Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life

Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life

by Kevin Ryan, Karen E. Bohlin

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"Offers American parents and teachers precisely what we need and so sorely lack— a moral vision of how we ought to live with one another and the heart of what 'character education' is meant to teach us: an ethics that is affirmed in our day-to-day engagement with our fellow human beings."
Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical

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"Offers American parents and teachers precisely what we need and so sorely lack— a moral vision of how we ought to live with one another and the heart of what 'character education' is meant to teach us: an ethics that is affirmed in our day-to-day engagement with our fellow human beings."
Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, Harvard University

"A timely, well-written, immensely practical, breakthrough book that will awaken our minds and hearts and remind us of our moral obligation to our greatest resource and our future: our children."
Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

"Packed with practical and inspiring wisdom about what schools, families, and young people themselves can do to build good character."
Thomas Lickona, director, Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility)

"Without preaching, Ryan and Bohlin have written a book that is important, enjoyable reading for anyone concerned with contemporary education."
Publisher's Weekly

"For those willing to take up the task of teaching ethics, the book provides a practical blueprint for teachers, schools, and parents."

"After the book has inspired you, you can mine the appendices, which include such practical treasures as 'One Hundred Ways to Bring Character Education to Life,' sample lesson plans, and a list of programs and phone numbers to call when your school is in dire need of civility."
The American School Board Journal

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Chapter One

Character Education:
What Is It and Why Is It

The same week in 1997 that the world mourned the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, a lesser-known individual quietly died in his sleep. Viktor Frankl, the author of Man's Search for Meaning and thirty-one other books, was ninety-three when he died. Man's Search for Meaning, which was translated into twenty-six languages and sold over two million copies, was one of the most influential books of the last half of the twentieth century. It is a personal account of one of humanity's darkest moments, when the Nazi death camps of World War II metastasized across Europe.

    Frankl was a young, rising Austrian academic when the Nazis gained power. His novel insights had brought him to the attention of Sigmund Freud and other leading psychiatrists of the day. When the war broke out, he was just completing an important manuscript. Being Jewish, and concerned about the Nazis' takeover of Austria, he obtained a visa to America, where he planned to take his young bride until things settled down in Europe. However, concerned about his parents' safety, he hesitated too long, and when the Germans gained control of Austria, Frankl, his young wife, and his parents were swept up and sent to the dreaded Auschwitz. Early on, he was separated from his wife and parents. It was not until couldn't have. "I had to work hard all my life," she said. "They can have the chance that I didn't have." Osceola McCarty Scholarships are now given to high school graduates who would otherwise be unable to attend college. McCarty's gift has inspired many others to perform acts of generosity, but it has confused some. She is regularly asked, "Why didn't you spend the money on yourself?" She answers simply, "I am spending on myself."

    These two people--one a distinguished scholar and writer and the other a poor scrubwoman with a fifth-grade education--responded nobly to the different challenges and opportunities presented to them. They chose to do what they believed was the right thing to do. One endured a living hell and chose to hold on to and deepen his sense of self as a consequence. He transformed his own experiences into something helpful to others. The other committed herself steadily and patiently over years--indeed, decades--as she scrubbed and wrung out other people's clothes. Frankl's story shows how devastating circumstances can bring out what a person is really made of. Frankl chose to meet adversity heroically rather than cave in to despair or cowardice. McCarty's story illustrates, by contrast, a person of character consciously choosing to give of herself to others. She was free to do whatever she wanted to with her hard-earned money, and she chose to support others. But regardless of the challenges they faced, these individuals each lived the kind of life and became the kind of person that made their admirable response possible. Because of their strength of character, both were able to meet with hardship and remain focused on what was most worthwhile for themselves and others.

    Viktor Frankl's and Osceola McCarty's stories are extraordinary but not unique. The world is filled with individuals who are likewise ready to respond with character, though their challenge hasn't yet come. We all know dozens of people whose character is disclosed in quieter, more hidden ways. There is the father struggling with an alcoholic wife, his own dreary job, and a very uncertain future who never complains and always has a good word or deed for others. There is the promising high school athlete who in a freak accident severs her spinal cord but never succumbs to self-pity and instead spends her free time working with handicapped children from her wheelchair. And then there are the myriad ordinary people who have never done anything particularly dramatic but have gotten out of bed every day and done the very best they could at school, at work, in their families, and in their communities. They are ready for what life brings them. They have good character.

