Cultivating Character Colleges Are Taking the Teaching of Ethics and Morals More Seriously

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Like hundreds of other freshmen at Pennsylvania State's University Park campus each fall, Brad Nestico arrived ready to study - and party - hard.

Soon he had joined a fraternity and was part of a drinking culture. About that time, though, Penn State was ramping up its anti- "binge-drinking" program: late-night movies, comedians, and dances.

But in a departure from schools with similar programs, Penn State homed in on an oft-touted, little-implemented ideal of American higher education: character. The 1990s have seen increased focus on K-12 character development - especially in the wake of recent school shootings. But the "character" question has also been steadily creeping back into the less-likely arena of college life. Recent student deaths from alcohol abuse, date rape, hazing, and cheating have college presidents increasingly looking to character education as a tool. But the goal isn't an ethics discussion. By some estimates, 10,000 courses on applied ethics - business, nursing, accounting - are scattered across America's higher-education landscape. Yet only a few hundred of the nation's 4,000-plus colleges and universities - many of them small, religious liberal-arts schools - try to educate character across the curriculum. "Higher education is rediscovering a mission it has had from the beginning," Elizabeth Hollander, director of Campus Compact, a national service-learning program at Brown University in Providence, R.I. That has translated into "educating the character of a new generation of students for the sake of our democracy, and not simply training them for work." Since the 1960s, student demands for more control over their academic lives and court rulings led colleges and society to consider college-bound students adults and think of their education as "value neutral." Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, says the tendency among large public universities, until the past five years, was to move away from character issues. But that laissez faire attitude is breaking down. "What we're seeing now throughout the nation is people at universities like ours paying more attention than ever before to character issues," he says. "In meetings I've had with other presidents, it's much more of a topic now." Arthur Schwartz, director of character development programs at the John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia, whose job is ferreting out colleges and universities that do a good job instructing on character issues, also says the pendulum is swinging back." Mr. Spanier, Mr. Hollander, Mr. Schwartz and others point to signs of change: *For the first time in memory, university presidents say, fellow presidents are talking about character and implementing programs focusing on "civic values" - what it means to be a good citizen - even if they are still tentative about delving into educating "personal moral values." *"Service learning" that combines academic teaching with experience - often in volunteer-work that focuses on civic values - has exploded. Formal programs are in place on at least 620 campuses today, compared with 120 a decade ago, Hollander says. *This fall, a new college guide by the John Templeton Foundation will profile 600 "colleges that encourage character development" in a dozen categories. The idea is to enable college-bound students and their parents to examine character-building at an institution alongside financial aid, academics, and other rankings. *Research into character education and higher education is getting new attention by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Templeton, and other organizations. *The increase in alcohol-and-substance abuse, date rape, cheating and other problems on campus is prompting authorities to look beyond traditional solutions toward programs that involve values education. "Our challenge is greater today because students are coming to us from troubled backgrounds," says Dr. …