by A. G. Larkins
The Case for Character Education in Public Schools
Character education is getting a big boost nationwide. Advocates include such conservative politicians as former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, as well as noted professors such as Kevin Ryan.1 But are the public schools the proper domain for character education? Don't teachers have enough on their hands with the academic curriculum? Shouldn't instruction in values be left to the home, church, and synagogue?
Parents may argue that they should have a strong voice, perhaps the final voice, in choosing values for their children. It is also clearly true that the teacher's responsibility to teach academic subjects is a substantial mission, without adding character development to the instructional load. Nevertheless, a compelling case can be made for including character development within the public schools.
The primary responsibility for character development falls on the family, but the family should not be expected to carry that responsibility alone, for several reasons. First, many-perhaps most-parents are determined to raise children who have strong, positive values. As parents, we want our children to be honest, loyal, self-disciplined, industrious, and kind-hearted. We also want our children to be committed to core values in the democratic creed, such as freedom of speech and religion, the right to privacy, patriotism, and equality of opportunity.
Furthermore, we do not want our children to abandon those values when they cross the threshold of the family home on their way to school. Given that children often spend more of their waking hours with teachers than with parents, it is important that character education initiated in the home be reinforced in the school.
Second, despite the desire of most families to rear children with strong character, there are forces that work against that goal, not the least of which are found in the mass media-TV, popular music, and movies. The negative influence of the media is ubiquitous and very difficult for parents to control, especially in an age of two-income families. Therefore, parents depend on the public schools to help provide character instruction and positive role models; to introduce their children to good music and literature and art; and to help counter the rude, self-centered, hedonistic, and violent models presented in the media.
Third, some parents do not provide adequate character education for their children. In fact some parents serve as negative role models. My wife tells the story of a child whose grandmother taught him to steal from coin-operated coke and candy machines. In that family, theft was a cottage industry. Families in which one or more parent is dishonest, lazy, brutal, or foul-mouthed can be found in many school neighborhoods. Even when parents have good intentions and provide positive role models, other factors may prevent them from attending to their child's character education. Families with parents who work long hours and those disrupted by divorce, ill health, or poverty, may result in children who are heavily influenced by television and their peers, neither of which can substitute for the moral direction given by strong parents.2
Fourth, despite the fact that families should have a very strong voice in selecting values for their children, the family is not the only social group that has a legitimate interest in character development for young children. American society as a whole has a stake in the moral character of its individual members. Dishonesty, violence, incivility, crime, and an inclination to compromise our basic freedoms affect each of us. Therefore, as a society we have an interest in the production of children who will grow into decent adults. The public school is our collective agent to that end.
Does Character Education Make a Difference?
Can we teach children to be good? Yes. Children can be taught to be good, though the outcome is not a sure bet. Adults who try to reform their own behavior know that self-improvement is tough going. Change for the better comes in small steps, over a long period of time, and with much back-sliding. We should expect no surer moral miracles for our children than we do for ourselves. Teachers who attempt character training will become discouraged.
By comparison, teaching reading, spelling, numbers, and the recitation of facts seems to have easily discernable results. But the same children who role-play noble deeds, sing songs about kind people, and listen to stories of compassionate acts can be nastier than ill-tempered cats during recess.
But the results can also be positive in both the short and long run. My wife, who teaches fourth grade, recently took a mean-spirited child aside and pointed out that his divorced mother has more than she can handle working full time and trying to raise a family of three quarreling children. My wife suggested that this child try to be cooperative and friendly in the home, because the mother needs to know that she is loved and appreciated. The next day, the mother came to school and burst into tears because her child had deliberately held back from fighting with a sibling, and expressed love for the mother. Even though this child likely will backslide many times, there may also be long-lasting positive results from this lesson on kindness.
The Importance and Limits of Indoctrination
"Indoctrination" is an ugly word among professional educators. Our task is to teach children to think for themselves about important ethical issues, not to be knee-jerk moral robots who respond mechanistically to a politically correct party line. When asked to choose between teaching critical thinking and indoctrination, we generally claim to favor critical thinking. In truth, however, the choice should not be either/or. The inculcation of values is not always the foe of critical thinking. The choice between critical thinking and indoctrination is often a false, misleading, and even dangerous dichotomy, since before students can make important and difficult ethical choices they must first have substantial commitment to the values imbedded in those choices.
For example, the choice between the right to life and the right to privacy when faced with the topic of abortion has little ethical weight unless the person making that choice is committed to both those values. The choice between freedom of speech and patriotism-when faced with the topic of flag burning-similarly has little meaning unless people making that choice are committed to those values.
The important point here is that we become committed to values such as the right to life, the right to privacy, freedom of speech, and patriotism through indoctrination. Likewise, we become committed to truth telling, cleanliness, diligence, and compassion through indoctrination. Indoctrination, therefore, is pedagogically prior to critical thinking. Becoming indoctrinated to the importance of basic values is a necessary step prior to learning to think critically about ethical issues.
None of this means, of course, that all forms of indoctrination are justified. The trick is to know when indoctrination is morally defensible and when it is not. Generally, indoctrination of basic values is more clearly defensible than is indoctrination of "correct" answers to moral dilemmas. The distinction I am trying to make is between values and ethical decisions.