Defining Character

As Antoine de Saint Exupery puts it in The Little Prince, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." Character is one of those essentials. Character is one of those familiar words that often turns out to be difficult to pin down. Like all abstractions, you can't see character; you can't touch it; you can't taste it. Tom Wolfe titled his 1979 book about the daring and skill of the young men who pioneered our space program The Right Stuff. When we are around individuals who have the right stuff--that is, who have good character--we know it.

    The English word character comes from the Greek word charassein, which means "to engrave," such as on a wax tablet, a gemstone, or a metal surface. From that root evolved the meaning of character as a distinctive mark or sign, and from there grew our conception of character as "an individual's pattern of behavior ... his moral constitution." After the toddler stage, all of us have a character, a predictable way of behaving that those around us can discern. Each of us is marked by our own individual mix of negativity, patience, tardiness, thoughtlessness, kindness, and the like; however, a developed character--that is, good character--is much more than established patterns of behavior or habits of acting.

    Good character is about knowing the good, loving the good, and doing the good. These three ideals are intimately connected. We are born both self-centered and ignorant, with our primitive impulses reigning over reason. The point of a nurturing upbringing and education is to bring our inclinations, feelings, and passions into harmony with reason.

    Knowing the good includes coming to understand good and evil. It means developing the ability to sum up a situation, deliberate, choose the right thing to do, and then do it. Aristotle called this practical wisdom. Having practical wisdom means knowing what a situation calls for. For example, it means knowing not to get into a car when the person behind the wheel has been drinking. It is about students' ability to plan their weekend in such a way that they can get their homework done, spend time with their family and friends, complete their paper route, and get the lawn mowed or the basement cleaned. But practical wisdom is not just about time management; it is about prioritizing and choosing well in all spheres of life. It is about the ability to make wise commitments and keep them.

    Loving the good means developing a full range of moral feelings and emotions, including a love for the good and a contempt for evil, as well as a capacity to empathize with others. It is about wanting to do what's right. Loving the good enables us to respect and love people even when we know their actions are wrong. In other words, it allows us to "love the sinner but hate the sin."

    Doing the good means that after thoughtful consideration of all the circumstances and relevant facts, we have the will to act. The world is filled with people who know what the right thing to do is but lack the will to carry it out. They know the good but can't bring themselves to do the good.

    What is "the good"? Cultures differ somewhat in how they define it, but there is a huge overlap of common understandings. Some form of the Golden Rule, for example, exists in almost every culture. Clearly, respect for the dignity of others is a fundamental good. Additionally, in the world's literature, religions, philosophy, and art we find a huge deposit of shared moral values. The good, then, is a cross-cultural composite of moral imperatives and ideals that hold us together both as individuals and as societies.

    Those ideals that tend to cut across history and cultures and show up most frequently are the Greek cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, self-mastery, and courage. They are called cardinal, from the Latin cardo, or "hinge, that on which something turns or depends," because most of the other virtues are related to one or more of them (see Appendix B). Wisdom is the virtue that enables us to exercise sound judgment, engage in careful consideration, and maintain intellectual honesty. It also enables us to plan and take the fight course of action in our pursuit of the good. Justice is an outward, or social virtue, concerned with our personal, professional, and legal obligations and commitments to others. A sense of justice enables us to be fair and to give each person what he or she rightly deserves. Self-mastery, by contrast, is an inner, or individual virtue. It gives people intelligent control over their impulses and fosters moral autonomy. A ten-year-old who throws frequent temper tantrums or a teenager who spends six hours a day in front of the television and cannot complete his homework are examples of individuals who lack self-mastery. Lastly, courage is not simply bravery but also the steadfastness to commit ourselves to what is good and right and actively pursue it, even when it is not convenient or popular.

