Magazine article Montessori Life

Character Education in America

Magazine article Montessori Life

Character Education in America

Article excerpt

During the past several years, there has been a resurgence of interest in character education in American schools. A proliferation of chicanery and scandal in government and business, an onslaught of vulgarity and degradation in the media, and a dramatic increase in violent crime in the schools clearly reveal a serious moral decline in our country.

Many who write about American culture argue that the 1960s ushered in the beginning of the "de-moralization" of our society, a time where "Do your own thing" and " If it feels good, do it" began to permeate the culture. Rampant permissiveness and tolerance for any and all behavior were introduced as a way of life. Personal preferences began to replace traditional morality. The ethics of relative morality became widespread. The popular phrase "whatever" neatly sums up an attitude of the time that continues to prevail to this day. And since the 60s, academics became divorced from character education and training. The teaching of good character traits and virtuous behavior became increasingly eliminated from many school settings.

Character education began in public schools starting with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642. Children went to school to become literate so that they could read the Bible and, from it, learn right from wrong. The founding fathers of America believed that good character was needed by its citizens in order to preserve a democracy. Democratic virtues, such as respect for the rights of the individual, concern for the common good, and regard for the law were extolled. The Bible continued to be the source book of both moral and religious instruction throughout the 171 and 181 centuries In the 1830s Rev. William McGuffey began to write and publish a series of school texts called the McGuffey Readers as a way to teach school children not only to read, but to develop virtues such as honesty, hard work, kindness, courage, respect for others, charity, and thrift. From the 1830s until years into the 20th century, the McGuffey Readers were used by millions of American school children; 120 million sets of these books were sold in America during this time.

Character education continued to be an important part of the school's mission until the middle of the 20th century. In the 1960s and 70s, focus on character education declined in America for a number of reasons, including these:

* emergence of the philosophy of moral relativism: all values are relative;

* pluralism: an increasingly diverse society;

* 1963 Supreme Court ruling: school prayer is outlawed, interpreted by many to mean that anything construed to be religious or moral should not be taught in school;

* psychology of permissiveness: minimal rules and guidelines for children's behavior at home and in school.

Montessori's Views on Character Education

Since the inception of her program in the early 1900s, Maria Montessori believed that character education was of equal ifnot greater consequence than learning to read, write, and do numbers. In numerous books and articles, she devoted endless pages to the importance of supporting good character development in the child. She observed that, in her view, the origins of character are found in the first 6 years of life (Montessori, 1967). It is during this time that the child's character begins to form. She believed that the environment in which the child is raised greatly influences the nature of the child's character. She asserted that "every defect of character is due to some wrong treatment sustained by the child during his or her early years" (Montessori, 1967, p. 199).

To correct defects in character, Montessori wrote, "it is unnecessary to threaten or cajole a child in order to encourage the development of good character, but instead to 'normalize' the conditions in which the child lives" (1967, p. 200). By normalization, Montessori means that providing a child with "an environment rich in motives for activity, in which he or she can choose what to take and use" and become involved with in constructive activity will permit the child's true and integrated personality to construct itself normally(Montessori, 1967, pp. …

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