WASHINGTON — DENNIS the Menace is sitting forlornly in the corner, his dog lounging by his side. The caption reads: ``By the time I think about what I'm gonna do..., I already did it.''
This cartoon, says Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University here, captures the essence of his latest project. Today and tomorrow, Professor Etzioni, White House policy adviser William Galston, and representatives of government and education groups will gather at the White House to discuss character-building among youths.
With schools in crisis over declining discipline and rising violence, the nation needs to focus on how to instill in young people self-discipline and empathy, the core traits that make up character, Etzioni says. Once this ``vessel'' has been created, he says, it can be filled with those values that are shared by the community, such as honesty and treating others with dignity.
Undergirding the conference is the philosophy of the nonpartisan Communitarian Network - founded by Etzioni and Professor Galston - that stresses the importance of personal responsibility and commitment to community. The meeting taps into a key perception in the US today, that of a nation wrestling with a moral recession. This mood has put a book by former Republican official William Bennett, ``Book of Virtues,'' on the bestseller list.
``Up to this point, all the discussion has been, `Whose values [to teach]?''' Etzioni said in an interview. ``There was so much controversy, the conversation stopped, and we did not move for 20 years or 30 years. We want to leapfrog all of that and start a different conversation.''
Some conference participants, speaking on background, say they are not sure how the theories of Etzioni's group would work in practice. They express concern that once the talk becomes more specific, consensus will crumble.
Etzioni argues that there are dozens of values that everyone could agree on. He also places much hope in schools as a supplement to the work of parents. He suggests that the ideas of his group, laid out in 12 conference discussion points, be incorporated into the national education reform agenda as well as school curricula. Among the ideas:
* Make character education go beyond civics class to infuse the entire school experience. ``The way that sports are conducted, grades are allotted, teachers behave, and corridors and parking lots are monitored all directly and significantly affect character development,'' he writes.
* Create community schools. That means keeping them open longer hours, more days of the week, more months of the year. After school hours, young people - especially those from rough neighborhoods - should be encouraged to stay to do homework or participate in sports or other projects. The longer kids are away from negative influences outside school, the greater the chance they'll stay out of trouble.
* Send school personnel on a yearly retreat to examine how character-building messages are imparted to students.
* Use the Department of Education as a clearing house for information on practices around the country that are working.
Case studies could be disseminated to such groups as parent-teacher associations, boards of education, and teachers' associations.
Other civic activists have been working on their own character-building proposals. The Los Angeles-based Center for Civic Education, for example, has been drafting a list of character traits that schools should focus on, both as an area for student inquiry and as part of the effort to establish national standards in education. The group's executive director, Charles Quigley, marvels at the difference in public mood compared with 30 years ago. ``In the '60s, the discussion was all about rights,'' he says. ``Now, it's civility and individual responsibility.'' In Congress, Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico is sponsoring a bill to devote $6 million to local programs aimed at character education.
Discipline is very much on the minds of teachers, says Ruth Wattenberg, an official at the American Federation of Teachers. An April survey found pressure from parents presented an obstacle to 42 percent of teachers. ``Schools feel that if they crack down, they won't be backed up by parents,'' Ms. Wattenberg says. ``This conference will help give people a sense that [character-building] deserves to be on the agenda.''