George W. Bush didn't actually quote his father's famous phrase recently when he delivered a policy speech calling for a greater emphasis on character education in the public schools. But that was the essence of his message - create schools where kids learn moral principles along with algebra and grammar, where they learn not only how to make a living, but how to be "good and kind and decent."
That position defies attack. Some may criticize it as nice-sounding generality. But the call for character education is more than that. It addresses a clear national need: to train up children who know right from wrong, who know the importance of helping others, not just gratifying themselves.
But how can schools take up the mandate to shape character? And how much can they realistically do?
Educators have been pondering a character curriculum for years. Conflict resolution courses, or courses that teach how to form good relationships, are widely taught. Beyond specific courses, teachers can focus discussion and writing on the character issues raised by historical figures, literary themes, ethics in science. Opportunities for bringing character into focus should be abundant.
A principal who actively supports character training can have a big impact. Coaches committed to sportsmanship, not just winning, can be shapers of character.
Some schools have tried to overhaul the social climate on campus. The high school in the small town of Franklinton, La., recruited students leaders to set an example of civil behavior. Students rewrote school rules, including what language was acceptable. The changes for the better have been remarkable, according to a recent report in The Boston Globe.
The hurdles to meaningful character education are many. Schools, like most institutions, resist change. Daily schedules overload teachers and give students little time for discussion and reflection. Instruction by work sheet and pop quiz is too often the rule.
Even if schools reorient themselves toward character education, can they make up for gaps in that area at home? Not entirely. But one possibility is to bring parents into the character-building process by asking their support. Many of the charter schools and special public "academies" springing up around the country demand that parents sign on to the standards and goals of the schools.
Candidate Bush urges that religious teachings be allowed more room for expression in schools. That's a sensitive subject. But a crucial distinction can be drawn between students' own thoughts about how religion shapes character, expressed in papers or in class discussion, and anything that smacks of doctrinal instruction by the schools themselves.
An emphasis on character should be a theme that weaves through various classes and activities. Learning, as well as citizenship, can only benefit from it.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society