    Knowing the good, loving the good, and doing the good involve the head, the heart, and the hand, in an integrated way. We are all too familiar with the cerebral moral theorist, who can cite Aristotle, Kant, Confucius, and the Bible chapter and verse but is too busy to console his crying four-year-old by reading her a bedtime story or to run an errand for a neighbor recovering from back surgery. We may also have met the bleeding-heart moralist, who sees injustice and victimization at every turn but is too paralyzed by the dark side of humanity to take the first step to do anything about it. Then there are those who only mechanically fulfill moral "obligations." We may find students, for example, who meet service requirements--ten hours of volunteer work at a hospital or twenty hours organizing an annual clothing drive--yet fail to reflect on, care about, or truly commit themselves to an ethic of service. Some students will even admit to such mechanical participation in service clubs and programs, saying, "It's just a requirement" or "I need it for my resume."

    Character demands more from us than merely an intellectual commitment, a heartfelt desire, or a mechanical fulfillment of responsibilities. As our friend James Stenson has put it, a person of character is a person with integrity, someone who says what she means, means what she says, and keeps her word. This link between our character and daily actions is reflected in Lord Macaulay's remark that "the measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out." Another measure of character, we would add, is what a person does under pressure--for example, the pressure to cheat to keep a certain grade point average. When we spend time with people, their integrity and character are revealed to us, and often these are quite contrary to what they would like us to think. There is a story about a man who traveled high into the Tibetan mountains to gain wisdom from a famous guru. After sitting at the guru's feet for ten minutes and listening to him describe how wise he was, the man finally broke in and, turning away, said, "I must leave you, for what you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear your words!" As the fox in The Little Prince said, what is essential is often invisible to the eye, but eventually it becomes evident to the heart.

    We may be too close to ourselves to see our own character, but those who are around us for any length of time usually have no trouble at all perceiving it. Samuel Johnson captured this uncomfortable truth in one of his "Rambler" essays: "More knowledge may be gained of a man's real character by a short conversation with one of his servants than from a formal and studied narrative." Our character is our way of acting or manner of being--who we are. We all have patterns in our behavior, and often we are quite unaware of them. Some of us are like the student in our classroom who is totally unaware that he compulsively smooths his hair and says "like" as every other word.

    Character, then, is very simply the sum of our intellectual and moral habits. That is, character is the composite of our good habits, or virtues, and our bad habits, or vices, the habits that make us the kind of person we are. These good and bad habits mark us and continually affect the way in which we respond to life's events and challenges. If we have the virtue of honesty, for example, when we find someone's wallet on the pavement, we are characteristically disposed to track down its owner and return it. If we possess the bad habit, or vice, of dishonesty, again our path is clear: we pick it up, look to the right and left, and head for Tower Records or the Gap.

    Our habits and dispositions, this mix of our virtues and vices, inform the way we respond to the myriad, unfolding events of life. In turn, they determine whether others come to trust us or mistrust us. When people come to know us, they come to know our character. Thus when Socrates urged us, "Know thyself," among other things he was directing us to come to know our habitual ways of responding to the world around us. But he was not suggesting that self-awareness be an end in itself. He, and most of the world's great thinkers who followed him, wanted more from us than mere knowledge of the habits that make up our character. They have called on us to be aggressively reflective and to acquire the right habits, to sharpen our intelligence and engrave strong, moral characters on ourselves.

    Human beings are different from other life forms. Plants respond to the sun. Sunflowers even lean their heads to follow the sun during the course of the day. Salmon perform an astounding feat: after spending several years wandering around the ocean, they swim hundreds of miles upstream to the exact place of their conception. Certain species of birds fly a third of the way around the globe to a particular spot and, months later, turn around and come back to the spot from which they left. But they are all reacting instinctively. Human beings, in contrast, have relatively few instincts. Unlike the rest of the fauna and flora with which we share the earth, we have fewer hard-wired responses to events. Nor are we tabulae rasae, or blank slates, as was once the view of some psychologists and philosophers. More and more we are becoming aware that certain personality traits, such as shyness, are part of our genetic inheritance. Most of what we need to function well in the world, however, is acquired through learning. And fortunately, we possess a huge capacity for learning.

