The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Sense of Fair Play is First Step to Civility" by The Detroit News, 6/12/97.

Original Title:
Character Education: Can It Work?
by Barry McGhan

Last Fall the State Board of Education adopted its "long-debated character education policy". Since then the political makeup of the Board has changed, and it seems to be in a mood to reconsider some past decisions. We may see a change in this policy, too.

Originally, the policy was offered as a way to counter "the deterioration of civility in some of our schools." The idea, in the words of board member Clark Durant, was to promote "attributes of character which make freedom and a good life possible" such as "integrity, wisdom, a sense of justice, courage, ... [and] to love the good and avoid evil." The preamble is laced with religious references from America's founding fathers. Although this policy may offend civil libertarians and some parents' rights advocates, it probably won't offend most teachers.

Teachers deal with the deterioration of civility in their workplaces on a daily basis. If you have a potion to restore civility to schools, teachers will sign up in droves. The question is, is Michigan's character education policy that potion?

Let's review some facts. Children come to school at about age five. Psychologists tell us that a child's basic personality has already formed by this age. Kids are in school about 1200 hours a year. That's about 20% of their waking hours, assuming they sleep 8 hours per day. So, the State Board must believe that schools are able to make a dent in kids' already-formed characters when they control, at best, 20% of their time. And, they're going to accomplish this in the face of lively competition from friends, our consumerist MTV-ridden society, and parents. Oh, really?

Ok, ok, maybe I'm being too skeptical here. Let's suppose that teachers can make some headway on students' characters. How is character developed, anyway?

Some people think that character develops by telling people how to behave--preaching at them. This is probably not the case, except in a few special circumstances. Character mostly develops the hard way, through modeling--the way we live our lives is an example that others follow. What kinds of opportunities do teachers have to model behavior?

Let's go back to the facts again. From middle school on up, a teacher only sees a child for about 1 hour per day--less than 4% of his waking hours. So, realistically, it seems that the burden--or joy--of character education will fall mostly on elementary school teachers.

Some readers may have heard about a little book that came out a few years ago called All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. The traits Fulghum said he learned include these:

  • share everything;

  • play fair;
  • clean up your own mess;
  • say you're sorry when you hurt somebody;
  • when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

Schools try to teach these things not just in Kindergarten, but throughout the elementary grades. They seem to be the kinds of traits that are most likely to be learned in school. They are primarily focused on how to behave cooperatively in groups--a matter of practical importance to teachers. Most other aspects of character are outside the scope of teachers' work and better learned at home or in church.

Attitudes and values are not only developed by observing and interacting with "significant" others. They also form in reaction to the way individuals learn to cope with specific institutions that govern them. For example, some companies have learned that an adversarial "boss vs. worker" climate produces attitudes that lead to unproductive behavior. Nowadays, inclusive management approaches are gaining ground as a better way to do business.

Robert Dreeben has suggested that the character traits learned from being in school are those associated with working in bureaucratic organizations. For example, he says schools teach students to accept the fact that there are things they have to do without help--to act independently. Dreeben also notes that schools give students experiences in winning and losing, thus helping them learn to accept the consequences of their excellence or failure. Whether Dreeben is right or not, it seems easy to understand that a schools' organizational structure can influence the ways students interact with their peers and adults. If school structure affects attitudes, we probably need to consider ways to change it, too.

While it is very commendable of the State Board to want students to learn the high-minded ideals embodied in its new character education policy, the best we can probably expect, under current conditions, is to develop Fulghum's traits. They seem more practical and achievable. They would help restore civility to schools.


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