Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

The Problematics of Character Education and Civic Virtue: A Critical Response to the NCSS Position Statement

Kevin D. Vinson

“Character education” (and such variants as “mora#148; and “values” education) has long been controversial within, yet simultaneously vital to, the social studies and citizenship education. For many, its relevance to social education at least at some level is a clear and unquestioned given. Yet social educators are often forced to walk a thin line—for example, between guiding their students toward a commitment to “American democratic values” or instructing them in an uncritical “patriotism” that views the United States as the paragon of historical and international morality. The challenge in teaching civic virtue rests on the willingness of educators to trust children to develop their own narratives of “good,” “bad,” “virtuous,” “right,” “wrong,” “citizen,” and “democracy.” For in doing so, we are encouraging the development of character.1
Needless to say, the task before us is daunting and involves a particular risk for social studies educators. For that reason alone, the recent efforts of the NCSS Task Force on Character Education in the Social Studies should be commended. Its position statement, “Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies,” should stir and refocus debate on the relationship of character to citizenship education.2 Yet the statement contains (perhaps unavoidably) a number of weaknesses that threaten its potential impact. Given the imperatives of democratic citizenship, it is essential that social studies professionals subject “officia#148; NCSS policy to critical scrutiny from a range of perspectives.
The purpose of this reply is to address shortcomings of the NCSS position statement while acknowledging its good intentions and potential to advance the conversation. Specifically, I challenge the work of the Task Force according to four principal concerns: (1) necessity and timeliness, (2) generality and specificity, (3) utility, and (4) comprehensiveness. In addition, I explore alternative approaches to the themes articulated by the Task Force as a way out of its implicit and explicit problematics.

Necessity and Timeliness
My fundamental question is “Why?” What constitutes the need for an official NCSS policy on character/virtue education? Do any contemporary social studies professionals oppose such ideals? Do teachers not want them? Have they not already established them? Do any social studies teachers favor “anti-democratic” or “bad” character over “democratic” or “good” character? What need or purpose is met by committing the profession to what by definition it is already committed? If it is simply to place the NCSS on record, then a more essential problem exists.
For if—as the Task Force maintains—“at the heart of social studies is the obligation to teach democratic principles and to inspire civic virtue in the young people who will shape our future,”3 then its path was (or should have been) determined long ago. Character education has long been a major focus of the social studies.4 But if character education is so vital, then why as a profession are we so late in stating our (obvious?) position? My own informal investigation suggests that, rather than leading, we are following a course set by others.5
In an area where social studies professionals should be leading, the question is: Are we simply jumping on the bandwagon, identifying with the pedagogically chic while ignoring our obligation to influence critically the meaning of democratic citizenship? I would argue that (1) social educators have always taught “democratic principles and [worked] to inspire civic virtue in [our] young people...”6 and (2) we should be in the forefront of this debate, not lagging behind the “fashion curve” established and legitimized by others.

Generality and Specificity
Inherent in this policy effort are two opposed but contiguous difficulties, namely “generality” and “specificity.” To a certain extent, these exist simply as endpoints along a subjective and relative continuum. On another level, each presents its own risks as well as benefits. The challenge involves creating an equilibrium between the two.
The fundamental risk of “generality” comes into play when an effort to reach consensus produces an overall sense of vagueness; when, that is, the very attempt to affect many circumstances limits the potential to affect any one. In this instance, I fear that the NCSS character statement is so vague as to offer little in the way of specific curricular or instructional guidance. Instead, it offers a series of poorly defined words and phrases, democratic jargon with which it is difficult to disagree, even if one does not know precisely what the Task Force meant by it.7
More threatening, perhaps, is the risk entailed in “specificity,” or what might be called “disciplinarity.”8 By this, I mean the anti-democratic effort to sanction and impose a particular vision of good character and civic virtue. At the very least, approaching character issues from an absolutist perspective of “right and wrong” or “correct and incorrect” is inconsistent with today’s widely accepted notions of constructivism, multiculturalism, and authenticity.
More troubling still is the assumption that the leadership of the NCSS can legitimately determine and institutionalize the components of democratic virtue and character for others. In fact, it cannot. Democratic citizenship demands not moral conformity and concrete guidelines for behavior, but an understanding that values are complex and fluid, being produced out of multiple dynamic interactions among individuals, groups, interests, needs, and environments. Regardless of the Task Force’s intentions, we as a profession must avoid a system of “national character standards” around which to mandate curriculum, instruction, and assessment. As I see it, the Task Force has created the worst of both worlds, a vagueness that encourages conformity.