    Although there is much for human beings to learn, nothing is more important for our personal happiness and the health of society than the dispositions and habits that constitute good character. Throughout history, it has been recognized that personal character counts. The scholar consumed by self-interest and the financial wizard on his third wife are by now cultural cliches. In contrast to such figures stand people of generosity and perseverance, such as Osceola McCarty or the widowed father who quietly, carefully, and against great odds raises three marvelous children. Their stories warm our hearts. Memories of the self-sacrifice of a Mother Teresa and the fortitude of a Viktor Frankl loom large in our collective memory. Serious people agree with Heraclitus' short, arresting sentence, "Character is destiny." If we are each to be fully human, then, we need to form a strong moral character. Our success or failure in this task will determine our destiny--and that of our nation.

Achieving Character

The purpose of this book is to attempt to answer the question, "How is good character formed or achieved?" Primarily within the context of schools, the task of all of us--rich or poor, bold or shy, young or old--is to engrave on our essence the strong marks that constitute good character. We are the architects and artisans of our own character. We don't enter the world with habits, good or bad. Sadly, bad habits, such as selfishness, laziness, dishonesty, and irresponsibility, are easy to pick up. We slip into our vices effortlessly, like a comfortable pair of shoes. Acquiring good habits takes work! But it is the most essential work for each of us. The nineteenth-century British writer William Makepeace Thackeray captured much about the nature of this process in four lines:

Sow a thought and you reap an act;
Sow an act and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit and you reap a character;
Sow a character and you reap a destiny.

    The central theme of this book is captured not so much by this agricultural metaphor, however, as by our engraving metaphor: we all actively engrave our own character on ourselves. Like a craftsman etching a metal plate or a sculptor shaping a stone into a fine statue, so, too, each of us is called to make our life into a work of art. Each of us, then, must consciously decide to act to acquire particular habits and gradually, through time and effort, to make deeper and deeper marks on our hearts and minds.

    The choice to become an artist is a personal decision, one that sets us on a journey to become skilled and competent at our craft. Our will, our determination, to follow through with that journey is critical. Although natural talent plays a part in the flowering of a great painter or pianist, dedication and hard work are key ingredients as well. Abilities need to be developed and honed; flaws must be identified and systematically reduced. Amid the wild cheers and flood of bouquets at a great soprano's crowning moment, only she is aware of the thousands of hours spent practicing scales and endlessly rehearsing. There is an old saw about a tourist in New York City who asks a native, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The hurried New Yorker yells back over his shoulder, "Practice! Practice! Practice!"

    Effort and practice alone don't make a fine artist, though. The artist needs a vision, a standard of perfection toward which he or she aims all this effort. An artist needs a vision of the good. The parallel here, of course, is between becoming an artist and becoming a person of sound, moral character. In each journey of becoming there are events: a conscious choice, some kind of deliberation and action, the elimination of those things that keep us from achieving, (usually) a long period of practice, and finally, competency and achievement.

Taking Responsibility for Character Development

Becoming a great artist or a person of character is the individual's responsibility. No one can do it for someone else. But although there are here and there a few self-taught artists, we know of few people of character who are totally self-taught. Developing one's character is a social act. We exist and are raised within a social milieu--within a web of human connections. Indeed, human beings require the support and love of others just to stay alive, at the very least in our early years. Having few instincts, we rely on others for food and shelter and to learn the survival skills we need to maintain our lives. Character, too, needs to be nurtured, and the people with whom we enter into this human web play a key part in our learning to become flourishing people of character.

    Although the importance of others in the acquisition of character may seem utterly obvious, there are advocates of various approaches to character education who downplay the importance of other people. Some educators, drawing on the powerful (but largely discredited) views of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, would go so far as to eliminate contact with adults, since adults infect children with their corrupt morality. Others see efforts by adults to mold children's character as no more than pernicious indoctrination. One leading text in the field refers disparagingly to "the cold hand of orthodoxy," referring to the imposition of one generation's moral values on the next. Although we acknowledge the existence of negative influences and the capacity of individuals (and entire societies, for that matter) to thwart their children's development of character, we disagree with this anti-adult view. Children need the help of adults for more than food and shelter. They need adult tutelage not simply in algebra and agriculture. And they especially need it to understand and acquire the strong moral habits that contribute to good character.

