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Character and Coffee Mugs

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Recently I came across an ad in an education journal for T-shirts, pens, and coffee mugs emblazoned with the words "Character counts!" And a little something inside me died.

It appears that one of the school's oldest missions is about to become one of its newest fads: character education. As an educator who has been persistently critical of our schools' failure to demand good behavior from students and to get them engaged in forming strong characters, I ought to have been delighted. I have been numbed in recent years with statistics about the antisocial and pathological behavior of America's young people. The prospect of our schools' return to what historically has been their primary task should have been a cause for joy. Instead, I felt a chill.

The T-shirts and coffee mugs presage what is clearly the coming boom in character education. The time is right. As a society, we are again focusing on our children and this time we are giving them a harder look. A decade ago, the downward-sloping curves of the annual S.A.T. scores had us worried about whether the next generation would be able to "compete in the global market." More recently, looking into the eyes of the Menendez brothers, Susan Smith, Tonya Harding, and friends, our worries are more fundamental. When we look up from reading those terrifying statistics about alienated and bizarre behavior of the young, we see the cold faces of kids in the schoolyard and in the neighborhood streets.

It has also become clear that over the last few decades, our schools, particularly our public schools, have abdicated the duties of the character-education business. They quietly retreated from their traditional task of promoting an ethical approach to life and the community's moral values about the time that Abbie Hoffman was telling the counterculture of the 60's, "Don't trust anyone over 30!" Educators in that protest era were just as confused as many of their countrymen about the meaning of patriotism in the midst of an unpopular war. The meaning of love and marriage was all but lost, too, in the midst of "the new sexuality" and an epidemic of divorce. When the President of the United States was forced to leave the White House in disgrace, we nearly lost the meaning of public morality. In this disordered climate, many educators were glad to be relieved of the task of promoting what our universities had tagged "middle-class values." The retreat by the schools wasn't as dramatic as our exit from Saigon, but it was just about as complete.

Universities and colleges once made moral education and character formation cornerstones of teacher preparation. But now they ignored these concerns. If teachers heard anything, it was that they were to help children clarify their own values through game-like activities. And teachers were instructed to remain morally neutral lest they "indoctrinate" the children. Their task was to "facilitate" children's discovery of what they like and how to go about getting it. Again, that university fear of the dreaded "middle-class values." By default, teachers were stripped of a major traditional responsibility and, as a result, became more like mere "information technicians."

Our schools, believing they had lost their moral mission, abandoned moral language. "Right" and "wrong" were out and "appropriate" and "inappropriate" were in. ("Inappropriate" as in, "It is inappropriate for you two to be having sex in the parking lot during lunchtime.") A robust concept, such as being a good student, once meant working hard and up to your capacities and being a civil and cooperative class member. Now it has been dumbed down to getting good marks, even if grades have been inflated and cheating is commonplace. What kind of a person you are becoming and what kind of character you are forming is no one else's business, particularly your teachers', and not much worth your attention, either.

The school curriculum, now increasingly devoid of moral authority and ethical language, has become sterile and meaningless. If history is just battles and conventions, and not an inquiry into what it means to be a human being and how we ought to live together, then Will Rogers had it right: "History is just one long birdseed catalogue." If reading Huckleberry Finn is primarily an exploration into the dialect of the people of the Missouri basin or the social stratification in mid-19th-century America, rather than a rich moral tale about the dark underside of the American character, then students are justified in rejecting it as just another boring reading assignment. Historically, our curriculum has been the midwife of our moral aspirations and our beliefs about what it is to be a good person and what it is to be a human failure. Lacking that, it is an empty husk.

Our morally neutral schools have fostered a deep miseducation of our children, and they have wreaked havoc upon our teachers. The authority of a teacher is both intellectual and moral: intellectual in the sense that teachers have command of important facts, information, and substantial ideas; moral in the sense that society has always expected teachers to instruct the young in the ethical ideals one needs for a decent existence and to live among others in harmony. When teachers are reduced to information jockeys, with no authority other than what naked power or popularity they can amass, the classroom is reduced to a mean-spirited struggle of wills or a sleazy compromise. ("O.K., kids, I won't hassle you, if you won't hassle me.") The fundamental problem of our schools, then, is not that we are turning out ignoramuses and illiterates, but that we are graduating moral savages.

