Character can't be taught as a classroom subject


July 11, 1999|By Mike Burns

CHARACTER EDUCATION sounds like a great idea. The wonder is that Carroll County and other school systems across the country have not been teaching this subject in recent years. Or is it just a new name and bureaucratic requirement for something that's always been a part of public education?

All of us want our children to learn the lessons of high moral character and courtesy. So why is the move to install character education in the Carroll schools this fall such a big deal?

Perhaps it's because the new program seems so formalized. Perhaps it is because we are ashamed of having failed, in and out of school, to build character in our children.

The Carroll plan for this fall is to focus on a different character trait each month, beginning with respect. Otherwise, the study plan is up to the teacher and the school. That may be the wisest way to approach the issue, but it may also lead to a decidedly unequal level of instruction.

However, teachers and administrators who know that they are evaluated on the performances of pupils on an array of standardized, required tests are not going to waste much time on teaching something that is not scrupulously graded.

In fact, there's little to be gained on multiple-choice quizzes about character. Kids will know the right answers even if they never practice them, like the code of conduct rules about drinking and smoking and drugs and fire drills.

If we are talking about essay writing, why haven't teachers chosen these character virtues for topics up until now? They used to be a common component of public education, firmly embedded in reading and writing and other subjects.

The answer is that character education in a less formal structure is still an integral part of instruction in most public schools.

But adults worry that the lessons are not being learned, that there is a pattern of entropy in the morality of young people. Therefore, the schools should remedy the problem.

Wrong. The responsibility lies with parents. And with the community in which these children grow up. Leaving it up to teachers is an abdication of responsibility.

Schools are a vital culture of young people. The understanding educator, the wise coach or counselor will impart the lessons of character in meaningful ways that cannot be regimented in a "trait of the month club." Students can "study" these virtues in school, but it is only in practice outside the classroom that they will truly learn them.

If there is a breakdown in character values of youth, which most people seem to believe, it is not the fault of the schools. It's a manifestation of society's changing views of character and behavior that are reflected in social structures, including public schools.

If punishment in the real world seldom fits the crime, then there's no reinforcement of the strictures of moral probity in the schoolroom. If tolerance is preached to the extreme, then the most anti-social elements become the moral equivalents of those who practice their character education. If society turns a blind eye to rotten behavior, excuses it as merely diversity, it effectively destroys the abstract lessons of moral conduct taught in the school.

Moral relativism became fashionable in education. The insidious movement undermined previous efforts in the schools to inculcate moral values. Constitutional challenges and political pressure groups have eroded much of what was considered character education in public pedagogy. Fear of offending has become the primary character trait in the schools and in society.

Now the public cry is to restore these school lessons, but in a formal education structure, abstract and sterile. That's not going to be effective, any more than the basic codes of conduct already enforced in schools. Because the object of education is to provide a foundation for coping in the outside world, not simply for conformity to life within the parietal walls.

Most of us can remember incidents in our own school careers when we got a lesson in character. Often it was outside of a formal lesson plan. Sometimes it didn't involve a teacher, but a classmate. Those are the moral lessons that are enduring. Ask writer Robert Fulghum, who learned everything he really needed to know in kindergarten -- and it was all about character.

Schools can teach character, but not as a distinct subject. (Look at the required "citizenship" test for graduation that is being discarded by Maryland; it didn't elevate any measure of civic virtue.)

Getting an A in character education won't assure that any student has improved his/her standards of character. Getting a teacher, and a community, who can exemplify those standards will.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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