Magazine article Insight on the News

The Education of Good Character

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Education of Good Character

Article excerpt

Though a new character-education movement is gaining strength, experts say the workout that will build its muscle can be found in teachers who are willing to embrace it.

Professor Tom Lickona, who heads the Center for the Fourth and Fifth R's at the State University of New York at Cortland, says he came by his interest in character education through a natural convergence of events. In graduate school during the late 1960s, Lickona's area of concentration was the moral development of children, he tells Insight. In the meantime, character and behavior in the public schools "began the slide down the ethical tubes we're all familiar with."

Lickona, who had begun teaching aspiring public-school teachers at SUNY Cortland, quickly learned that "everyone had become preoccupied with character" and its development, the very subject that long had attracted his greatest interest.

In September 1994, Lickona helped set up the center in SUNY Cortland's education department. The fourth and fifth R's that the center's name speaks of adding to reading 'riting and 'rithmatic are respect and responsibility. Each summer, Lickona's group sponsors a seminar at Cortland, which attracts leading figures in the character-education movement as speakers, as well as many teachers and administrators from all over the country who are interested in setting up character education as part of the curricula at their elementary, middle and high schools.

Lickona acknowledges that the mushrooming interest in character education is something relatively new. As recently as 1985 when New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo suggested that what students needed was a good grounding in old-fashioned values such as love for your neighbor and good citizenship, he immediately was attacked by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, which accused him of trying to force middle-class values on unwilling students and warned him that it was a dangerous path to pursue.

"These days, one doesn't hear a peep from the ACLU or anyone else," Lickona notes. What had happened? "We'd traveled down the road of exaggerated individualism that we'd begun to travel in the 1960s and the result was a moral unraveling. After the 1960s, adults began to question their own right and duty to form the character of their children. Imposing their own will seemed a violation of the child's freedom."

Everyone knows that, he says. That's why everyone these days is talking about character and how it's formed. People such as Bill Parsons, for example, now in his second year as principal at Troup High School in LaGrange, Ga., shares his experiences with character development in The Fourth and Fifth Rs, the Center's quarterly newsletter.

Last year when Parsons arrived at Troup, whose 1,100 students primarily come from middle- and low-income families and which is 55 percent white and 45 percent African American, there was a lot of concern about student behavior. "It's not a bad school," Parsons tells Insight, "but there wasn't a large amount of respect for one another."

What Parsons put in gear that first year was a collaborative effort, students, parents, teachers, all working together to come up with a program that might work. "We had no idea what to do. We didn't know which way to go."

What they did was send out surveys to participating groups asking people to circle 10 virtues out of a long list of values that they found most important. Teachers, students and parents, each as a group, circled the same top three: responsibility, respect and honesty.

Parsons and his teachers and students then came up with a program they call "Life's Lessons," a title they derive from popular character-education guru Hal Urban, a San Francisco public-school history teacher who wrote Life's Greatest Lessons.

The "Life's Lessons" curriculum has a word for each month on which the school concentrates -- say, Responsibility. …

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