The Character of Education and the Education of Character

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This month and next, Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, will publish two issues devoted to secondary schools. The distinguished scholarly quarterly has addressed a wide range of topics during its more than a century of publication, but this is the first time. it has focused on the American high school. Articles in the first issue, entitled America's Schools: Public and Private," examine the history, the future, the quality, and the content of education in the nation. Following is an excerpt from "The Character of Education and the Education of Character" by Gerald Grant, a professor in the department of sociology and cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University. (Reprinted by permission of Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 110, Number 3, Summer 1981, Cambridge, Mass.)

Nearly two years of participant observation in an urban high school that is 47 percent black an has diverse ethnic and social class composition has convinced me that the increasingly legalistic character of public education is a shift of profound dimensions. In this school, as in many, order in the halls and to some extent in classrooms is supervised by hall guards or quasi-police or actual police officials

The presence of raw power indicates that authority has been lost. All behavior is regarded as tolerable unless it is specifically declared illegal. There are narrow definitions of jurisdiction. A student who complains to the school principal of being attacked is asked on which side of the street the beating took place. If it happened across the street, it would be out of the school jurisdiction and hence of no concern to the principal. A female teacher who was still shaking as she told use about a group of students who had verbally assaulted her and made sexually degrading comments about her in the hall. When we asked why she did not report them, she responded, "Well, it wouldn't have done any good." "Why not?" we pressed. "I didn't have any witnesses," she replied.

Adult authority is increasingly defined by what will stand up in court. There are fewer and fewer adults who have the confidence to act on Justice Frankfurter's dictum that "much that is legally permitted is repugnant to the civilized mind." If you have that confidence, and if you have created a good community, lawyers can sometimes be useful in settling a conflict, but they cannot make a community for you.

What is also new in the present conflict is that the children themselves have been urged to become advocates and litigants. The increasing number of voices raised on behalf of children's rights has had the effect of giving children nearly equal status with adults. An important tum in the line of legal decisions can be traced to Justice Douglas's dissent in Yoder, in which an Amish community refused to send their children to a public high school because they felt it would be destructive to the values they held dear. The Amish freedom to run separate children's schools was upheld, but Douglas dissented because the children's own preferences were not taken into account. "Where the child is mature enough to express potentially conflicting desires, it would be an invasion of the child's rights to permit such an imposition without canvassing his views," said Justice Douglas (1). Another decision, Gault, outlawed discretionary treatment of the young in juvenile courts and stipulated that juveniles must be tried by the same rules of evidence as adults. By essentially declaring that faith in the paternalism of Juvenile Court judges was unjustified (2), the decision undid the philosophy of the Juvenile Court system established in the late nineteenth century. It was not long before the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, following the reasoning laid down in Gault, convinced school boards that parents could not trust the paternalism of school principals either....

The spread of children's rights literature through the secondary schools has been one of the great untold curriculum success stories of the last decade. In a recent bibliography on students' rights and responsibilities, seven new titles were listed, only one of which mentioned responsibilities (3). A variety of initiatives on behalf of children's rights have dramatically changed the psychological reality in which adults interact with children today. In fact, to put it in those terms is somewhat old-fashioned; the literature almost always refers to "students," "young people," or "persons"--seldom "children." Of course, European visitors noted more than a century ago that American parents fostered their children's independence and that our emphasis on freedom and individualism encouraged them to go their own way at a young age. But if American culture has always, to some degree, encouraged the young to test the idea "Ain't nobody the boss of me," some contemporary adolescents have gone a step further: "Don't touch me or I'll have you arrested." One can hear this new voice in first-person accounts such as from this 13-year-old boy:

In fifth grade there was this racist mean teacher who refused to let us use the class for black education classes. So we rebelled. We wore stickers to assemblies saying "---- Fisher," who was our assistant principal. We sat down in assemblies. We threw chairs out the windows (4).

The theme of the oppression of youth runs through the literature, as in this excerpt from the Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor:

We all ended up in another system of absolute authority, with the young people at the bottom. We could only be as free as our parents allowed us to be. They punished us for refusing to obey. And, just like school, the police would come after us if we tried to get away. Our lives are considered the property of various adults. We do not recognize their right to control us. We call this control adult chauvinism, and we will fight it. We quickly learn that these schools and families are part of a whole system that is sick (5).

This estrangement is also occurring in a society in which many adults--in school and out--are no longer sure that they know what is right, or if they do, that they have any right to impose it.

An excerpt from our field notes illustrates this. Asked what she does by one of our field workers, a full-time high-school drug counselor replied:

Well, let me explain to you that I don't report to the school administration at all. I am directly linked up with a different agency outside the school itself. If anybody in school is considered to be either high or a habitual drug abuser, then they are referred to me, and I try to set up a counseling session with them, but the school itself does not handle drug cases.