Clearly, schools need to attend to character education. Children need it. Good schools have always done it. But what exactly is behind this seductive label of character education? If a school board votes to add calculus to the curriculum or soccer to the sports programs, everyone can be pretty sure what they are in for. As it stands, "character education" is an empty vessel with all sorts of people with all sorts of agendas ready to pour in all sorts of content, from self-esteem-building exercises to moral stories, from character-in-a-box curriculums to T-shirts, pens, and coffee mugs. Just at the time when the public is ready to attend seriously to the ethical needs of children, a cluttered bandwagon is swinging into Main Street and heading straight for the schoolhouse.

It is tempting to turn our heads and let this educational parade roll by. But it is not that easy. Educating for character is not a matter of choice. Students will either acquire the habits of self-discipline and honesty, habits which mark our character, or they will not. Students will either develop commitment to being responsible citizens or not. For good or for ill, the school will have an effect. For the school, character education is inevitable. It comes with the territory.

So, if we are going to seriously undertake character education, then we need to attend to a few matters.

First, define terms. What constitutes character cries out for clear definition. What we do must not be swallowed up by the "politically correct" agenda that surrounds so many educational movements. Instead of teaching the "right" views about gender issues, the environment, and the raging social issues of the day, we must focus on helping children acquire such stern virtues as persistence at hard tasks, courage in the face of difficulties, and patience. Character education must teach reliable standards of right and wrong and the enduring moral habits needed to sustain both the individual person and the Republic. What character education aims to address needs definition and specificity. This should come not from "inside the Beltway," or from the National Education Association; it should not be downloaded to the school from the information superhighway. It should come from the minds and hearts of those who send our children to school and pay the bills, and of those--school teachers and administrators--to whom we entrust our children.
Second, the religious facet of character education cannot be shoved under the rug. Children are the responsibility first and foremost of their parents, and the overwhelming percentage of American parents think of themselves as religious. They also believe that their religious traditions have a good deal to say about issues of right and wrong and the meaning of good character. In some communities today, religious people look on what they increasingly refer to as the secular state school's re-entry into moral and character education with enormous suspicion. And, also, many non- and anti-religious people see character education as a stalking horse for the return of religion to the public schools. With a little patience and good will, most communities can find some common ground of civic values. Certainly, teachers can acknowledge the importance of their students' religious teachings and encourage students to refer to these teachings as they consider ethical issues. While advocacy and sectarianism are out of bounds, marginalizing or denying the existence of religious-based virtues cannot be tolerated in the public's schools.

Undoubtedly, for educators who for years have acted as if religions do not exist, there will be some initial awkwardness. But if they cannot deal fruitfully with the fact that for many of their students, character development and morality have deep religious roots, then the public schools deserve to lose some of the trust, respect, and support they have enjoyed.

Third, character education is not a matter of a quick fix. It cannot be reduced to a few in-service-training days, some minor adjustments of the curriculum, or sloganeering coffee cups in the teachers' lounge. Educators and their communities must seriously commit to character education as a focal part of their school's mission. Teachers--the schools' main bearers of character education--must have a clear understanding of the virtues to which the community is committed. They will need time to teach one another how to work these ideas into the life of their classrooms.
Fourth, authentic character education means fundamental change in the way we have been running our schools. It means teachers' regaining moral authority, again being in loco parentis, being expected both to reward and penalize students without the threat of lawyers or overly protective parents.

Character education, also, means holding teachers to high standards of public behavior--of integrity--and letting go those who are not committed to bearing this responsibility. It means students' changing their attitude from one that claims school is their right to one that views school as a responsibility they must aspire to fulfill.

This, in turn, means developing alternative roads for those who cannot manage to fulfill the responsibilities of the new school environment. Character education has to permeate the life of the school, from the classroom to the lunchroom, from the bus to the ball field. It means the return of some nearly abandoned "middle-class values," like respect for legitimate authority, delayed gratification, and genuine concern for others.

Authentic character education is the real education reform. If you are not interested in that, I'll send you the ad for the T-shirts.

Kevin Ryan is a professor of education at Boston University and the founding director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.

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