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Moral-Education Context: 'Desire for a Noble Life'

To The Editor:

I think Kevin Ryan is quite right that "[a]s 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" (related story ).

The principal thrust in what most people call "moral education" seems to me to aim at the symptoms rather than the root of the demoralization of American youths. Programs aimed at prevention of drug and alcohol abuse and the promotion of contraceptives and "safe sex" will hardly restore "morale" to young people who seek such ersatz excitement because of despair of living a truly noble life. Parents may support such programs because they are afraid of such activity derailing their children from conventional success. "Middle-class values" without a spiritual dimension can truly be deadening.

The fundamental reality that modern education misses is that human beings are wonderfully different from animals as well as being similar to them. Culture, the basic material which education must seek to hand over to the next generation, is the elaboration of that difference. Skills make sense and can only be effectively taught in connection to something deeply held to be worthwhile.

If young people have been taught to have a desire for a noble life, that is, to utilize those unique powers that separate them from the lower animals--to know the truth, to love the good ("Take care of truth, and goodness and beauty will look after itself," as the old expression goes), they will see that it is virtue that enables them to live this life and fulfill their deepest wishes for themselves; and it is vice that prevents them from doing so.

Character education outside of the context of what it means to be a human being is meaningless. Either there is a human nature whose reality we can know or education is a futile venture.

Joseph W. McPherson
Headmaster
The Heights School
Potomac, Md.

Changing School-Entry Age Masks a Serious Problem

To the Editor:

The push in Ohio to raise the kindergarten-entry age is a very sad commentary on how many educators misunderstand children and on the helplessness many teachers feel in the face of "the system" (related story ). Changing the entry age is a Band-Aid that only hides the underlying infection and allows it to worsen.

I direct a program that has trained the staffs of over 700 elementary schools to provide instruction that meets the varied needs of young children. Every year during the program's 10 years, kindergarten and 1st-grade children have made dramatic gains in achievement. Comparison studies show that, unlike with their peers, these gains are being maintained through the 3rd grade.

That success was made possible by adjusting curriculum, instruction, and the expectations of teachers and parents. It did not occur through adjusting children.

We have found a woeful lack of knowledge regarding the basics of child growth and development among American teachers and American parents. Fortunately, there is enormous desire among both groups to learn and to do better. Their eagerness is paying large dividends in California through reductions in special-education placements and through far fewer school failures.

I am very concerned by the sentiment that making instruction more appropriate for young children can be seen as "expecting less" of them, as Joan Antle seems to imply in the article. I fear we Americans have expected the wrong things, or taken an easy way out, and gotten our curriculum expectations completely backward as a result.

European nations, by contrast, provide preschools through age 6 that feature richly varied experiences in home-like settings, continuation with the same teacher for multiple years, and the kind of attention many Americans might consider pampering. But when these students reach the ages of 13 to 16, teachers expect far more of them than we do, and they appear to get what is expected.

We have pushed reading instruction down to kindergarten and added expensive support programs because this doesn't work. Then high school tends to repeat the junior high curriculum and includes emphasis on sports and other extracurricular pursuits as if we believe our students need a break before going into the "real world."

Yet the evidence suggests that the European style of high expectations and a much earlier introduction to careers appeals to their young adults just as their protective and supportive early-childhood programs nurture the very young.

We can change schools to better meet the needs of young children, as so many California schools now attest and as the increased emphasis in many sectors on marrying curriculum to the world of work is encouraging. Changing the age of kindergarten entry masks a serious problem instead of addressing it.

Dean Hiser
Program Director
Early Intervention for School Success
Costa Mesa, Calif.

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