When asked if she directly approached students in the school that she knew to be drug users, she replied:

Let's face it. It's not a problem if there is no effect on the kid's performance. I mean, who are we to say what's right or wrong? A kid could always turn around and say to you, "How many of the faculty have a drinking problem ...?' and yet their job goes on, they continue to teach--they can point that out to you. So who are we to say what's right or wrong?

Here is the collapse of adult authority as representing a standard for children. Not only did she express no moral authority, she actively concurs in the notion that adults in general deserve none because some adults have a drinking problem. ... She feels no loyalty, no obligation to a community standard. Her "explanation" is really a declaration of independence.

Pressed about her personal attitude toward drugs, the counselor took no stand, saying that if she said she approved of drug use, the administration would fire her. On the other hand, she did not think she would be believable to the kids if she said she did not use drugs. Hence, the model that she presents to students is that of a neutral facilitator of the conversation; it is up to the kids to decide. She also exhibits a technicist's mentality when she says, "Let's face it. It's not a problem if there is no effect on the kid's performance." It is only the technical performance, the score, the end product that matters; her view implicitly if not explicitly, rules out questions of character, of responsible and desirable conduct.

If [a student] left such a school for Andover, he would leave a school that implicitly teaches students to think, "How can I manipulate this rule system to maximize my self-interest?" to enter a community that would teach him to ask, "What is expected of me, and what do I owe to others?" The Andover catalogue states:

In a community such as Andover, all must commit themselves to the goals of the community and to loyalty to each other. Since education at Phillips Academy is both intellectual and humane, the students and faculty drive themselves and their ideals.... Yet the happiness of everyone in the community depends on consideration and awareness, restraint and condor, discretion and shared joy. Collaboration toward these imprecise but worthwhile ends is an expectation which all in the academy hold (6).

It would be hopelessly romantic to assume that all private schools are like Phillips Academy. The fastest growing sector of private education consists of fundamentalist and all-white academies, some of which have less noble ideals (7). Nor do schools like Phillips Academy serve only the ends listed in their catalogues. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that private education owes its character solely to wealth and snob appeal. We included a school like Andover in our study, but we also spent a year in an inner-city Catholic school which had an enrollment that was two thirds black (most of whom were Protestant) and served many welfare families at a per pupil expenditure that was less than half that spent by the public schools in that same city.

What struck us most powerfully even in our small sample (we visited 33 schools and spent a year of intensive field work in five) was that the differences between the privates and the publics were in some ways as great or greater than the social class differences between the schools.

The private schools have two kinds of freedoms that are not present in the same way in the public schools. The first of these might be called "freedom from." The private school is not encumbered by that thick external layer of constraints and policies that has contributed to the technicist and adversarial culture in many public schools. In fact, it was by virtue of carrying out our work simultaneously in public and private settings that we came to understand how those constraints operate in the public school.

The second freedom might be called voluntarism, or "freedom for." That is, private-school parents are not just fleeing public schools or engaged in white flight, although some are. Most seek the ethos or tradition that the particular school represents. That tradition is usually a way of talking about character, and represents some agreement about which virtues are most worth having. A primary function of private schools is to make visible an otherwise invisible collectivity, to draw together a public that shares similar preferences. The private school is both a symbolic and an actual representation of valued moral and intellectual goods. The fundamental role of leadership in a private school is to bring persons into communication about ways of inculcating and sustaining those values. The leaders of such schools are chosen because they exemplify those values; they are "the best of us," persons capable of symbolizing the tradition and of drawing others into it. Leaders are supposed to have the wisdom to choose teachers who represent the tradition. They must be able to evoke shared commitments and to lead others in fuller realization of the valued goods of the community. The quality and character of the teachers are believed to make a great difference. The community stretches through time and measures individuals against perduring standards. Traditions are a way of pointing to those standards and sensing their weight. The parents choose to enroll their children in that community, but children do not so much choose the tradition as they are enveloped by it.

Although any discussion of ideal types of the public and private in an essay of this length must inevitably oversimplify, the problem of leadership in the public setting is quite different. The leader is not selected as an insubstantiation of particular virtues but for competence in interpersonal skills, fairness in enforcing rules, and strength to withstand conflict. Skilled negotiators and coordinators are sought for leadership positions, and they choose others on the basis of their competence in performing a specialist's role. Whereas the head of a private school is largely a symbolic communicator with the external public (in fact, must continually recreate and sustain that public), the public school principal must be a skilled advocate within bureaucracy. The principal in a public setting can be a mere satisfier, presiding over the rule system, the guardian of process with no vision of desired outcomes. Personal charisma earns some an extra measure of authority that enables them to create a semblance of community within a bureaucratic system. But the relentless temptation in an environment of competing and often aggrieved interest groups is to abandon any effort to achieve transcendent ideals by which all could be bound and to fall back into the role of a passive agent of process.