    Young children come into the world as bundles of joy for their parents and bundles of potentiality for themselves. Infants are their own suns, with the rest of us whirling around them. Their first tasks are to understand what it is that is whirling around them and to learn how to get their little solar system to serve their own ends: to obtain food when they are hungry, get changed when they are wet, be held when they want to be held, and be comforted when they are hurting. Even though they are delightfully innocent and curious about the world around them, infants and toddlers are thoroughly self-absorbed. Growing up means learning that those other beings out there have desires and needs as well. Children need to discover the balance between concern for self and concern for others. Becoming a person of character, though, means moving well beyond simply finding that balance. It means gaining control of one's own clamoring desires, developing a deep regard for others, and being ready to put aside one's own interests and sometimes even one's needs in order to serve others. Clearly, children need help to see this and to act on it.

    Earlier we offered the image of character development as the engraving upon oneself of one's own moral essence, often with the help of others. The individual becomes the sculptor of his or her own best possible self. Becoming an artist or a person of character is a developmental process. It takes knowledge. It takes effort and practice. It takes support, example (both good and bad), encouragement, and sometimes inspiration. In short, it takes what we are calling character education.

    Most complex learning takes time and much guidance from a teacher. The teacher can be any one of a number of people in a person's life. Using our metaphor of the artist, the teacher often needs to encourage the young artist to pick up the engraving tool. At times she needs to actually hold the child's hand and guide his movements. She needs to be there to explain and encourage, to nudge and correct and rejoice with the child when he makes progress. Gradually, the young artist becomes able to perform on his own, often with the teacher watching from the back of the studio. Later the artist has true independence. At that point, the seasoned artist is ready to take his turn as teacher. The route of the artist to maturity is the same as an individual's path to moral maturity. It is not merely an individual achievement; it is a social achievement.

    Who, then, is responsible for the character education of the young? Without a doubt, a child's family has the primary responsibility. So, too, do neighbors and friends. "But character and competence," Mary Ann Glendon explains, "have conditions residing in nurture and education. The American version of the democratic experiment leaves it primarily up to families, local governments, schools, and religious and workplace associations, and a host of other voluntary groups to teach and transmit republican virtues and skills from one generation to the next." So despite the fact that some modern educational theorists and practicing teachers and administrators may disagree, we believe that character education is a central mission of our schools.

The Irrational Fear of Indoctrination

Many critics and educators are convinced that character education must be avoided because, at its base, it is nothing more than brainwashing. Critics of our conception of character education claim that it amounts to imposing particular values or personality traits on young people or crude manipulation of children by the dominant powers in their lives. They see it as top-down education or, worse, "indoctrination"--and there are few words in the English language that can send a chill through an American administrator or teacher like the term indoctrination.

    In his record of a conversation with John Thelwall on July 27, 1830, Samuel Taylor Coleridge captures the absurdity of not indoctrinating a child to act virtuously:

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child's mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself. I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden.

    "How so?" said he, "it is covered with weeds." "Oh," I replied, "that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries."

    For several decades now educators have been fearful about indoctrinating students rather than educating them. They believe that the leading teaching methodologies, such as the inquiry approach, discovery method, and cooperative learning, add value to our schools because they "don't indoctrinate." Also, much of the sharp criticism of the public schools as "tools of the state" and "manipulators of the young" that was so prevalent in the late 1960s and 1970s is still alive today in our education textbooks and teachers' programs. Certainly, there is a real danger that schools can be used to miseducate children and even manipulate their moral values, but this criticism needs a fuller examination than it has received.

    First of all, educators cannot teach children everything, from pre-Socratic philosophy to the latest conspiracy theories pulled from the Internet. Our efforts must be guided by an examination of what is most important for students to learn during their school years. This is the ultimate curricular question and one that places very strong obligations on school boards and educators. Because of the limited time available to them, teachers must select from a universe of knowledge only a small portion and then grapple with finding the most effective ways to help students understand and appreciate it. And then they must indoctrinate, or "instruct in doctrines, theories, beliefs, or principles," as Webster's puts it.

