SITTING in a circle on the floor, first- graders talked about honesty. ''It's about telling the truth,'' a girl said. ''Like the time I returned something that didn't belong to me,'' chimed in a boy, as the class nodded in agreement. So unfolds one example of a school's effort to instruct children about moral values.
Is there an ABCs of character? If so, are schools the proper place to teach it?
Some people think so. With only slightly more than half of America's children living in traditional families, many parents and educators hope schools can succeed when home has failed. A study from the University of Vermont concluded that today's kids are more disobedient than children of the 1970s. Particularly irksome to adults were children's stubbornness and lack of guilt for bad behavior.
Actually the craze for character education is not completely untested. About 1 in 5 public school districts now offers formal programs in moral education. And the number is growing. Local school boards have been meeting to identify ''core values'' that can be incorporated throughout the curriculum and inculcated within the student body. Who can argue with such civic virtues as ''fairness,'' ''integrity,'' and ''respect''? When it comes to right and wrong, we all think we know the correct answers.
But do we? Herein lies just one of many thorny issues that prick the conscience of concerned citizens. But scratch the surface of a pillar of character and the whole edifice is liable to come tumbling down.
For instance, liberals fear that the character-education movement, rather than being an entrance into ethics, may be a back-door attempt to mix religion with public education. On the other hand, conservatives fear it as an exercise in spreading political correctness and undermining parental authority. Both sides cloak themselves in a rhetoric of self-righteousness rather than righteousness.
Can we really teach character by picking a value of the month and advertising it? While such devices may raise awareness, it is doubtful they will be any more effective than red ribbons were in stopping drug use or curing AIDS. Besides, when it comes to attitudes and behavior, it is notoriously difficult to measure results. How does one grade goodness or classify courage?
Already overburdened schools can barely fulfill their basic mandate to educate our children. According to a recent national survey by the Department of Education, only one-third of high school seniors are proficient readers, nearly 10 percent fewer than two years ago, while the number who cannot read at grade level has risen. American teachers teach more hours per week than teachers in other nations but still earn 20 percent to 30 percent less than other US workers with similar education and experience. Overcrowding, declining parental involvement, and a lack of resources only add to their problems.
In such an environment, can schools play a role in teaching right from wrong? Yes. They do it all the time. With or without a specific curriculum, teachers impart values through the very act of teaching. And they teach as much by example as by precept. Through her lessons, a teacher instills love of learning, perseverance, responsibility, and the desire for excellence. Through classroom management, she evokes obedience, honesty, cooperation, and compassion.
Parents, too, know that we reap what we sow. We plant seeds of moral development. Thus it is up to us to see that they grow. The best way to teach good values is to exhibit them ourselves. Adult hypocrisy is the leading cause of the eternal generation gap. Who can blame children for refusing to imitate us if we pretend to virtue when we have it not?