Of course, my account of urban public schools has emphasized some of the unintended negative consequences of policies that, from another perspective, can be seen as achievements; to some degree, our problems are a function of our successes. We have laid a tremendous burden on the American schools: namely, to be the principal avenue of creating a more equal and just society. We have attempted to right some great wrongs and have carried out a social revolution in the schools. We have abolished geographical notions of community; we have brought black and white and Chicano, and children in wheelchairs, into the classrooms. We have had to hire more specialists to minister to them and more lawyers to argue on their behalf. As Richard Sennett would put it, we have introduced "purposive disorder" into the schools. Sennett argues that chaos may not be an inevitable outcome of giving people a chance to "democratically deform" preexisting controls and structure of authority (8). We can hope that the new policy we are now constructing will lead to a new and more just order.

But close observation of the world created by our good intentions troubles me. It is possible that what my colleagues and I have seen in a few schools is unrepresentative of most. I have drawn a grim portrait, not to declare our experiments a hopeless failure, but to provide a vision of the task that confronts us. I have suggested the direction in which the modern American public high school is tending. It threatens to become a container for adolescents who receive the ministrations of a greatly enlarged core of specialists in a setting in which presumed equals argue about their rights, and individuals pursue their moral preferences in whatever direction they please, so long as they do not break the law. The only test the larger society applies to such a collectivity is the test of efficiency: Is the school effective in producing increases in cognitive functioning as measured by standardized tests? We have too frequently reduced talk about good schools to talk about effectiveness. We no longer seem to recall Aristotle's language of intellectual and moral virtues (9); we speak only of a reductionist version of intellectual virtue, as reflected in standardized test scores.

My indictment must strike some ears as a reactionary lament. Was not the nation founded on the enlightenment values of equality, liberty, and the individual pursuit of happiness? Have I not simply described the broad shift from particularistic and often inequitable forms of traditional authority to typically modern and more universalistic forms of legal-rational authority? How could we expect so central an institution as schooling to be exempt from such a general historical development?

That question directs our attention to the way in which American schools have combined aspects of traditional and legal-rational forms of authority. They have been traditional, or community-based, in that they were, for most of our history, locally financed and neighborhood-based. As schools have become more centralized and urban, and as both financing and school policy have shifted to state and federal levels, legal-rational, or bureaucratic, forms of authority have been superimposed on traditional forms of local governance.

Yet I feel uneasy about the exercise of legal-rational authority in its pure form in schools, because it presumes we are dealing with adults who are pursuing their preferences in a system of legal rules. It presumes also that the individual already has been educated and has some notion of what it means to be a decent human being, of how one should act toward another beyond what is prescribed or proscribed by law.

In the process of receiving an education we are not merely absorbing facts and learning skills, but we are as well being inducted into some set of standards, beliefs, and values about what it means to be a human being. Schools, even in democratic and pluralist societies, have had the responsibility for teaching what R.S. Peters calls a provisional morality (10). By provisional, Peters means that teachers initiate children into such beliefs in a non-behavioristic way, not stamping or "fixing" a particular moral content for life, but teaching in such a way that the children recognize that as adults they will have responsibility and freedom to reevaluate those beliefs. The crisis of authority in the American school is that in many places we no longer have any agreement on what that provisional morality ought to be, or we feel that any attempt to provide it is a form of indoctrination. Hence, we have moved closer to the pure model of legal-rational authority, prematurely declaring--even insisting--that children are adults capable of choosing their own morality as long as they do not commit crimes.

In some communities, particularly in rural areas, enough agreement about what that provisional morality is still exists, so that teachers and public school staff can operate on a basis of informal trust within a legal-rational system. Where that trust does not exist, I think we are headed for ever greater stress, instability, and perhaps the eventual abandonment of the public schools.

