From Issue #99-41
Kids With Character
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that
must the community want for all of its children."
Let us take Dewey's maxim seriously and ask the question, "Assume that I am one of the best and wisest parents. What would I want for my child as well as all the children in my community?" I would imagine that each of us would want a safe community for our children to play in. We may desire a community in which groups such as Boy and Girl Scouts as well as other social opportunities are available for all children. Perhaps we would desire faith communities of all persuasions to be actively involved in the life of our children. Finally we would want our schools to be supportive of our work as parents and community members. We would recognize that schools have two missions. The first, help children become smart and skilled in the academic demands. The second, fostering a climate in which children learn to, " Know love and do the good." In other words, academics and character education would represent the dual (and only proper) role for the schools. Putting it all together, we would want a community that understands and applies Martin Buber's observation that, "Education worthy of its name is essentially education of character."
Should this be an important role of public schools? Historically the answer was a resounding yes. Dr. B. Edward McClellan, in his work, Schools and the Shaping of Character: Moral Education in America 1607 - Present (1992), illustrates the importance citizens placed on character education, from the first public schools until the 1960's. The methods of infusion of character (i.e., from McGuffey Readers to service clubs) may have changed, but the importance of character education within the schools went unchallenged. By the 1960's, the Vietnam War and other cultural upheavals had Americans reeling. Cultural relativism was leading the way, as Americans questioned whether there could be common ground or even common standards concerning what was good or right for citizenry. Educators claimed, "If we can't come to an agreement on what good character is, then perhaps we should leave it out." To avoid controversy and unpleasantness, it was easier and perhaps "safer" for public school teachers to abdicate the instruction of virtues to parents and religious instructors. Thus for the first time in our history, public schools were no longer intentionally focusing on helping children "to know, love and do the good."
What was the substitute? Values clarification, an approach in which all values are ostensibly treated as having equal moral standing, was placed in the public schools. Scenarios, such as the lifeboat dilemma, in which there is only room for 20 and there are 21 who want in the lifeboat, were presented to children. Who gets left behind? According to values clarification, no matter what is stated, the "answer" is correct because all values have the same moral standing. It should not be surprising that this would occur. Nietzsche had called for it. In her thoughtful book The De-Moralization of Society (1996),Gertrude Himmelfarb noted that Nietzsche degraded virtues which represented standards of a particular people, replacing them with values which were necessarily subjective and personal.. "Values brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies." If codes of morality are coached in values instead of virtues then personal choices trump social or moral standards. Values clarification represented Nietzsche's "transvaluation of values."
In the 1980's, there was a focus on helping schoolchildren develop or obtain self-esteem. It was as if feeling good was equated with being good. It is not. I can feel good by robbing a liquor store and having plenty of liquor and hopefully a little money. This does not mean I have been good. True self-esteem is tied to success and improvement. It is not given away...it is earned. The goal of the teacher, parent or community member is to establish the conditions so a child may earn his/her self esteem through effort.
Starting in the 1990's, there has been a renewed interest in character education. We are finally realizing that we as a culture have failed to inculcate in our children the standards such as respect, responsibility and caring that are required of a virtuous people. Led by university teachers such as Thomas Lickona and Kevin Ryan, and other scholars such as William Bennett and Gertrude Himmelfarb, character education is now receiving a long-overdue hearing in many public as well as private schools in America. How are schools doing this?
They have returned to a recognition of the truths of Plato and Aristotle. Plato held that if one intellectually sought the good, one could know and then practice it. Aristotle argued that there are two kinds of virtue, one being the intellectual virtue of Plato and the other, the practices and ingrained habits that develop into one's character. Schools with successful character education programs combine the views of Plato and Aristotle.
What do successful character-building communities and schools look like?
First, the communities are involved. People living in a successful character-building community realize that character development is not just the responsibility of the parents. It requires the involvement of our places of worship and social organizations. And the schools in such a community must then reinforce the efforts begun by families and other community groups. Successful character-developing schools recognize, however, that while some character traits may be taught, others must be caught. Therefore instructors must model as well as teach character to their students. Teaching with character involves the use of consistent rules and procedures designed to foster civility and kindness, encourages cooperative learning as children work together, and relies on literature and narratives rich in real-life meaning. It does matter what students read. For example, students should read, discuss and understand the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, and Martin King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". They should also be intimately acquainted with great literature, poetry, and parables, which are uplifting to the human spirit. Finally our children can only learn to care by the practice of caring. This requires that they serve others both in and outside the school environment. Examples could involve high schoolers working in elementary schools, 5th graders assisting 1st graders in learning to read, and schoolchildren of all ages visiting nursing homes to cheer seniors and seriously ill patients.
The approaching year 2000 calls us to reflect on what makes us truly successful people. We must reaffirm the unquestioned belief of those who founded our blessed country: Character is vastly more important than material wealth or intellectual accomplishment in helping ourselves and our children achieve all the great promises of The United States of America.
16 oct 99