My position is that teachers are morally obligated to indoctrinate values. We are responsible for teaching our children to be committed to the basic values of our society. At the same time, we are treading on shaky ground when we attempt to indoctrinate "correct" answers to questions that require difficult ethical choices. In the latter case, our proper role may be limited to helping students to think clearly about the issues, rather than to attempt to dictate right answers. And I must confess that the issue of when to remain neutral while children wrestle with difficult ethical questions is itself a difficult ethical question.
How to Inculcate Values
All schools teach values. They cannot avoid it. From the first day of class, kindergartners are required to share with others, obey authority, follow orderly routines, take turns, and delay gratification. Young children are not taught to think critically about these behaviors. They are not given the freedom to choose between crowding in or waiting their turn at the drinking fountain, speaking out or raising their hand during class discussion, taking all the crayons or sharing with their classmates. In the first years of school, proper behavior and attitudes are indoctrinated, and properly so.
Procedures for indoctrinating or inculcating values are simple and honored by time. They follow patterns used by parents, teachers, and religious leaders since time immemorial. The core elements are role modeling and role playing, habituation, repetition, reinforcement, and appeals to the heart.
Habituation, Repetition, and Reinforcement
Kindergarten teachers who indoctrinate children to obey reasonable rules-for example, to stand in line, to take turns, to share-rely largely on habituation, repetition, and reinforcement. Consistency and verbal rewards are key elements used by good teachers. Rules stay the same day in and day out. Children are praised (reinforced) for obeying those rules. They become habituated to proper behavior through repetition and praise, and more importantly, they become emotionally committed to that behavior, as any substitute teacher who fails to follow the drill quickly finds out.
Goodness is largely habitual. It is a habit formed the same way that we form other habits-through repetition and positive reinforcement, so that the right thing becomes the familiar and comfortable thing. By adulthood, we give no second thought to most of our good behaviors. We just do them, from habit. In most cases, we do not need to go through a complex critical thinking procedure in order to be polite, or honest, or diligent. Those behaviors have long since become the "naturaquot; thing to do. Furthermore, reinforcement is recognized by psychologists as a powerful procedure for producing attitude formation and attitude change.3
Teachers are role models for children. By observing kind and decent teachers, children learn kindness, decency and concern for others. In some unfortunate cases, a narrow and authoritarian vindictiveness is observed and modeled.
For good or evil, we cannot avoid the fact that we are modeling behavior for the children in our care. It has been forty years since I was on Mack Taft's wrestling team at Weber County High School in Ogden, Utah, but the lessons Mack taught me about decency continue to stand out long after the wrestling skills have faded.
Let us not kid ourselves. Charles Barkely notwithstanding (remember his proclamation in TV commercials, "I am not a role model! Parents are role models!"), teachers are role models for children. Let us hope that some day a former student of ours will look back as fondly on the models that we set as I look back on the model that Mack Taft set for me.
Role Playing and Appeals to the Heart.
Role modeling and role playing are not identical. When children observe and admire our behavior, we serve as role models. When children act out modeled behavior, they engage in role playing. Theory and research concerning role playing bears out what teachers have long known, that attitude change for the better occurs when children engage in active role playing of positive behaviors. The effect is especially strong when the role playing includes improvisation.4
Unfortunately, role playing produces negative ethical effects when socially undesirable role models are copied. One of the things that is destructive about messages children receive from the media is that children incorporate those messages into their role play. They may act out, and thus reinforce, violent, self-centered, and rude behaviors.
To counter the negative images presented in much of the media aimed at children, teachers should use a variety of approaches that appeal to the heart through music, poetry, literature, and play acting. The use of children's literature is probably the approach which is most accessible to teachers, whether those stories are read, retold, or acted out.
Where can teachers find appropriate stories? I find them in my religious heritage. When looking for stories, I turn to the children's publications of the church which my family attends. In this case, The Friend is a goldmine of ideas. I suspect that other teachers will find that publications associated with their religious heritage would be equally useful. Law-related education publications often note literature that is appropriate for discussion of character issues, and school media specialists may offer suggestions.
When using this approach in public schools, it is important to select secular stories. I have found that religious publications for children contain at least some secular stories or stories that can be modified to fit a secular environment. Another approach is to draw stories from a secular publication such as Highlights for Children, or from children's trade books.
Music and Poetry.
There should be more singing and poetry recitation in public schools. All elementary school teachers should sing with their children, even if the teacher's voice is bad, even if the teacher can't play an instrument, even if the school has an official music teacher. The children don't care whether you think your voice is bad-it sounds like a parent's voice and can comfort, reassure and quiet them. And there is no surer way to instill values in young children than through music. For good or evil, music appeals to the heart as no other medium can. Let's make sure that there is one place where the appeal is for good-the public school.
1.W. J. Bennett, ed., The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993); A. G. Larkins and M. L. Hawkins, "Guiding Character Development: Basic Building Block of a Quality Education," The Atlanta Constitution (Feb. 12, 1987), 31-A; E. A. Wynn and K. Ryan, Reclaiming Our Schools: A Handbook on Teaching Character, Academics, and Discipline (New York: Merrill, 1993); K. Ryan and T. Lickona, eds., Character Development in Schools and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992).
2.P. Welsh, Tales Out of School: A Teacher's Candid Account from the Front Lines of the American High School Today (New York: Viking, 1986), 34-61.
3.C. A. Insko, Theories of Attitude Change (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967), 18-21.
4.R. E. Petty and J. T. Cacioppo, Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1981), 213-219.
About the Author
A.G. Larkins is a professor of social
science education at The University of Georgia. His research interests include character education and law-related issues.