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As published in The Weekly Standard, August 20/August 27, 2001
"To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt reminded Americans of this ancient truth, and sometime in the past half-century, we started to forget it. Students must be left free, it was said, to choose their own morals. The clarification of values, not the imposition of them, was the task of schools. After Columbine and too many similar incidents, however, such words ring hollow. The education of character is once again recognized as a fundamental responsibility of our schools.
How, though, should schools educate character? Several pieces of legislation pending in Congress, including the education package now in conference committee, embrace a mechanized, three-point plan: "initiatives," "dissemination," and "research." Curricula and methods are to be devised, along with professional development for teachers. These initiatives are to be replicated and made available to the public, and research is to be conducted to assess their effectiveness. All of this is high-minded and well-intentioned—and utterly wrongheaded.
To conceive of character education as an initiative is to suggest it is a responsibility a school chooses to take on. This is to confuse teaching about character with forming character. The firstis elective, the secondineluctable. Teaching about character can take the form of specific curricula and methods; forming character occurs quietly and steadily through the ordinary workings of schools. And it is forming character, not teaching about it, that makes the critical difference. Learning about generosity, for example, does not make one generous, does not engender the habit of feeling that issues in generous actions. Indeed, one might say that only if one has become generous—only if one is moved by what moves a generous person—can one truly understand generosity.
Schools are helping to cultivate moral sensibilities, to shape character, every day. Students notice whether teachers go about their work conscientiously or lazily, enthusiastically or begrudgingly. They see how the adults in the school address one another, the students, and their parents. They see with what care (or lack thereof) the school building and grounds are maintained. And they learn, too, from the assignments they are given and the evaluations they receive. In all these ways, habits of feeling, thought, and action are being cultivated: Character is being formed.
And then there are all the rules, formal and informal, that teachers and schools establish and apply. In general, a rule serves not only to require or prohibit a particular type of action, but also, in so doing, to engender the relevant habit of feeling and action, i.e. the relevant virtue. This is especially true in schools. In its explicit code of conduct, and in its shared understandings, a school is not only establishing the conditions of education; it is, at the same time, educating -- that is to say, forming -- character.
There are, of course, occasions for teaching about character. But these will arise on their own, through the study of literature and history, and through incidents in the everyday life of the school—in the classroom, on the playing fields, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways. No separate curriculum is required. Indeed, insofar as character lessons are grafted onto the course load, and have no meaningful connection to the core curriculum, they make ethical concerns appear artificial—something reserved for particular occasions, rather than part of the warp and woof of everyday life. That is not a lesson we want students to absorb. Translated into the conduct of adults, it becomes the attitude of the individual who writes out large checks to charities in the evening, after spending the day trampling over other human beings--for after all, business is business.
With initiatives comes "dissemination." If character education takes the form of a special curriculum, then, the thinking goes, it can be efficiently packaged and transmitted from one school to another. But if character education is understood to occur through the ordinary workings of a school, then there is nothing special to disseminate. A school that educates character well does so because it is steadily attentive to the ways in which its practices contribute to the formation of character—and other schools would do well to pay heed to this example. But that example cannot be captured in a set program, to be passed on to other schools.
Dissemination of character education programs can easily become a false substitute for the ethical constancy and intelligence that create and sustain the ethos of a school. Character education is reduced to a mere set piece—a lesson with its accompanying video and worksheet—which fulfills the school’s "character component". Meanwhile, life in the school goes on as before, quietly influencing character—for better or for worse—in ways unexamined.
Some programs in character education are, of course, better than others. But the problem is not simply that the particular program adopted by a school may be facile and shallow. The problem is the very notion of a program as the means of engaging in character education. What is needed, rather, is reflection and conversation among teachers and administrators, on the qualities of character to be cultivated and on the ways in which the quotidian practices of the school contribute to or impede that end. This helps teachers and administrators recognize the significance of their practices for the formation of character, and modify them -- or retain them, with conviction -- accordingly.
And then there is research into the effectiveness of character education. The subjects of such research are character education programs, and the question is whether particular programs have an impact on character. But if character education is understood to occur inexorably through the ordinary workings of schools, then the salient question is not whether schools have an influence on character, but what kind of influence it is, i.e. what qualities of character a school is helping to form. To answer this question, one must look closely at the particular ways a school goes about its daily business, apart from any formal programs of character education.
Ultimately, research cannot tell us how to educate our children morally. To answer that question, we must make judgments about the kind of people we want them to become and the kind of schooling this requires. The quality of character education depends on the quality of those judgments, and on our steadfastness in acting on them. Formal programs in character education are no substitute for this. The lure of federal money to create such programs in schools will only distract from the necessary work of moral examination and judgment. Congress can best serve the renewal of character education in America by practicing what it preaches, exhibiting the moral virtues at work in the work that it does. After all, citizens of all ages are watching and learning.
William J. Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, is co-director of Empower America and chairman of K12.com, an Internet-based elementary and secondary education program. Edwin J. Delattre is Dean of the School of Education, and Professor of Philosophy, at Boston University.