Lessons in Character

Character education is catching on around the United States. A few states - including Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Michigan - either have or are considering policies directing local school districts to offer such programs. More than 100 districts around the country have developed their own character curricula, without state urging. President Clinton has advocated the idea.

This trend is driven by a growing awareness among Americans that values are under attack today - values essential to a healthy society, such as honesty, courtesy, respect, and concern for others. Any organized effort to reinforce these is welcome.

But a note of caution may be in order when it comes to making character an academic subject. Character can't be taught in the same sense reading or math can be taught. It springs from something deeper than intellect. It that weren't true, we would not have highly educated, and presumably bright, businesspeople or politicians breaching ethics and decency.

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Children can be exposed to the basic elements of character - as much through the example of adults (parents, teachers, coaches) as through a study unit on, say, trustworthiness. They can be given an inkling of the connection between being nice, in the broadest meaning of that favored word among youngsters, and being a good citizen, a useful worker, a good brother, sister, mother, or father. The discipline of school life - accepting responsibility for work, not disrupting others' work - should be an ongoing lesson in character.

And those who argue that you can't arbitrarily cordon off "secular" values from those taught in Sunday school or church have a point. Building character has to be a joint project of home, church, and school. That's an argument for active partnership among these forges of character, not for bringing specifically religious material into the public classroom.

So let the character education proceed. But let's remember that this is a job the schools can't possible shoulder alone.

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