The Three R's - and Character

A trend to teach ethics to students needs direction

It would be easy enough for today's educators to agree with the ancient wisdom of Aristotle: "It is not enough to know about Virtue ... but we must endeavor to possess it and use it, or to take any other steps that may make us good."

But many public schools are struggling to teach virtue and to make sure the essential qualities of character are expressed in student behavior.

Character education has long been talked about - and most especially since the Columbine school shootings of 1999. Yet such teaching remains so difficult to implement that even the Bush and Gore campaigns, despite their emphasis on education, barely mention it.

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But more and more Americans accept the need to teach moral and ethical values in schools - without resorting to religious instruction.

That's why it's worth noting that this is National Character Counts! Week (Oct. 15-21), and to consider the work still left to be done.

Survey finds 'moral illiteracy'

Today's high school students suffer from "moral illiteracy," finds a just-released survey, "Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth," by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a California-based nonpartisan organization.

In this survey of 8,600 high school students around the country, it found an astonishing 71 percent who say they cheated within the last year. Thirty-five percent said they stole something from a store. Sixty-eight percent said they had struck someone when angry. Forty-seven percent said they could get a gun if they wanted to.

And here's where Aristotle's words ring true: Despite those figures, the vast majority, or 96 percent, said good character is important and gave themselves high scores for possessing it.

Small wonder the institute's president, Michael Josephson, says the survey "reveals a hole in the moral ozone."

Need for national evaluation

To its credit, the US Department of Education has funded a number of five-year character-education projects; the results are now coming in. They appear promising, even in a field where success is not easily measured.

The department has never tackled an evaluation on character education. But obviously, a study is warranted.

And this weekend, the Character Education Partnership - the largest and perhaps the most influential character education umbrella organization - meets in Philadelphia to devise better ways to make such teaching a legitimate part of public education.

Getting results

In 1993, it was hard to find a school district that had adopted character development as a regular theme. Today, character education is a quiet, often unreported trend. In schools with character education, administrators report less stealing, less violence, more courtesy, and more respect for others.

Even in higher education, it's being introduced to help reduce date rape, binge drinking, drug use, and hazing.

Experts in the field generally agree on the need for character education; they differ on strategies. Many parents complain about religious teaching slipping in. A common language is needed among parents, teachers, and coaches before values are taught.

Another obstacle is an already overburdened curriculum focused on passing tests and getting into college. Looking at character development as part of a student's whole school environment, rather than teaching it as specific classroom modules, requires a more intelligent approach.

Defense against media

Then there's the increased demand for moral choices by teenagers from what they see in movies, TV, Internet, and other media.

That phenomenon increases the possibility of undermining parents' efforts if the atmosphere in the schools (where kids spend most of their time) does not support their views.

Another reason for the trend in character education in public education: Many parents who see school as more than learning reading, math, and science are taking up home-schooling or sending their children to religion-based institutions. The numbers for both are on the rise.

Public schools need to upgrade their qualifications for teachers. When teachers embody what are generally accepted to be universal and unimpeachable traits such as caring, respect, responsibility, honesty, fairness, and justice, then character education will not seem burdensome, and Aristotle's idea will prevail.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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