Student Well-Being Opinion

Character Education: Our High Schools’ Missing Link

By Kevin Ryan — January 29, 2003 8 min read
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Character education is not some touchy-feely effort to have the schools take on yet another task once carried out by families, churches, or other social institutions.

After two decades of poking and prodding high school students toward higher academic achievement, education reformers, administrators, and teachers are becoming discouraged. In particular, administrators and teachers have little energy for or interest in taking on “yet another reform.” It seems that the transition to standards and their accompanying high-stakes tests has sucked all the air out of other issues of secondary school reform. The movement to restore character education, making significant inroads in elementary and middle schools, appears to have little traction in high schools. Why try to add character education to their already-loaded reform agenda?

A strong case can be made that the poor academic performance of American high school students is directly linked to their failure of character: that is, to their lack of strong personal habits, such as taking responsibility for completing their academic chores, and having persistence in tackling the hard business of learning. Character education is not some touchy-feely effort to have the schools take on yet another task once carried out by families, churches, or other social institutions. Neither is it simply about facing down a cafeteria bully or doing a service project one afternoon a week during a senior semester. It has very much to do with how students do school, and with their academic achievement.

Historically, the education of character and the education of the mind were closely linked. Socrates defined education as what we do to help the young become both smart and good. Together, the ideas and rigors of school were seen as the tools of forming good character. In Colonial America, common schools were brought into existence for an ostensibly moral purpose. Our Founding Fathers were profoundly aware that the health of the new democracy would rest on the virtues of its people. Worried that their fledgling experiment would fail, they called for the spread of education—an education that would instruct the young in the moral sensibilities and good habits needed to sustain not only their own lives, but also a healthy democracy. Merely teaching the balance of power among the three branches of government and other civic mechanisms wouldn’t cut it then and doesn’t cut it now.

Recent studies of high school students provide damning indicators of their failure to form good character. In a Rutgers University survey last year, for example, 74 percent of the high school students questioned admitted to cheating on a test. Another 2002 study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that nearly four out of 10 adolescents acknowledged stealing during the previous year, and 93 percent confessed that they had lied to their parents. In 2001, the American Association of University Women released the results of a large- scale survey of public school students in grades 8-11. “Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment” reported that sexual harassment happens often, and frequently right under the noses of teachers. Four out of five respondents (81 percent) claimed they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in school, including unwanted kissing, sexual taunts, being touched or grabbed in a sexual way, and being forced to perform sexual acts.

Meanwhile, studies and reports of high school vandalism, violence, and promiscuity continue to catalogue disturbing behavioral trends. Against this tableau of personal disorder, it is surprising that our high schools’ academic-achievement scores have not fallen even further.

We have been abandoning what has always been the responsibility of schools: to help students gain a moral compass.

We have been abandoning what has always been the responsibility of schools: to help students gain a moral compass and form the good habits they will need for a successful life. Of course, we can continue to grind away with higher academic standards and more punishing consequences for those who fail to measure up, in the hope that this tightening of the screws will be enough. Or, in a more classically sound response, we can have greater academic achievements from our high school students and meet our responsibilities as educators of character.

We have evidence to persuade us that the latter course is possible. In the 1980s, pundits were sounding a death knell for American business: Our management was hidebound and uncreative. Our workers were lazy and poorly skilled. Japan Inc. and our European competitors were about to swallow us up. Very quickly and very effectively, we retrained, re-engineered, and restructured, and again became the world’s model of industrial effectiveness.

And 16 months ago, after absorbing the devastating blow of 9/11, a distracted and fractious nation came together and soberly resolved to rid the globe of international terrorism. We need a similar resolve to stem the downward drift of our secondary schools and re-engage young Americans in the nation’s core moral values.

What can we do? First, let us recognize the obvious link between good character and academic achievement. While some children are intellectually gifted, most have to pay attention, study the material, and do their homework carefully if they are to achieve in high school. These behaviors don’t come naturally. They have to be learned and practiced and gradually integrated into a person’s character. By contrast, the more easily learned habits of goofing off in class, shirking homework, and endlessly watching television come effortlessly and are huge barriers to academic success.

