the Communitarian Network. He is the author of The Spirit of Community (Simon & Schuster paperback edition, 1994) and serves on the board of the Character Education Partnership.

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