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Cultivating Character

By Laurel Shaper WaltersLaurel Shaper Walters covers education for the Monitor. / October 13, 1992



AS crime committed by youths escalates, the movement for "character education" in public schools is gaining momentum. Evidence of this movement is showing up in bookstores, and the latest example is "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong."

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By playing off the title of the 1955 bestseller "Why Johnny Can't Read" by Rudolf Flesch, author William Kilpatrick hopes to start a similar reexamination of character education, or what used to be known as teaching morals and values.

"In addition to the fact that Johnny still can't read," Kilpatrick writes, "we are now faced with the more serious problem that he can't tell right from wrong."

Kilpatrick, who is a professor of education at Boston College, uses statistics to bolster his argument. For example, nearly 3 million crimes are committed on or near school property each year - 16,000 per school day. Along with their lunches, about 135,000 students tote guns to school.

As evidence of the fear that pervades many American schools, Kilpatrick cites the finding that 21 percent of all secondary school students avoid using school restrooms out of fear of being harmed or intimidated.

It's not that students are receiving no values education in schools today, Kilpatrick argues. "In fact," he writes, "more attention and research have been devoted to moral education in recent years than at any time in our history. Unfortunately, these attempts at moral education have been a resounding failure."

Kilpatrick assails the contemporary "values clarification" approach to moral education as destructive. "It has resulted in classrooms where teachers act like talk show hosts," he writes. Opinions go back and forth without ever reaching conclusions.

This approach was intended to allow students to discover their own values and become more independent thinkers. Kilpatrick sees only confusion and a generation of "moral illiterates ... who know their own feelings but don't know their culture."

This comprehensive and sometimes overly philosophical book provides a litany of eye-popping examples of classroom exercises that fall under the rubric of values education. For example: discussions of "exotic" ethical dilemmas that have no relationship to everyday life, explicit sex education, and self-esteem courses.

In rejecting all this, Kilpatrick calls for a return to traditional character education that uses great works of literature as a vehicle for moral instruction.

The problem, of course, comes in determining which stories to use for instructional purposes. The final chapter of the book offers a "Guide to Great Books for Children and Teens." The books on the list tend toward classics, and the chapter could be a valuable checklist for parents interested in giving their children a strong literary foundation.

Kilpatrick's simplistic approach is beguiling. But, as he points out, "the entertainment industry has become the real arena for moral education" for many young Americans.

Kilpatrick devotes an entire chapter to "Music and Morality," in which he complains about the destructive influence of rock music. He encourages parents to "cultivate good taste in music" as a method of moral renewal for their children.

Listening to soothing or positive music is not going to turn the rocking youth of today into model citizens. That transformation will take more than changing reading and listening habits. Parents, educators, and political leaders all have to begin setting examples through their own lives.

As Kilpatrick argues forcefully, stories are powerful teachers. But people - particularly parents and teachers - play a larger role in the education of young minds. Perhaps Kilpatrick should be pleading the case for all parents and teachers to read the morally instructive books on his list - and act accordingly.