    It is each school board's duty to identify the knowledge base and moral values its students will learn. To decline this responsibility is to put not only students at risk but ultimately our entire society. It is our firm belief, however, that fear of indoctrinating students with moral values and principles is a major reason why so many educators and schools are reluctant to embrace character education. There is an implicit hope that somebody else--the home, the church, the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, someone!--will do this teaching. However, as we shall see, for educators the responsibility to teach our core virtues and moral values simply comes with the territory.

    All cultures, including our own, recognize the need to help children become members of society. To do so means that we must instruct them in doctrines, theories, beliefs, and principles--Webster's very definition of indoctrination. Down through the ages, we have been aware not only that children will die without adult protection and care but also that children need education and training before they can take their place in society. A mother sternly telling her three-year-old not to play so roughly with his baby sister is clearly engaging in top-down education. A seventh-grade teacher who puts a stop to a wolf pack's taunting of a new student is instructing her students about the moral values of civility and charity. A church that engages its high school youth group as cooks and servers in a homeless shelter is indoctrinating the young in an ethic of service. Indeed, every act of education by one person of another can be conceived of as top-down education. This simple fact of life needs to be understood and appreciated.

    Clearly, though, indoctrination is currently misconceived of as the force-feeding of the ruling classes' most self-serving ideas and values, such as racial or gender superiority, to impressionable minds. The word also implies to some the use of irrational means to pass on certain ideas to impressionable minds. This is not what we mean here. And it should be pointed out that the most seemingly "progressive" classrooms, where students are led to do projects on "less repressive forms of government than democratic capitalism" or on "more humanistic alternatives to surviving than by eating our fellow creatures (birds, beasts, and fish)" can, in fact, be deeply in doctrinating. Teachers and entire schools can be guilty of wrongly teaching certain moral values. We know of teachers who have inappropriately used their classrooms to gain disciples for their pet political causes. The novel and film versions of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie give brilliant portraits of this pedagogical perversion, as the teacher, Miss Brodie, uses her strong and commanding personality to intellectually seduce her impressionable students with all her views, from politics to music. Checking such abuses is a key responsibility of educational supervisors. Long ago, Plato wrote in The Republic about our responsibilities to foster character in our children. "We don't allow them [children] to be free until we establish a constitution in them, just as in a city, and--by fostering their best part with our own--equip them with a guardian and ruler similar to our own to take our place. Then, and only then, we set them free."

    The art of educating, whether within the family, a school, or a corporation, is to find a balance between not giving the learner enough guidance and holding his engraving hand so tightly that he becomes frustrated or discouraged. Clearly, too, education is a joint responsibility, of both the teacher and the learner. Each partner's overall responsibility shifts with the increasing age and experience of the learner. The mother must take a firm hand with the three-year-old bopping his sister with her dolly. The seventh-grade teacher must win the hearts of her wolf pack by teaching them empathy. And the church youth group's leaders must rely primarily on their good example to encourage their high schoolers to serve those who are less fortunate than they.

The Case for Character Education in the Schools

Before getting into the issue of the school's--particularly the public school's--place in character education, we need to set that issue in context. First, the primary responsibility for each child's character education lies with his or her parents. History, law, and common sense affirm that parents are first in the line of accountability. Family members, both immediate and extended, have varying degrees of responsibility to help young people develop good habits and a sense of right and wrong. Traditionally, neighbors and community members have had a responsibility to watch over and help the children and young people in their neighborhood. One of the most pernicious features of modern American life, however, is the attenuation of this sense of moral connection and, therefore, moral responsibility among people living in the same community. Nevertheless, the connections are still there.

