Character Building Key School Goal, Paper Says

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Building character is such a vital function of public education that it should permeate virtually every hour of every student's day, argues a new reform platform advanced by an alliance of educators and policymakers.

Lessons in honesty, responsibility, and other basic values should pervade even after-school activities such as sports, detention, and homework, according to the blueprint prepared by the nonpartisan Communitarian Network.

The network was launched three years ago by a diverse group of scholars who believe society has emphasized individual rights at the expense of the greater community. Its leaders held a White House conference in July that drew more than 250 participants from around the country to discuss how schools teach--or fail to teach--basic values.

"The way sports are conducted, grades are allotted, teachers behave, and corridors and parking lots are monitored all send moral messages and significantly affect character development," states the 14-page platform.

12-Point Plan

Written by Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University professor and a founder of the network, the platform served as a catalyst for discussion at the conference. It sets forth 12 suggestions for improvement in character education.

Among its provisions:

  • Schools should foster deliberate "character-building experiences" for students through vehicles such as role-playing, model legislative assemblies, moot courts, peer mentoring, and conflict mediation.
  • To broaden their role as community institutions, schools should remain open longer and house services such as job counseling and health clinics.
  • Schools should hold each year a staff retreat to examine what moral messages are sent by the curriculum and other "school-generated experiences," and whether these messages are consistent.
  • Military programs like Junior R.O.T.C. and military-career academies deserve more consideration and support because they "often help develop the character of the younger generation."
  • Schools should promote organized athletics and the principles of fair play and sportsmanship, both during and after school.

Growing Concern

Initially, organizers expected that only 160 people would attend the invitation-only conference at the National Press Club and the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

But demand was so great that some applicants were turned away, and large organizations were asked to send smaller delegations.

Many participants said they were not surprised that interest was high, given the national focus on the problems of violence and crime. Among those present were a number of experts on children's moral and psychological development, including the Yale University psychiatrist James P. Comer and Thomas Lickona, a State University of New York at Cortland professor and the author of Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.

"I think there's a rising tide of concern in our society focusing on the question of whether we are doing a good enough job of helping to form the character of coming generations," William A. Galston, President Clinton's deputy assistant for domestic policy, said in a telephone interview following his speech at the conference.

Mr. Galston, a former University of Maryland professor, is considered a co-founder of the broader Communitarian movement.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin also spoke at the one-day conference.

Later, a group of participants met at the White House to discuss the issue in more detail with Mr. Galston; Secretary Riley; Thomas A. Payzant, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education; Sheldon Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and representatives of the Corporation on National and Community Service.

Defining Character

Mr. Galston said the gathering helped focus current thinking on character education.

Mr. Etzioni, the network's chairman, said he was pleased by the number and diversity of participants, who ranged from "evangelicals to labor unions, and C.E.O.'s to philosophers."

Mr. Etzioni and others said that despite disagreement on some issues, consensus was reached on many points.

One of the network's primary objectives, he said, is to shift the debate from "whose values are you going to teach?" to a recognition that everyone needs to learn certain personality traits, such as self-discipline and empathy.

Mabel McKinney Browning, the director of public education at the American Bar Association, said participants struggled "to understand where it was that this character-education movement fit in the whole notion of democracy."

She said it was unclear where the movement would lead. "But I think it was a very valuable discussion."

Another participant, Sheldon Berman, the past president of Educators for Social Responsibility, agreed.

"My hope is," he said, "that we would have similar kinds of gatherings [in the future], so that we could effectively create a network that will support research and project development in this area."

Vol. 14, Issue 01, Page 6

Published in Print: September 7, 1994, as Character Building Key School Goal, Paper Says
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