THE DISCOURSE OF CHARACTER EDUCATION: Ideology and Politics in the Proposal and Award of Federal Grants

Article excerpt

This study analyzes the ways in which character education has been articulated in the current character education movement. The study consists of a discourse analysis of proposals funded by the United States Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. This analysis identifies the discourses employed to outline states' conceptions of character and character education as revealed through the proposals. The presentation consists of two profiles from sets of states that exhibit distinct conceptions of character and character education. One profile is created from two adjacent states in the American Deep South. We argue that this conception represents the dominant perspective promoted in the United States, one based on an authoritarian conception of character in which young people are indoctrinated into the value system of presumably virtuous adults through didactic instruction. The other profile comes from two adjacent states in the American Upper Midwest. This approach springs from a well-established yet currently marginal discourse about character, one that emphasizes attention to the whole environment in which character is developed and enacted and in which reflection on morality, rather than didactic instruction in a particular notion of character, is the primary instructional approach. The analysis of the discourse of character education is concerned with identifying the ideologies behind different beliefs about character and character education.

I think we ought to have character education in our schools. I know that doesn't directly talk about Hollywood, but it does reinforce the values you're teaching. Greatly expand character education funding so that public schools will teach children values, values which have stood the test of time.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush offered this view during the third debate of the 2000 presidential campaign (Commission on Presidential Debates Transcripts, 2000). His belief in the value of federally-funded character education programs, a project undertaken during the first Clinton administration and initially funded in 1996, was pursued through 2002, when the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) was disbanded under his administration. In this study we analyze the current character education movement as revealed through the discourses found in proposals submitted to OERI to fund character curricula. (For a more detailed account of this study, see Smagorinsky & Taxel, 2005.) We focus in particular on discourses that suggest two distinct conceptions of character and character education, one articulated by two states from the Deep South and one by two states from the Upper Midwest.

Our study suggests the ways in which the concept of character is culturally constructed, emerging from the belief systems historically developed in communities of practice. By focusing on these two distinct regions and their conceptions of character, we hope to place the character education movement at the turn of the twenty-first century in the context of historical notions about the nature of character and regional conceptions regarding the nature of societal organization.

Our notion of discourse shares Purpel's (1997) assumption that the current character education movement "represents an ideological and political movement rather than a debate about curricular and instructional matters" (p. 140; emphasis in original). To Gee (1990) discourse refers not simply to brief episodes of speech but "ways of being in the world" (p. 142). Discourse, in other words, embodies a political stance through which a worldview is enacted through tacit or explicit means, imparts a stance that it is impervious to question or criticism, and suggests the marginality or dubiousness of values and perspectives central to other discourses. Our study of OERI-funded character education curricula looks at discourse as ideological in Gee's sense. …