Understanding Character Education

Assignment:   Personal Ethics

“Listed below are personal ethics or values… look over the list and place an * in front of your TOP TEN values.  Use ** to indicate the five that have most importance in your life.  Indicate the most important with a ***.’

Tolerance                       Self-Discipline                      Involvement

Honesty                          Self-Respect                          Friendliness

Trustworthiness              Humor                                  Independence

Cooperation                   Patriotism                             Forgiveness

Contentment                    Fairness                                Eagerness

Loyalty                            Justice                                  Determination

Calmness                        Open-mindedness                 Promptness

The above assignment was given in a Pittsburgh high school health class as part of a “character education” program embedded into a unit on substance abuse.

One young man in the classroom informed the teacher that he could not complete the assignment without knowing the larger moral context into which the “ethics” fell.    For example:

Loyalty – to whom?  Hitler?  Jim Jones?

Humor – whose?  Andrew Dice clay’s?  Lucille Ball’s??

Tolerance – of what?  Child labor?  Ethnic cleansing?

Similar questions could have been asked about the other traits in the list.

Although people support the concept of Character Education (CE), few can agree how to define and teach it without crossing into personal attitudes, values, morals, and ethics.  The state Senate has now brought the discussion on CE into Pennsylvania’s school districts by passing Senate Bill 596.  This bill offers funding to school districts that develop and implement CE programs that meet state-defined guidelines.

What is the history of CE?

During the sweeping educational reforms of the 1990’s, a group of political leaders, psychiatrists, international ethicist, school superintendents, and members of state boards of education met in Aspen, CO, to seek a “consensus on ethical values.”  The resulting Character Counts movement selected consensus values for America’s school children called The Six Pillars of Character: Respect, Responsibility, Justice, Trustworthiness, Civic Virtue, and Citizenship.  It is not surprising that these very character traits are central to SB 596.

Because the education reform movement often gives new meaning to old words so schools can become vehicles for social change, citizens must ask what these consensus values mean.  For example, the Aspen Group defined RESPONSIBILITY to mean:   “… to carry out the obligations of citizenship by working toward a common vision of the common good.”1 What are their definitions of  “common good” and “common vision?”  Will individual rights give way to collective rights or consensus morality?

The United Nations has also weighed in on character traits.  Under the UNESCO Declaration on Tolerance, tolerance is defined as respect, acceptance and appreciation of all cultures.2 The document clearly states that all dogmatism and absolutism must be rejected.  This definition conflicts with the beliefs of many groups or families.

What is a parent to do?

If Character Education wins full approval of the General Assembly and the governor, parents must be aware that CE programs could come into their schools either through law or regulation.

Parents need to understand that character education can go far beyond a code of conduct regarding behaviors of civility within the school environment that teachers model and to which students adhere.  Such observable behavior includes punctuality, sportsmanship courtesy, orderliness, and politeness.

CE programs can go into the realm of a student’s personal beliefs and values that are traditionally the purview of a child’s family and faith.  In fact, CE could subtly cross into the domain of conscience formation that would promote consensus morality.  When this happens, it is possible for young, captive, and vulnerable minds to face the deconstruction of their cultural, ethnic, and family values through indoctrination.  Hitler’s control of German society is an extreme example of the misuse of CE in the schools.

What is a parent to do?  Let your legislator and Governor Rendell know your opinion.  Schools teaching children how to behave is an important function of education.  Teaching children what to believe is a corruption of our American ideals.

If your school district decides to introduce CE, be involved in the planning and implementation of any program.  Help select appropriate character traits that create an orderly school environment without indoctrinating the students to certain beliefs or values.

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