My question concerning utility is twofold: (1) Does, or will, this position statement promote “better” social studies/citizenship education?, and (2) Do, or can, policies aimed at character education actually foster civic virtue? In response to the first question, I believe the position statement offers nothing new, but simply recognizes and (re)affirms what social educators do every day.9 In response to the second, I submit that the jury is still out.
What we do know is that a renewed interest in character education does exist. As Lickona states: “Increasing numbers of people across the ideological spectrum believe that our society is in deep moral trouble. The disheartening signs are everywhere.... As a result, character education is making a comeback in American schools.”10 We further know how American character education evolved historically as well as something about the current “need” for character education. We know its components, its practices, and its challenges.11 According to Task Force co-chair James Leming, we have learned that:
1. Didactic methods alone...are unlikely to have any significant...lasting effect on character.
2. The development of [the] capacity to reason about...moral conduct does not result in a related change in moral conduct.
3. Character develops within a social web or environment...Clear rules of conduct, student ownership of those rules, a supportive environment, and satisfaction...from complying with the norms of the environment shape behavior.
4. Character educators should not expect character formation to be easy.12
Implicit in the work of both Lickona and Leming is an understanding that character education can work. Murchison, on the other hand, argues that “[v]arious considerations militate against [the] overreliance on public schools as forums for teaching [character].”13 As Leming indicates, a great deal of work remains to be done in the evaluation of existing character education programs and classroom practices.14 Until these issues are addressed, the utility of the position statement remains, at best, uncertain.

Lastly, I would argue that the Task Force has neglected an entire strand of contemporary social education, “informed social criticism,” as well as the evolving influence of “critical pedagogy.”15 Both are highly relevant to civic virtue and character education. They demand, for example, that we focus our attention on questions of social justice, equality, freedom, and identity. They insist that we emphasize not only the effects of schools upon societies, but also the effects of societies upon schools.
They oblige us to ask questions such as: Whose character and whose virtue? What are the criteria for selecting content and appropriate models of character—and who chose the criteria? What does civic virtue mean within an unjust society? What is the relationship between majority consensus and multiculturalism? What relevance have questions of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, class, age, and sexuality, especially in terms of power, dominance, and oppression? Who benefits and who does not from any program of character/virtue education? How and why? These questions are crucial and must be addressed before acting upon any proposed policy.
The ideals of civic virtue and democratic character mean one thing to society’s powerfu#151;the “winners”—and another to those who confront daily the problems of economic, social, cultural, and political injustices. Try explaining the Task Force’s notion of a civic virtue grounded in shared “democratic first principles”16 to those segments of American youth for whom incarceration is a greater likelihood than is an adequate public education. As the Task Force explains, its goals do demand some “appropriate” action, for example, the establishment of clear expectations for teacher and student behavior. Fine. But again, whose behavior best represents civic virtue? In the language of both probability and fairness, what are the odds that the socially dominant will dictate “proper” behavior to the socially marginalized, or vice versa?
In short, the Task Force has failed to address the societal conditions that make possible the construction of its own position statement. If social, economic, cultural, and political structures were different—more fair, let’s say, or distinguished by more equal opportunities—would such a top-down effort even be considered? As social educators, we must continually confront a difficult yet fundamental question: To what extent do schools influence the character and civic virtue of society, and society the character and civic virtue of schools? Most probably, of course, it is a two-way street. Schools and societies both make a difference. It is a difference limited, however, by those persons and institutions content to remain indifferent within their own comfortable status quo settings.

