Student Well-Being Opinion

Character Education

By Catherine Bell — September 04, 1996 5 min read

Lately, it seems, schools are suffering a new plague--one of our own making. Administrators, eager to spur values instruction, are showering teachers with questionnaires. What formal training have you had in values education? Do you belong to organizations that propagate values? What values do you teach, what activities have you developed, and by what instruments do you measure your strategies’ effectiveness? Searching questions that conveniently leave most of the searching to us.

We can be vague in our responses and simply propose some values activity of the year. Somehow, though, the big ideas--equality, truth, freedom, and the like--resist this kind of processing. Abstractions fragile as snowflakes drift across my desk and pile up in the corner, threatening to form a glacier, and I am left wondering.

Values in education cannot be simply a matter of classroom activities and evaluation. We can’t teach values as we teach theorems or grammar. Is courage of the same order as run-on sentences or the causes of World War II? Values are neither skills nor content; they are not knowledge at all but more like intelligence or wisdom--which we admittedly can’t impart. Students develop values by ways largely mysterious and strongly influenced by individual will. In doing so, they surely seize less upon what we teach than who we are. Values for educators, then, are not to teach but to have.

Think of the harm we could do if we “taught” values. How could we be sure of teaching the right ones, the ones our kids need? Any list is likely to leave out the most important aspects of being human. And many ideals--multiculturalism, family, religion, to name a few--carry political baggage. Most lists are filled with admirable ideals, but can we trust ourselves to leave students free to draw their own conclusions? Can any curriculum cover compassion, courage, self-discipline, a sense of humor?

English teachers work with values all the time, of course. But this is not to say we teach them. Through stories, plays, and poems, students enter other lives and gain vicarious experiences that demand consideration of values. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tea Cake, sick with rabies, aims a gun at Janie. Is he the madman he appears to be or the sweet love he once was? Should we hate what he’s become? If Janie shoots him, is it for herself or him? As in life, such issues are not easy. We can’t give our students the “right” answers; we can only promote discussion, participate in it honestly, and insist that students struggle with these questions.

Students weigh the significant choices facing characters in literature that they read. Macbeth picks ambition over loyalty. Okonkwo, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, strikes down his son. How would we rank such values? Fiction is a values laboratory. Students are involved but not personally; they commit to one course yet change their minds, make fatal mistakes yet still survive. Under these laboratory conditions, it’s not impossible to go back.

When characters dear to readers are forced to change, concern for values is heightened. Gene in A Separate Peace realizes the harm his jealousy has done. King Lear, hounded into the storm, understands that the poor feel cold. Oedipus finds that brains, success, and power bow to truth. At such times, whole classrooms can be gripped by creative emotion. And sometimes literature presents characters worthy of emulation: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lennie’s George in Of Mice and Men, Mayor Orden in The Moon Is Down. Still, students must be free to express their thoughts without prejudice; not everyone may think Orden should sacrifice himself for the good of the town.

As educators, we may seem masters of a rational, controlled process. But in truth, teaching can be perilous, as Socrates found. Students read in All Quiet on the Western Front how schoolteachers betrayed their charges by urging them to fight and consigning them to a hell nobody could have imagined. In King Lear, the child who loves her father most is openly defiant. Good books call accepted values into question—and not by accident. That’s what it takes to enliven minds and make them capable of discerning truth. We cannot settle questions of value for our students.

Humility, therefore, is our touchstone, along with the courage to embody our own values. It comes down to that in the end. The only effective way to “teach” equality is to treat students as equals.

And how do we evaluate our strategies? Our effectiveness in helping kids develop values is not a measurable quality. What we see is only the tip of the iceberg; students will continue to form values long after they pass from our class. But when students talk or write, we learn something about what they are sifting. Their capacity to change their minds, to see more than one side of an issue, to reveal what they care deeply about--these are signs that students are wrestling with ideas, as they should. And as teachers, we can examine ourselves. Are we still alive? Do we learn from our students? Do we seek challenge from colleagues? Are we prepared to stand up for our principles? If so, we won’t fail our students, though we still won’t have specific answers for them.

Of course, we can act as though we do. We can declare that what can’t be measured can be safely disregarded. We can measure kids’ conformity to our own values. But if we take this route, we end up judging, labeling, and interfering; worse, we encourage layers of false values for public consumption. Better to follow one colleague’s advice: “Give them good books, and just hope they sink in.”

Take the analogy of learning language. Like the acquisition of values, this is a complex task, both personally and socially, requiring something new and creative. You were not taught to talk. You learned by riding in the grocery cart while your mother wondered aloud whether to get red or yellow peppers for the salad. You learned to talk because people talked to you, because what you said mattered to them.

In this spirit, we can respond to kids on the subject of values. We can develop a school culture rich in issues, where values are recognized as interesting, important, and worthy of discussion. We can create opportunities for students to choose, act, make an impact, recognize implications, and judge consequences. We can befriend kids in their attempts to discover what they care about. And we can throw the full weight of our own values into our lives. That’s the best we can do. And that’s enough.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Character Education


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