Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

America’s Crisis of Character—And What to Do About It

By Sanford N. Mcdonnell — October 03, 2008 4 min read

Day after day, we are bombarded with stories of greedy corporate leaders, corrupt politicians, and sports stars using drugs. Indeed, every sector of our society is confronted by a crisis of character, most tragically among young people, all too many of whom are plagued with problems of a poor work ethic, drug abuse, sexual activity, violence, lying, cheating, stealing, and bullying.

With all these character-related problems, why aren’t the presidential candidates speaking out on the subject? And why hasn’t it been put on the agenda for their debates? Why aren’t the American people demanding that schools do more to help our young acquire good character—to become people who do their best work and do the right thing in all areas of their lives?

Having spent 40 years in the corporate world, I know that business leaders don’t want young people coming into their companies who are brilliant but dishonest. And yet the vast majority of corporate leaders ignore character problems such as the rising levels of cheating in our high schools and colleges. Instead, they focus on narrow measures of school success such as higher test scores.

Far too many parents also ignore the need for character education in our schools. They, too, concentrate on test scores and grades in the misguided belief that getting their kids into the right college is all that really matters.

No matter how many red flags are raised in the media about the crisis of character in our society, and despite the fact that we all agree that the role of education should be to produce citizens who are both smart and good, we continue by and large to focus on test scores rather than authentic measures of intellectual and moral excellence.

As a school principal, the survivor of a concentration camp once wrote to his teachers at the start of a new school year, “My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians, infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters and skilled psychopaths. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.”

Fortunately, a high-quality character education program in schools produces young people who are both humane and smart. Just ask Robert Gehringer, the principal of Boys Town High School, which Father Flanagan started 90 years ago in Boys Town, Neb. This school transforms severely at-risk, abused, abandoned, and neglected boys and girls into productive citizens.

A high-quality character education program in schools produces young people who are both humane and smart.

The first step with these students is training in basic social and performance skills, such as following instructions, greeting others, accepting criticism as well as compliments, asking for help, and listening. They slowly but surely begin to accept the fact that everyone at the school, both young and old, sincerely wants to help them become a better, happier, more successful person. They are taught to monitor their feelings, control impulses, empathize with others, set goals, and delay gratification in order to pursue their goals. They learn what it means to be hardworking, trustworthy, respectful, responsible, and caring, and that they are expected to practice those virtues until they become habits, and part of their character. In this environment, they find meaning in their studies, and their academic performance improves dramatically.

Boys Town High School was one of 10 schools and districts recognized in a nationwide competition as a 2007 National School of Character. The other nine winners, chosen by the Character Education Partnership, included both public and private schools from urban, suburban, and rural communities. All 10 winners had different character education programs, but they all employed practices that met the quality standards of the partnership’s “Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education.”

In the early history of our public education, developing good character—qualities such as diligence, perseverance, honesty, and kindness—was considered essential for doing well in school and doing good in life. But in the last part of the 20th century, most public schools drifted away from that traditional emphasis on character.

Fortunately, in the past two decades, the character education movement has revived and is beginning to pick up speed. Thirty-one states now mandate or encourage character education by statute. And all across the country schools are implementing character education programs, but not nearly at the pace, numbers, and quality needed to overcome our national crisis of character.

With character-related fires blazing all around us, Americans need to recognize that we should be emphasizing good character in our young just as emphatically as we have been focusing on higher math and science test scores. Samuel and John Phillips, the founders of Phillips Academy in 1778, said it well: “Goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and both united form the noblest character.”

We need to hear how the future president of the United States is going to help our schools produce young people who have the strengths of character—the determination of a Winston Churchill, for example, and the compassion of a Mother Teresa—to overcome the unprecedented challenges we face at home and abroad.

As President Theodore Roosevelt reminded us, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as America’s Crisis of Character—And What to Do About It

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