    Religious groups, too, have traditionally played a major part in ethical training and in helping their members shed vices and acquire virtues. For example, in a recent survey 90 percent of the national sample answered the question about their religious affiliation by naming the particular group to which they belong. Clearly, religious groups are stakeholders in their members' character education. Then there is the government--local, state, and federal. Government is highly invested in promoting a citizenry of character as opposed to a citizenry of moral disasters and weaklings. A citizenry without character leads to two inevitable alternatives: social chaos or a policeman at every corner. There are many stakeholders, then, who bear responsibility for educating the young in the community's highest ideals. Why, then, should our public schools have to get involved? What is the case for character education in the schools?

    It may seem odd to some that a case has to be made for developing our children's characters in school. However, having labored long in the educational vineyard with teachers, district leaders, and parents, and drawing on our own studies and surveys as well as those of others, we know that many teachers and administrators are quite ambivalent about getting the schools involved in character education. In fact, many are vehemently opposed to it. Thus the need to make our case.

    The first argument in favor of character education in the schools can be called the argument from intellectual authorities. The world's great thinkers from the West, including Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Dewey, and from the East, including Confucius, Laotzu, and Buddha, have all been strong advocates of giving conscious attention to character formation and focusing our human energies on living worthy lives. Even a casual dipping into these sources confirms their deep preoccupation with questions such as "What is a good and noble life?" "What do people need to be truly happy?" and "What do people need to keep from self-destruction?" Broadly speaking, their answer to these questions is to know what a good life is and to work to conform oneself to that ideal--an educational project.

    Socrates long ago stated that the mission of education is to help people become both smart and good. In recent decades the second part of that definition has suffered in American schools and colleges. In the midst of what has been called a knowledge explosion, and faced with increasing questions about what in this noisy, modern world is the good, educators have blinked. They have argued that, given this overload of information, the best the schools can do is to teach students how to access it all. The focus, then, has turned to process skills--reading, writing, and data storage and retrieval. Although these skills are important, this emphasis on process has left to others the teaching of our culture's core moral values. That part of the educator's mission has been taken up by some enormously talented and persuasive "teachers"--the popular media and the hard-sellers of our consumer society. Meanwhile, educators have too often left students adrift in a swampy sea of moral relativism and ethical anesthesia. In contrast, great educators of the past, from the ancients to Maria Montessori, knew that people need to learn to be good and that their schooling must therefore contribute to their becoming so. Thomas Huxley wrote in the nineteenth century, "Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned." This is not all there is to character education, but it is a good start--training our will. Such demanding messages do not fit well with the feel-good theories in vogue in many school systems today, however.

    The second argument in favor of character education is that of our nation's founders. This, too, is a reasoned argument from authority. Those who carved out the United State from the British crown risked their lives, their families, and their fortunes with their seditious rebellion. Most of them were classically educated in philosophy and political science, so they knew that history's great thinkers had generally held democracy in low regard. Democracy contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, they had said: allowing people to, in effect, be their own rulers would lead to corruptions such as mobocracy, with the many preying on the few and political leaders pandering to the citizenry's hunger for bread and circus. The founders' writings, particularly those of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John and Abigail Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, are filled with admonitions that the new republic must make education a high priority. They stressed education not merely for economic reasons but also because the form of government they were adopting was (and remains) at heart a moral compact among people. To work as it should, democracy demands a virtuous people. Jefferson wrote about the need for education in order to raise "the mass of people to the high ground of moral responsibility necessary for their own safety and orderly government"--to give them the ability to participate in a democratic society. The founders called for schools where the citizens would learn the civic virtues needed to maintain this intriguing but fragile human invention called democracy. In 1832--a time when some of the founders were still alive--Lincoln wrote, "I desire to see a time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present." Then as now, the educational requirements of our system of government were still aborning.

