The Missing Ingredient in Character Education

By Lasley, Thomas J., II | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Missing Ingredient in Character Education


Lasley, Thomas J., II, Phi Delta Kappan


It is doubtful that school programs will prove successful if they seek to teach children the lessons that adults have not yet learned, Mr. Lasley warns.

Educators IN the U.S. are embracing another "new" panacea for the apparent crisis of values in the schools. This time it's "character education." Teachers, administrators, and even parents resonate to the idea of teaching students the core values deemed essential for cultural survival. Some states (e.g., Maryland) have devised ways of instilling specific "pro-social values" into young people as prerequisites for graduation. Some school districts - from Los Angeles (the Thomas Jefferson Center) to Dayton (the Allen School) to Bath, Maine (Character First) - have implemented specific programs to create values-enriched educational experiences.

The values juggernaut looks good on the surface. The Jefferson Center reports a sharp drop in discipline problems and enhanced student responsibility. The Allen School and other values-oriented programs offer similar testimonials and data that confirm their success.

Americans want the school to accomplish what is not occurring in the home. All too often social problems that seem beyond the reach of the living room are foisted off on the classroom. In this respect, character education is akin to such initiatives as sex education or drug education. But it is similar in another way as well: all three connect what children see with what they are told. The medium becomes entangled with the message. Children learn just as much, if not more, from what they see as from what they hear. Sex, drug, and character education can be built around a curriculum (a variety of books and manuals), but they are made real by what students see in the behaviors of those who communicate the message.

Whether adults like it or not, values are learned through observation and, as Aristotle noted, through practice.(1) Social learning complicates efforts to teach values. Communities are now more pluralistic than ever, and the curriculum that students experience is filled with messages from the culture that frequently conflict with the values that schools teach. Character education programs espouse responsibility, while the culture sends a strong countervailing message: "If it feels good, do it!"

The dissonance, though, is not just embedded in the messages of the media. It is also apparent in the daily communication that occurs between children and adults both in the home and at school. The reason the character education movement will lose its luster is not because it is fundamentally wrong, but because adults are fundamentally flawed and seemingly proud of it. American culture, at least as presented in the media, tends to emphasize the worst, not the best, in human beings. What children see on television, according to John Condry, a professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University, are innumerable nihilistic messages that include an average of 25 acts of violence every hour (and this during the children's programs) and six pro-drug advertisements for every anti-drug message.(2) Indeed, writes Condry, "Commercials designed especially for children had lower frequencies than the overall sample for nearly all so-called altruistic values. . . . Commercials on programs designed for children rarely stressed being helpful or obedient. . . . The values stressed by commercials. . . [extolled] selfish and self-serving values over altruistic values. …

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