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Clinton Urges Key Place for Character Education in Curriculum

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Washington

President Clinton told the audience at a White House-sponsored conference this month that he longs for the day when every school district in the nation has character education as "a regular part of the curriculum."

"I think it is profoundly important that young people be taught that it's important to tell the truth, that it's important to be trustworthy and for people to be able to rely on you, that it's important not to abuse the freedom you have by undermining other people's ability to exercise their freedom," the President said.

Mr. Clinton spoke for nearly an hour May 20 at the Second White House Conference on Character Building for a Democratic, Civil Society. The two-day meeting was organized by the Communitarian Network, a national organization that believes citizens' rights should go hand in hand with responsibilities to the community.

The event drew nearly 300 invited participants, including educators, clergy, military officers, and representatives of education, philanthropic, and advocacy groups. It focused on building character in children, with talk inevitably turning to the role of schools.

Interest in the topic dovetails with a controversial movement among some educators to return to what had been a traditional aim of education--to purposefully teach right from wrong and foster good character and citizenship. (See Education Week, 5/17/95.)

"There is no way schools can stay out of the character-education business," Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University here and a founder of the Communitarian Network, told the conferees.

Mr. Clinton clearly agreed. "Something which once was taken for granted as part of education sort of faded away and, we believe, should be brought back," he said.

While it is not a substitute for character lessons taught by family members, Mr. Clinton said that "character education can be a vital part of building the kind of society that recognizes responsibilities and has a sense of community."

But it will take more than just the work of government or schools to keep children off the streets and in school, Mr. Clinton added, asserting that the country needs "every parent, teacher, friend, and loved one" to focus on teaching children right from wrong.

Illustrating the wide appeal of character education, William J. Bennett, a prominent conservative who served as secretary of education in the Reagan Administration, also addressed the meeting.

Character education should be broader than a one-hour curricular unit, he said, and noted that the adult role models children see in school are more important than any one lesson or book.

"What we do to children, they will do to others," Mr. Bennett said. "There is nothing like the moral power of example."

Eight task forces created after last year's White House conference presented draft recommendations in their areas of focus, which ranged from family involvement to civic education, sports, and "building empathy and caring." The task forces are expected to continue revising the proposals.

Calls to Action

Among the recommendations:

All schools should make character development a top priority and design programs with input from parents, community members, religious leaders, and others.
Programs of instruction about interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy should be included in the curriculum of all public schools. They should encourage children not to have babies and "not treat sex in a values-free environment."
Educators and scholars should join with community and political leaders to insure that children receive a grounding in the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a constitutional democracy.
The media, manufacturers of sporting goods, and athletic associations should join in another national campaign to emphasize the importance of building character through sports. Athletic directors, coaches, and school leaders should ban taunting, profanity, and other such behavior during events.

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