A system of bureaucratic, or legal-rational, authority operates on principles of selection by expertise, is subsumed under rules that maximize efficiency, and is administered with formalistic impersonality. It can work in a factory, where workers sell their labor by contract to make a product by the most efficient means under agreed-upon rules, and where neither emotional commitment nor any agreement on the goodness or worthwhileness of what is produced is required. But education by its very nature must occur in a community, must draw on emotional commitments, engender sympathy for others, and produce something in us that we feel has great value. Once children are brought together to share a common life, we have an inescapable responsibility to develop their moral as well as intellectual virtues. We are paying great costs because we increasingly operate our public schools as though they were factories for learning in which the only value is increased cognitive output. Three responses to this situation are likely:

  • To withdraw children from public schools and place them in private schools, which are communities chosen by those who share a provisional morality.
  • To seek some new basis of establishing a provisional morality within the public schools, which raises the question of how we regenerate a dialogue about moral education in an increasingly technicist society.
  • To push the legal-rational model to its individualistic limits, which would require that we dismantle the public school system as we know it. Instead of education in a school community, we would establish a contract-learning system in which children or their parents would be free to sign up at any computer terminal that was available, so to speak. Learning would operate solely by individual contract, much as it does now for adults who may take a course in macrame or accounting in their spare time. Private firms would be licensed by the government as reading and mathematics instruction centers for young children. When they can read, they choose courses themselves. State educational agencies would be restricted largely to testing and credentialing functions.

The first option is currently enjoying a considerable vogue. Vouchers or tax credits may enable more parents to send their children to schools that represent a community of value. In some cases, they may be motivated by racist or elitist values, just as such motives often influenced parents to move to exclusive suburbs to enroll their children in public schools there. That risk would be worth taking if voucher plans widened choices for parents of the neediest children. Vouchers are no panacea, however, and advocates are likely to overestimate the number of new schools that would be formed. Good schools are good communities, and these are not instantaneous creations that can be thrown up like a chain of "7-11" stores. The private schools themselves are divided on the question, with opponents of voucher plans arguing that tax support would inevitably bring unwelcome governmental controls.

We cannot avoid the responsibility for facing up to the second option, which requires a fundamental rethinking of the nature and purpose of public education. We cannot return to a golden age that never was, nor can we put McGuffey's Readers back on the shelves. But we need to reinvent a modern equivalent for the McGuffey's Reader, a provisional morality that expresses some of the common beliefs of a democratic pluralist society,--which means that, although we respect differences of opinions on many issues, there are some salient or core beliefs to which all subscribe. Pluralism is in fact not possible without agreement on some kinds of values: the minimal order required for dialogue, the willingness to listen to one another, respect for truth, the rejection of racism (or openness to participation in the dialogue), as well as those transcendent values that shore up the whole society--a sense of altruism and service to others and respect for personal effort and hard work. Without such agreement, one does not have a public but a kind of radical relativism, not pluralism but mere coexistence.

Those who favor the third option, or what I have called a contract-learning system in the legal-rational mode, believe that such coexistence is all we can legitimately hope for. Enthusiastic advocates of such a system abound. Apart from the prescription of law, they believe all moralities are private. They see no need for a common school nor for any public forum for the discussion of virtue. But in such a world, even assuming a perfect system of law, where do we develop a sense of discretion about when or whether to sue? For no legal system can stand if all are litigants much of the time. Where do we develop a sense of sympathy? For even when we are right, we should not always press for damages. Where do we develop a sense of integrity? For we can be within the technical limits of the law but without a shred of virtue. Where do we develop a sense of community that sustains us midst the mess and slippage, the horrible contingencies of this life, against which the law offers little refuge?

  1. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, p. 242.
  2. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 13.
  3. See the bibliography compiled by Susan Davison, "Curriculum Materials and Resources for Law-Related Education," in Social Education, March 1977, reprinted in the National School Resource Network's "Core Curriculum in Preventing and Reducing School Violence and Vandalism, Course 3, School Climate (Washington, D.C.: Center for Human Service, January 1980.)
  4. Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor, "We Do Not Recognize Their Right to Control Us," in The Children's Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People, Beatrice Gross and Ronald Gross (eds.) (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977), p. 126. In the introduction to the volume, the authors write: "A good case can be made for the fact that young people are the most oppressed of all minorities..." p. 1.
  5. Ibid., p. 128.
  6. An eloquent statement of goals adopted by the faculty of Phillips Academy is reprinted in the 1970-1980 Catalog.
  7. An essay of this length cannot do justice to the variety of private schools in America, which include Jewish, Lutheran, and Catholic parochial schools, as well as the expanding fundamentalist schools, which vary greatly among themselves. Only a few of these are consciously racist, and many manage to combine a rigorous education with fundamentalist religious beliefs.
  8. Richard Sennett, Authority (New York: Knopf, 1980), p. 190.
  9. For one of Aristotle's richest passages, ... see his Politics, Book VIII, chapter 2, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon (ed.) (New York: Random House, 1941), pp. 1305-6.
  10. Richard S. Peters, Authority, Responsibility and Education (London: Allen and Unwin, 1973), pp. 140-56.

Vol. 01, Issue 02, Page 19-20

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