    The third argument is the law-based argument. In fact, however, this is more of a "reminder" than an argument since the state codes of education clearly direct schools to teach the moral values that support democratic life. Still, though, some educators are nervous about character education because they fear it may run contrary to students' rights to free expression and religion, and therefore schools could be sued for their efforts. Visions of subpoena-waving lawyers dance in their heads. There is little or no basis for such worries. The current nervousness among school administrators appears to have resulted from community uproars and a few suits in the 1970s over value-free moral education programs. Still, the state codes of education, which direct the operations of our schools, overwhelmingly support actively teaching the core moral values that provide the social glue of civic life. Currently, all fifty states have revised or are in the process of revising their curricular standards, which dictate what is to be taught and when. Recent research by Lynn Nelson at the University of Northern Iowa found that although only a few states have educational standards that address character education directly (Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Utah), forty-six states report addressing character education indirectly. By "indirectly" they mean through outcomes and standards that focus on the responsibilities of democratic citizenship or on particular attributes of civility. No state codes of education or standards outlaw, forbid, or in any way discourage character education.

    Fourth is the vox populi argument. In addition to the world's great thinkers, our nation's founders, and the law, we have another source of guidance in American society: public opinion. We are clearly the most polled people on the face of the earth. We are polled about everything from the popularity of TV personalities to the sex lives of politicians, from the plight of Bosnia to the guilt of nannies. But though polling can get out of hand, it does give politicians and other decision makers a way to understand what we, the little people, are thinking.

    For many years now, the Gallup organization and other polling companies have been asking the American people about our views on the performance of the public schools and related topics. Our answers do not paint a pretty picture. Americans are not pleased with American schools. Polls reveal major dissatisfaction with the lack of discipline in our classrooms. Apparently, people believe the schools are disordered and make relatively few demands on our children. Against this is the 90 percent or more of adults who support our public schools' teaching honesty (97 percent), democracy (93 percent), acceptance of people of different races and ethnic backgrounds (91 percent), patriotism (91 percent), caring for friends and family members (91 percent), moral courage (91 percent), and the Golden Rule (90 percent). This voice of the people, added to the support provided by the wisdom of the past and our laws, should provide educators with the confidence and public trust they need to energetically engage in character education.

    The fifth and final argument in favor of character education is the inevitability argument. Simply stated, this argument asserts that children cannot enter the educational system at age four and stay until age sixteen or seventeen without having their character and their moral values profoundly affected by the experience. Children are impressionable, and the events of life in school affect what they think, feel, believe, and do. All sorts of questions bubble up in children's lives: Who is a good person and who isn't? What is a worthy life? What should I do in this or that situation? Sometimes their questions are never even asked out loud. Clearly, the answers children arrive at are heavily influenced by their experiences in school, with their teachers, their peers, and the material they study.

    Further, schools place great demands on children. Children are expected to treat one another with civility, to put aside their playthings or television viewing or sports to do schoolwork, and not just to go through the motions of doing schoolwork but to do it to the best of their ability. As we discuss fully in Chapter Seven, becoming a good student (that is, doing one's work to the best of one's abilities) is one of the great ethical challenges the majority of our children face during their youth. How they respond to this challenge has a huge effect on their character formation. Therefore, both the events of one's school years and the self-confrontation that being a student provokes will inevitably have an impact on a child's character.

    We are witnessing the schools' reawakening to what was historically one of their most essential tasks, the formation of character among the children in its care. There are many signs of this reawakening and many reasons for it. Among them is our increasingly clear need to build a society shaped by citizens who know, are committed to, and can act on the key moral values and principles on which our democracy is based. Another reason is the frightening statistics about crime, poor academic achievement, promiscuity, substance abuse, and sheer unhappiness among the young. Another is the very real unpleasantness of running schools without a positive ethical environment. Schools that are mere sites of training and information transfer, where students know they are simply compelled to attend, are barren and sterile places. Teachers and administrators who chose a career in education to help young people get a good start in life regularly report feeling burnt out and disillusioned by the hassle and bureaucratic drudgery of it all. The answer to these ills is, we believe, character education. Although this is a bold promise, we must hastily add that we are not talking about superficial changes or quickie workshops or purchasing new curricula. There's no such thing as character-education-in-a-box. True character education means an approach to schooling that is fundamentally different from what currently exists in most of our schools. It means, as Steven Tigner puts it, taking our students seriously as persons and helping them become informed and responsible moral agents. What we attempt to lay out in the remainder of this book is a very different mission from what is presently dominant in our schools, an educational mission that focuses on helping students know the good, love the good, and do the good.

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