Character education has become a movement. It has a new national organization (the Character Education Partnership) and national forum (The Journal of Character Education), as well as bestselling books (Thomas Lickona’s Educating for Character), academic think tanks (the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University), and nonprofit organizations (the Jefferson Center for Character Education)—all devoted to the teaching of values in our schools. Its curricula are being taught in thousands of classrooms, and the number of teachers using them is on the rise. Even USA Today earlier this year proclaimed that we are in the midst of a character education boom.
The reasons are clear. Legislators, educators, and parents worry that the MTV generation is suffering moral degeneration. The consequences are grave. Lying and cheating run rampant in schools; racism, violence, and crime pollute campuses; functional illiteracy and dysfunctional desire contribute to youth unemployment and premature pregnancies; and cynicism rather than citizenship describes our political landscape. Americans have turned to the common denominator of national life—our schools—to restore moral fiber among children and adolescents. The character education boom reflects public demand.
But public demand can be fickle. If the “liberalism” of the 1960s produced a values-clarification movement dedicated to helping children decide for themselves what is right and wrong, then perhaps it was the “conservatism” of the 1980s that produced today’s movement to teach children what is right and wrong. This specter surfaced last year in a Newsweek article that asked, “Whose Values?,” only to make Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown the main choices. The ghost haunting the character education movement is the suspicion that it is inherently ideological. And unless that ghost is exorcised, the boom is likely to go bust.
Let me perform a swift exorcism by showing that true character education equals empowerment—not ideology. It involves teaching core values that we all can agree on and ethical decision-making skills that empower youngsters to become better students, more productive adults, and active citizens, citizens who can forge unity amid diversity and bring intelligence to bear on moral dilemmas that divide us. I will draw on a pilot project of the Jefferson Center for Character Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District to show how teaching character can be a matter of education, not inculcation.
In 1990, the Jefferson Center staff trained LAUSD administrators and teachers from 25 elementary and middle schools to use curricula that emphasize values-oriented behaviors—such as “Be Honest,” “Be Polite,” and “Be Courageous”—and ethical decision-making skills, such as goal setting and conflict resolution. The overall objective was to encourage school children to take responsibility for their actions, be more respectful of other people, and make more thoughtful ethical choices. The logic behind the Jefferson Center curricula reveals a potential for empowerment.
Most youngsters have been overwhelmed with negative messages, such as, “Don’t do this!” and “Don’t do that!” They feel like victims of taboos. They resign themselves to victimization, seek attention by breaking taboos, and then claim, “It wasn’t my fault! The dog ate my homework.” Character education gives them a positive alternative to the victim’s mentality. When children learn the meaning and value of personal honesty, for example, they recognize that they have choices and are, therefore, responsible for both choices and consequences. And teaching children the language of politeness shows them that they have some control over their social relationships and are, therefore, in a position to improve them. In short, character education empowers youngsters to see themselves and others as moral agents. This enhances their sense of self-esteem and efficacy and encourages them to assume responsibility for their lives.
Effective character education also teaches children to translate such values into thoughtful behavior. The Jefferson Center curricula employ the STAR process. STAR is an acronym that stands for:
• Stop. Consider your goals and imagine what it might be like to attain them.
• Think. What are your alternatives? What are the likely consequences of each alternative?
• Act. Remember, you choose to act based on your values and assessment of likely consequences.
• Review. What was positive about your choice? Did it get you closer to your goals? How did it affect the people around you?
Youngsters who practice this process learn to resist impulse and to discipline thought. This empowers them to translate abstract values into reasonable judgments and deliberate choices that shape their individual and collective destinies.
Let’s look at how 4th grade teachers actually use the Jefferson Center curricula to teach their students to “Be Courageous.” Following the curriculum guide, the teacher uses “courage” as the vocabulary word of the week. He or she puts the word on the board, and several students go to the dictionary to define it for their classmates. The students then discuss what it means and look for examples of courage in stories, newspaper articles, TV shows, and their own lives. Next, the teacher asks the children how they can show courage; the students know the word and its meaning, so now they attach behaviors to it. Their thoughts are written down and posted on the wall for all to see. The students are told to look for courageous behavior in school and the community, and they are encouraged to employ the STAR process if confronted with an ethical decision that demands courage of them. For example, a student might show courage by resisting peer pressure and being nice to a child other kids tease.
An independent assessment of the Jefferson Center-LAUSD pilot suggested not only that the children involved became more responsible and respectful but also that administrators and teachers felt empowered to enhance the learning climate of their schools. California Survey Research reported that all categories of discipline problems decreased at the participating schools, especially tardiness (by 40 percent), minor discipline problems (by 39 percent), and major disciplinary problems such as fighting, drugs, or carrying weapons (by 25 percent). The level of student responsibility increased, as did student participation in extracurricular activities and the number of students on the principal’s honor roll.
Teachers stated that their communication with students improved while principals expressed a strong belief in the benefits of the program. Both anecdotal and hard data indicated that character education helps create a more effective learning environment.
What the data did not show is equally significant. The question of “Whose values?” proved mostly irrelevant. The more salient question for administrators, teachers, and parents was “What values?” The Jefferson Center curricula focus on 12 core consensus values related to responsibility and respect, but the center also invites schools to supplement the list or substitute values, which they occasionally did.
Why the lack of ideological conflict, especially in a multicultural system such as the LAUSD? One reason is that these values show the wellspring of unity amid American diversity; both Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms can agree that honesty is good. Another reason is that educators recognize that these values encourage academic success. The polite student, for example, is more likely to be cooperative with and learn from peers than the disruptive student.
In addition, the best opportunities our society offers go to students who understand and share core consensus values, view themselves as moral agents and ethical decisionmakers, and achieve academic success. These students are prepared to set personal goals, think through the steps necessary for achieving them, and persevere despite adversity. They are primed to participate in collaborative relationships with other students, neighbors, and co-workers. And they are empowered to become active citizens.
Following one of the most heated presidential elections in U.S. history, Thomas Jefferson sought to cool animosities in his 1801 inaugural address, stating that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” We Americans have many differences of opinion that are summarized (and often distorted) by such ideological labels as “liberal” and “conservative.” But these differences of opinion do not necessarily imply differences in principle—differences in our core values. Indeed, one of the premises of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is that an active citizenry, making thoughtful and ethical decisions, can discuss, debate, tolerate, negotiate, compromise, resolve, or litigate most differences of opinion.
The late Allan Bloom, conservative author of The Closing of the American Mind, and liberal Benjamin Barber, author of An Aristocracy of Everyone, not only agreed that words are the proper weapons for settling their dispute over the role of multiculturalism in universities, but they also agreed that children must learn moral literacy in order to participate in such debates. Indeed, they should learn to take responsibility for their values and actions, understand the consequences for themselves and others, and ultimately respect their fellow citizens by engaging them in public discourse rather than nursing private hatreds and practicing social intolerance. Barber refers to this as “an education in liberty”; Bloom described it as cultivating “the tastes, knowledge, and character supportive of a democratic regime.”
Ultimately, character education empowers young people to become morally literate citizens who participate in the public discussions and political forums where we address our ideological differences. Those who never overcome their sense of victimization believe that “You can’t fight city hall.” But those educated to see themselves as free moral agents in a democratic society not only participate in debates with city hall but also sometimes take it over. That was the essence of Martin Luther King Jr.'s message when he remarked: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Something of Value