Teaching character

Maurice B. Howard

September 29, 1993|By Maurice B. Howard

AUNT Lulu began teaching near the turn of the century. In addition to the "three R's," Lulu taught morals and ethics in what was termed "character education."

At the time, public educators saw the need to emphasize character education because the move to an industrial age had resulted in alarming changes in society. Causes of this shocking decline in morality included "the industrial employment of the mother, increased moral stress and strain in larger centers of the population, the 'speeding-up' processes of modern life, a tendency to regard constituted authority lightly, a lack of respect for age and superior wisdom, a tendency toward lawlessness and perverted ideas as to the proper limits and legitimate range of so-called personal liberty."

Sound familiar? The quote is from a publication, "Public School Methods," published in 1900.

So Aunt Lulu "taught" character. How? In reading, she carefully chose stories that stressed such values as responsibility, citizenship, honesty, self-discipline, caring, punctuality and temperance.

Through a story in the chapters of her Harper and Brothers reader, for example, the character Lazy Slokins, a poor student, became Lazy Slokins, a drunkard, then Lazy Slokins, a thief. In other words, poor school performance could have dire consequences!

Aunt Lulu watched for "teachable moments." Fisticuffs during recess became a lesson in "conflict resolution," followed by admonitions about the consequences of fighting. When her eighth-grade boys and girls would sneak behind the schoolhouse during recess, she would lecture about chastity and abstinence. Incomplete homework, cheating on a test, lack of respect for adults, a "me-first" attitude or disobedience all led to instruction on the need for proper morals.

Heroes were celebrated for their bravery, love of country, service to others and commitment to ideals.

A key element of Aunt Lulu's approach to character education was that "habits are the actual bricks on which every individual is forced to build a personal character structure." She relied on short periods of direct character education instruction, drill and repetition, and she was especially careful to provide opportunities for students to put their morals into practice. Garments were gathered and mended for distribution to the poor, and simple toys were made to be given to others in need during the holiday season. Aunt Lulu saw her students' self-esteem and confidence grow. They could make a difference for themselves, for others and for their country!

Almost a century later, public school educators are renewing the teaching of character. The signs of decline in 1900 are still decried in 1993. Many believe, as they did in 1900, that society is going to hell in a handbasket.

So what have we learned in the last 100 years? Many of Aunt Lulu's methods are still appropriate. But agreeing on the values and morals to teach is not as easy. Literature must be chosen for reasons other than exemplifying character. Heroes aren't easy to find in a society that seems peculiarly hero-less. The decisions students are forced to make are more complex.

Still, it is clear that the real purposes of education extend beyond helping students develop character through deliberate teaching of commonly accepted ethics and morals. In fact, many educators believe that not stressing morals is tolerating immorality.

A governor's commission on values education recommended a list of 16 values determined to be commonly accepted. That list serves as the basis for character and values education renewal as a component of reform in several school systems. A state consortium now spearheads the movement for statewide character education.

New curriculum in Baltimore City Public Schools has infused character education based on the 16 commonly accepted values. Through a grant by the United Way of Central Maryland, character education instructional kits have been purchased for 73 city schools. The Board of School Commissioners has specified 75 hours of community service, a kind of applied character education, as a requirement for graduation beginning with this fall's ninth graders.

The formula for becoming "smart" seems simple -- confidence plus hard work. Both are elements of character that must be learned. Both can get better with practice and continued success. Both are essential to success as a citizen and worker.

The teaching of ethics and morals continues to be the primary responsibility of parents. An African proverb stresses, however, that it takes a community to raise a child. So Baltimore city educators join with the religious community, government and community organizations to help parents teach character to children and to serve as examples of the commonly accepted values, morals and ethics that must be taught.

Maurice B. Howard is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Baltimore City Public Schools.

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