Summary and Conclusions
Overall, the Task Force is to be commended. In undertaking a position statement on character and civic virtue, it courageously accepted a responsibility that is both serious and innately controversial. Its members addressed a topic that challenges the very essence of social education, and formulated a statement with the potential to advance the conversation among NCSS members and all social studies educators. For although “[t]he task of fostering civic virtue is not the exclusive province of social studies falls most directly on social studies professionals.”17 My chief regret is that the Task Force missed the opportunity to promote a more inclusive and holistic vision for the future.
In any event, the easy part is over. Stating a professional commitment to democratic ideals and civic virtue is but a necessary first step. We must now move to a deeper discussion of the very problematics of character and civic virtue. I see the crucial questions as revolving around five controversial issues exemplified as follows:
1. Definitions (What is “democratic virtue?”)
2. Incommensurable positions (for instance, those on issues such as abortion and flag burning, where differences are so great as to preclude meaningful compromise)
3. Conflicting visions (Whose version of character/virtue will dominate?)
4. Content and models (Is voting necessary? Is civil disobedience civic virtue? Is Louis Farrakhan, or any controversial leader, an appropriate role model?)
5. Transmission versus construction (To what extent is character/civic virtue “sent and received” as opposed to “created” subjectively and contextually?)
How should we as social studies professionals confront these issues? We can pursue a proactive leadership position when it comes to character and virtue education. We can investigate empirically their effects. We can address and debate our concerns within a wide forum, seeking inclusiveness and listening to as many voices, perspectives, and experiences as possible. Most directly, we can continue this conversation by extending the multiple and complex discourses that define contemporary social education.
Additionally, we can draw from the recent literature surrounding democratic education. For example, Beane and Apple argue that democratic societies demand schools willing to involve everyone in the processes of educating a virtuous citizenry.18 Ideally, entire communities can work toward equality and the de-monopolizing of the control of schools by society’s most powerful members; for the conditions for character and civic virtue must evolve within this context, and not at the “upper levels” of society. In this regard, the Task Force could have invited interested “laypersons” to be among its members.
Preskill suggests direct connections among democracy, character, and schooling. He argues strongly for the importance of “dialogue” in advancing the cause of democratic citizenship.19 At heart, he envisions a constructivist notion of democracy and character grounded in classroom discussions that encourage students to form relationships and work toward bettering their worlds. By ignoring such thinking, the Task Force ultimately privileges rules for behavior over a more “free wheeling” and truly democratic interaction.
Overall, a number of avenues lie open to us. We could explore civic virtue as manifested locally and globally as well as at the national level. We could examine consensus understandings of character and virtue in relation to existing power relationships. We could scrutinize character education in terms of ideals of social justice and personal-cultural identity. Finally, we could consider how students create their own knowledge of character and virtue and construct their own models of democratic citizenship. For we must recognize as legitimate a multiplicity of viewpoints while maintaining our historical concern with the formation of good citizens. In the words of the Task Force: “The fate of the American experiment in self government depends...on the store of civic virtue that resides in the American people. The social studies profession of this nation has a vital role to play in keeping this wellspring of civic virtue flowing.”20

1. I am not suggesting that children be left alone or abandoned. Certainly, the teacher’s role is crucial.
2. National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Character Education in the Social Studies [hereafter cited as Task Force], “Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies (Position Statement),” Social Education 61 (1997): 225-7.
3. Ibid., 225.
4. See, for example, James S. Leming, “In Search of Effective Character Education,” Educational Leadership 51, 3 (1993): 63-71; Thomas Lickona, “The Return of Character Education,” Educational Leadership 51, 3 (1993): 6-11; William Murchison, “School Daze,” in James W. Noll, ed., Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Educational Issues (Guilford, CN.: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1997), 59-65.
5. My argument here is not, however, territorial. Further, I wish to note that my own recent ERIC (combined) search on the descriptor “character education” yielded 414 items (from December 1969 through July 1997). Interested readers should see “Character Education,” Educational Leadership 51, 3, thematic issue (1993): 5-97.
6. Task Force, 225.
7. Ibid., 225-226. A selection of such jargon includes: “fundamental principles and ideals,” “virtuous citizenry,” “the common good,” “public virtue,” “moral character,” “core values,” and “appropriate civic dispositions.” Even terms such as “popular sovereignty,” “rule of law,” “religious liberty,” “pursuit of happiness,” “equality,” “truth,” and “promotion of the common good” can be problematic. While most readers of Social Education presumably support these ideals, they do so without clear definitions from the Task Force.
8. See, for example, Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 78-108; Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Anthony Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), originally published 1975; and Jennifer M. Gore, The Struggle for Pedagogies: Critical and Feminist Discourses as Regimes of Truth (New York: Routledge, 1993).
9. In other words, while social educators should indeed be praised, I am not sure stating the obvious is a sufficient basis upon which to create policy or design position statements.
10. Lickona, 6.
11. Ibid., 6-11, passim.
12. Leming, 69.
13. Murchison, 60.
14. Leming, 69.
15. See Shirley H. Engle, “Comments of Shirley H. Engle,” in Robert D. Barr, James L. Barth, and Samuel S. Shermis, eds., Defining the Social Studies (NCSS Bulletin 51) (Arlington, Va.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1977), 103-5; Barry Kanpol, Critical Pedagogy: An Introduction (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1994); Peter H. Martorella, Teaching Social Studies in Middle and Secondary Schools, 2nd ed. (New York: Merrill, 1996), 20; Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 1998); Jack L. Melson, “New Criticism and Social Education,” Social Education 49 (1985): 368-71; and William B. Stanley and Nelson, “Social Education for Social Transformation,” Social Education 50 (1986): 528-33.
16. Task Force, 225.
17. Ibid., 226.
18. James A. Beane and Michael W. Apple, “The Case for Democratic Schools,” in Democratic Schools, ed. Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997), 1-25;
19. Stephen Preskill, “Discussion, Schooling, and the Struggle for Democracy,” Theory & Research in Social Education 25 (1997): 316-45. See also Victor L. Worsfold, “Teaching Democracy Democratically,” Educational Theory 47 (1997): 395-410.
20. Task Force, 227.

Kevin D. Vinson is assistant professor in the Department of Education at Loyola College, Baltimore, Maryland.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.