Virtue Should Be Seen, Not Just Heard

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Should values be taught in public schools, and if yes, whose? These are questions being raised frequently as several thousand school board members nationwide prepare for the November elections. The questions are likely to be revisited this year with particular fervor as most Americans are deeply troubled about the moral state of the union and the character of the young. How and above all who is to impart moral education is a subject that has raised vehement controversies in past elections and in between. The left is fearful that the promotion of virtues in public schools will lead to religious indoctrination. The religious right suspects that values education in public schools will promote secular humanism and spread "relativism," the notion that there are no ultimate values, but only those favored by one group or another of the diverse polyglot that America is said to have become.

At first, leaders of the Christian right merely argued that public schools ought not to be in the business of teaching values in the first place, that these should be taught at home and in places of worship. Both the level of concern and the ways it is expressed are captured in a far from atypical statement by Robert Simonds, the founder and president of a major Christian-right education association, Citizens for Excellence in Education. Mr. Simonds says, "Satan uses the evil in the occult, new-age witchcraft lessons in our classrooms to divert our children's faith away from the true and living God. ... " Given such information, how could parents not be alarmed?

More recently, the Christian right decided to take control of public schools wherever possible, to ensure that its notions of moral education--"reclaiming the public schools in the name of Christ," as the CEE puts it--are heeded. In 1994, Citizens for Excellence in Education reported that it had helped elect 5,000 school board members and controlled 2,200 boards. What happened in some of these schools tells volumes about how not to join this issue and what might be done.

In Vista, Calif., after the Christian right won a majority of the school board seats in 1992, it rushed through a resolution to open board meetings with a prayer. Next, the board called for "discussions of divine creation" in history and literature classes, required that evidence challenging scientific theories be presented when teaching evolution, and sought to remove select books from the school's library. And the board opposed a spelling game called Wizards because it might infuse children with witchcraft. Similar measures were advocated in a number of other localities.

What do all these measures have in common? First of all, by focusing on highly contested issues, the Christian right achieved the opposite of what it sought: It actively mobilized large numbers of parents and other community members, including many conservative ones, against its agenda. In Vista, for example, board meetings erupted into acrimonious shouting contests as the board members debated one volatile issue after another.

Second, these measures are largely symbolic. If the devil is really lurking in our public schools (on vacation from Bosnia and Rwanda), he is unlikely to be sidetracked by the removal of a spelling game. Removing Catcher in the Rye by the removal of a spelling game. Removing The Catcher in the Rye and even Lady Chatterley's Lover from the school library will "only" leave our children exposed to much more sexually explicit messages from magazines, movies, television, clothing stores, and the rest of our culture, including of course the Song of Songs, among other Biblical narratives.

The religious right is lacking a broad-based and inclusive strategy for turning public schools into citadels of character education. A positive and encompassing educational campaign is needed, rather than largely sporadic assaults on this or that limited front.

Responding both to wide public demand (and trying to satisfy or preempt the religious right), various educators and state legislatures have drafted their own programs. They tend to focus on making lists of virtues that raise little opposition and installing them in the curriculum. Character Counts Inc., a not-for-profit group headed by Michael Josephson, promotes a list of six virtues: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Georgia's state board of education adopted a list of core values to be taught in public schools under the categories "citizenship," "respect for others," and "respect for self," including equality, loyalty, civility, honesty, perseverance, and cooperation. Alabama pass-ed a law suggesting that schools dedicate 10 minutes a day to the imparting of values.

When pushed to extremes, such lists become ludicrous. If one could teach a virtue a week in 10 minutes, all educators should be shot for gross negligence of their duties. Nor are these lists as noncontroversial as they at first seem. Challenges are raised both about what they exclude (for instance, teaching of social justice or religious values--even the value of religion) and the very fact that public schools "usurp" the role of parents and communities.

A somewhat more extensive program is one employed by the Allen Classical/Traditional Academy in Dayton, Ohio. It has a list of 36 character traits, one taught each week. Each Monday the principal reads the character trait whose turn has come over the loudspeaker, defines it, and illustrates its use. Teachers spend five minutes talking with their students about the virtue and are expected to include it in their subject classes. The teachers also lunch with the students to model appropriate behavior.

The Allen Elementary School claims fantastic results, such as increasing the percentage of homework turned in from 10 percent to 86 percent, and reducing suspensions from 150 students to 10, aside from a giant jump in achievement-test scores. The rest of the country should expect to work a bit harder, most likely quite a bit harder, before it can turn its schools into seedbeds of virtue.

By focusing on classroom material, on the curriculum, these programs focus on teaching values while what is most required is education in the deepest sense of the term. It is not enough to know what virtues are; they must be incorporated into the routines of our daily behavior, to become an integral part of our self, our character. Curricular changes have a role to play here; the proper narratives (such as Anne Frank's diary and those included in books such as William J. Bennett's The Moral Compass) get you there part of the way. Much more powerful are changes in the ways the schools themselves are structured and managed.

If we stop thinking about schools as a set of adjacent lecture halls, in which youngsters are spoken at, and examine them as places that generate sets of experiences, we will be ready to marshal these experiences to generate the kinds of character development young people require to become decent, civil, and effective members of society. Start with discipline. If the school's corridors, playgrounds, parking lots, cafeterias, and classrooms are disorderly if not violent, children find the rules of the street reinforced right in the school. If the educational areas are orderly, children gain a gut feeling of and practice in the values of respecting rules and authorities, being civil to one another, and sharing scarce resources, among other virtues.

The ways infractions, even minor ones, are treated is important. If teachers look the other way (to avoid mountains of paperwork, hearings, if not lawsuits), then children learn that they can indulge their aggressive, sexual, and other impulses. If fair punishment is consistently meted out, followed by sessions of role-playing, and if infractions are discussed in assemblies that try to reach into the all-important peer culture, children experience the workings of a community whose values and social order are intact.

If grades are handed out to bolster self-esteem, to make up for past discrimination, or to keep almost everybody content, a disconnect between effort and reward is communicated--in ways no class on ethics could overcome. If grades are achieved after hard work, fair competition, or the cooperative work of small groups, without regard to one's social status, children are educated to seek a society that will function in the same manner.

In short, everything that happens in school--from the ways sports are conducted to the ways the teachers themselves behave to the manner in which parents are treated--deeply affects children. Note that the focus is on behavior and not on what one prays to or hails. Such a focus, aside from being a more effective educational tool than merely lecturing, also has the merit of demonstrating that people with rather different values can agree about behavior education. For instance, that children should not be allowed to be disrespectful to their teachers.

Come the next election, parents and other concerned citizens would be wise to cast their votes for school board candidates and other political leaders who are less concerned with scoring points, and more with developing a broad character-education agenda. This in turn requires the reshaping of schools, so that they will deeply affect behavior in prosocial ways, by changing the very way schools are conducted and not only what they teach or preach.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community (Simon & Schuster, 1994), the director of George Washington University's Center for Communitarian Policy Studies in Washington, the editor of The Responsive Community Quarterly, and the director of The Communitarian Network, which will be holding a Conference on Character Building hosted by the White House and Congress, June 6-8 in Washington.

Vol. 15, Issue 36, Pages 31, 40

Published in Print: May 29, 1996, as Virtue Should Be Seen, Not Just Heard
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