So, attack the cause: poor habits of self-discipline, of personal responsibility, and of persistence. Don’t wait around for years until some massively expensive research study reports the obvious: Students with the good habits that constitute good character do well in school. Make the acquisition of these habits a school priority of the first order.

Teachers, too, must be brought to the realization that character formation is an essential aspect of their calling.

Second, we need to re-establish the moral authority of high school teachers. Over the last 30 years, high school teachers have been gradually reduced to information-dispensers and test-givers. Their role in the ethical and moral domain has been cheapened to that of mere facilitators of discussions. “Values clarification,” in which this idea has its roots, has long been discredited. Nevertheless, its effects linger on because it is very much alive and well in our teacher education institutions and textbooks. The child psychiatrist Robert Coles refers to this moral neutering of teachers as “the wallpaper effect.” Teachers are disengaged from all but the academic worlds of their students and certainly from their character formation and moral lives.

“A teacher’s moral authority” may have a quaint, somewhat unrealistic ring to the ears of many these days. Regaining this role for teachers will take serious effort and commitment. The current generation of students—and, yes, of teachers—has been brought up on a heavy fare of movies and television shows in which high schools are seen as adolescent playpens and the adults who inhabit them are portrayed as banal and inept misfits masquerading as teachers. To reclaim this indispensable status, teachers will need a clear and ringing mandate from school administrators—and the behavior codes to back it up. Parents and community members will have to be persuaded that their aspirations for their children cannot be fulfilled without teachers who have moral authority and are expected to be character educators.

Teachers, too, must be brought to the realization that character formation is an essential aspect of their calling, and that the road to academic achievement is paved first with their attaining respect, civility, and cooperation from their students. While this is much easier said than done, it has been done in the past and can be done again.

Third, we need to create a school culture of character. Culture has been described as “the way we do things ‘round here.” School cultures, like all cultures, are made. They are the embodiment of the rules, procedures, mores, and expectations of a community’s people. And “the way we do things ‘round here” is a powerful teacher. Too many of our high schools have weak, porous cultures that are easily overcome by the toxic culture of our mass media, a permissive culture of self-indulgence, promiscuity, rudeness, and escapism.

School cultures can change. And with concerted effort, they can change rapidly. Some of the elements of forging a culture of character include the following:

• A clear and well-articulated mission statement that makes the crafting of one’s character a major school priority, in everything from the sports program to the disciplinary code.

• A strong mandate to teachers, with the expectation that they will teach and aid students in acquiring the nation’s core moral and civic values.

• The institution of a schoolwide language system that uses the language of character (respect, responsibility, commitment, and right and wrong), rather than the soft language of therapy (self-esteem, inappropriate behavior, adjustment).

• Using the curriculum, as originally intended, to actively teach our core values and, yes, to inspire students to live noble lives.

Inevitably, young people craft their own characters. By the end of high school, they have acquired a set of habits and a sense of right and wrong. At present, too many of our students have crafted their characters modeled on such dubious heros as Eminem, Jennifer Lopez, Adam Sandler, and various professional-sports personalities. High schools need, consciously and effectively, to project to students the ennobling lives of those who have made themselves people of character and who have contributed to the commonweal.

Teachers must help students see that the hard, often tedious work of school is the stuff of their own character formation: doing homework well, gaining self-control in dealing with difficult fellow students and teachers, befriending unpopular classmates, putting up with the inevitable disappointments and setbacks. Teachers must confidently make them the promise, however, that while doing this hard work of forging good character, they will be able to achieve the academic goals we have set for them.

It is a long road to the high schools we need. The revival of character education is key to getting there. Support from parents and the community will come. Academic achievement will come. And teachers will discover the deep satisfactions of being, truly, teachers in full.

Kevin Ryan is the founder and emeritus director of Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character and the co-author (with Karen E. Bohlin) of Building Character in Schools.

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