New Lesson Plans Enhance Three R's; Character-Building Increasingly Is Becoming Part of the Curriculum in U.S. Schools as Educators Strive to Mold Both the Hearts and Minds of American Young People

Insight on the News, September 30, 2003 | Go to article overview

New Lesson Plans Enhance Three R's; Character-Building Increasingly Is Becoming Part of the Curriculum in U.S. Schools as Educators Strive to Mold Both the Hearts and Minds of American Young People


Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT

We've all seen the sad stories in the newspapers and on TV news. In fact, we may have become so familiar with the problems that plague education in the United States that we no longer pay much attention to more bad news about American kids and the schools they attend, fearing deep down that there's not much to be done about it.

And the news is not getting any better. The 2002 Report Card on Ethics of American Youth, for example, found that three of every four students had admitted to cheating on an exam during the last year. The report, issued by the California-based Josephson Institute for Ethics, also found that nearly four in 10 students said they had stolen something from a store during the last year and nearly four in 10 said they "would lie to get a good job."

Perhaps even more disturbing, the 2000 edition of Who's Who Among American High School Students included a report showing that 80 percent of those selected for the survey admitted to cheating in school. The students listed in this Who's Who generally are regarded as among the nation's best, yet a majority of those surveyed said that they regarded cheating in school as no big deal.

Sexual promiscuity and the emotional havoc it provokes are other problems being identified by such surveys. Sexual activity begins at earlier ages, apparently encouraged by sexually provocative TV shows, films, pop music and advertising. "Everyone does it" has become a cultural mantra, making the impressionable young feel out of it if they don't do what comes naturally. "To a large extent," Tom Lickona, an educator at the State University of New York at Cortland, tells Insight, "we are still in cultural denial about the cost of sex without social controls."

Lickona also cites the bad examples set by chief executives and other officers of major corporations such as Enron. "Greed and corruption at the top tend to foster greed and corruption at all levels," he says. Lickona likewise notes the stress placed on families during times of economic downturn, such as the nation now faces. That stress, he warns, can destroy the strong familial ties that can produce good character in the young. But saddest, and most dangerous when it comes to producing character failure, is the absence of fathers in American families. "Fatherlessness is now the leading predictor of nearly every childhood pathology," Lickona says.

That's the bad news, but there is some good to report. During the 1990s, teen-age sexual intercourse and pregnancy declined significantly, studies show. Violent crime also is coming down, as is overall violence, and the number of kids who carry guns has dropped. After Sept. 11, 2001, volunteerism among the young increased.

And among the good news must be counted the impressive number of centers and people now at work developing methods to instill better behavior in the young. A Google (www.google.com) Internet search for the words "character education" spawns a host of citations from every corner of the country.

In Indianapolis, for example, Eve Jackson has developed a program called Peers Educating and Encouraging Responsible Sexuality (PEERS) that has teen-age mentors speak to kids in middle and high schools urging chastity until marriage and warning about the dangers of alcohol and drugs.

Jackson began teaching public school in Indiana in the early 1970s, then quit to raise three daughters. She went back to teaching in 1987 and immediately noticed that a big change in student behavior had taken place while she was gone. "It was a heartbreaking situation," she tells Insight, citing teen-age pregnancy and promiscuity as well as alcohol and drug use. She says she quickly saw that an adult lecturing about what's right and wrong got nowhere.

"They wouldn't listen for a nanosecond to me or to any other adult talk about abstinence and other types of positive behavior. …

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