article: The Character Education Dilemma
THE CHARACTER EDUCATION DILEMMA
Joseph B. Juhasz and Lester A. Shepard
In this article we wish to deal with the predominantly conservative wing of the character education movement as represented by its most influential advocates. Character education understood in the wider sense and moral education as a whole will come under consideration mainly to sketch in the background and delimit the conceptual boundaries of this conservative movement. We shall first turn to the authority lending intellectual weight to it from the side of academia. An important claim put forth by academic spokespersons for the movement is that it stands for tradition. Wynne and Ryan in their frequently quoted work(1) in fact invoke the “Great Tradition”on their behalf, and the reader is given to understand that this affirms certain readily identifiable values. The authors borrowed the term from F. R. Leavis’s similarly titled book.(2) Leavis, who is generally considered outdated both as a literary and cultural critic, held bigoted views on race and sexual orientation. In the work at issue he discusses only four authors.
Ironically, the champions of the movement do not appear to have a great deal of familiarity with the theoretical and literary heritage they claim. Though some of them evidently know enough to realize that philosophers and in particular ethicists and philosophers of education have subscribed to contradictory theses, they at the same time wish to create the impression of following in the footsteps of the great thinkers of the past who speak with one voice. These spokespersons remain vague about the tradition as actually practiced in historical detail as well because they must be aware that, inasmuch as they endorse tradition, it is closest to one particular model, specifically a particular era, dominant in the United States before 1850. They are thus supposedly for “the past” that they equate with certain policies and practices, but apart from throwing out a few names they offer no ethical theory to found them on despite their oft-repeated insistence on the importance of philosophy. Character educators do not as a rule even commit themselves on the basic issue of deontology versus consequentialism. They however want to lend their position a vaguely universal validity by maintaining that the so-called Great Tradition had its roots in many earlier societies, where the goal of teaching was the inculcation of politeness, good habits, and appropriate conduct, this educational task being originally accomplished by and large within the family and its friends. Accordingly, character educators assume that the general norm for the school should be to reinforce parental values, which in turn they take largely to coincide with religious values.
Alas, the family as well as religion, and indeed the entire culture inculcated a great variety of other values, norms, and customs in the young, such as hatred and intolerance for different ethnicities, faiths, and sexual orientations; it sanctioned, not to say glorified, murder, slavery, torture, and oppression. The social ethos in fact instilled and promoted a two-sided moral code whereby values could be readily converted into antivalues: the virtues of the individual, family, clan, group, or nation-the insiders-were seen as the vices of the other, the one or ones outside it. The same act as performed by me showed courage; by my enemy, cowardice. And so down the line, creating a jungle of contradictions in which each is in turn pursuer and pursued, trapper and trapped.
We do not dispute the relevance of parental values. But to set them up as the ultimate criterion is a doubtful practice. We argue that a person has to be informed in order to make the right moral choice. Therefore, with everything being equal if there is a disagreement between the views of parents and educators, the latter should be in a better position than the former-the general public-in being able to recommend correct values. Were the cross-section of the previous generation’s ideas always to prevail, the road to progress would be blocked. Of course the very premise of ironclad conservatives is that in days of yore everything used to be better. But it must be pointed out that turning the clock back to the times the majority of character educators see as their exemplar would abolish many of the advances made in social justice in the last century, with much of the child protection legislation among them, for example. To look for an equitable social order in history is surely a hopeless quest. The golden age is an illusion.
Progressive education had its faults: in some ways it went too far, it was too far ahead of the times, it was probably too optimistic about human nature, too democratic in its goals, and perhaps mistaken in its “laboratory” approach. Any amelioristic system of the type inevitably faces a vicious circle in that the attitudinal changes it seeks to effect presuppose a changed attitude. Thus beginning teachers enthusiastically trying to put into practice the ideal of the leaderless classroom would face children inured to authoritarian homes. Some of its practices-in neglecting the gifted, leveling off standards-may have been responsible for the decline of academic excellence (3) as well as a deterioration of necessary discipline. They may have even contributed to the rise in juvenile crime over the years. These matters are very difficult to evaluate, because Dewey’s philosophy had emerged from a social context which it in turn influenced, so that cause and effect are intricately interwoven. From a broader perspective, a substantive objection against instrumentalist epistemology is that it makes truth dependent on consequence: it follows the relativistic bent of pragmatism. We wish to emphasize that humanistic education and learning have had a long line of erudite and articulate defenders from Dilthey and Cassirer down to E. D. Hirsch and Alan Bloom. Their respective arguments have various degrees of merit. But they have to be clearly distinguished from the right-wing academic champions of the present character education movement-William Kilpatrick, Wynne, Ryan, Walberg, Lickona, etc.-not to mention what might be called its nonprofessional (in some cases commercialized) branch, whose most high-profile member is William Bennett. On the other hand, we do not contend that today’s character educators make no valid points. The conservative backlash since the 1980s constitutes a reaction particularly to the excesses of the late sixties. It should also be noted that in recent years the movement has somewhat modified its stance in favor of inclusiveness and diversity.
One of the ironies associated with character education is that, though as a movement it was founded precisely to create a secular alternative to the inculcation of the Protestant ethic at a time when American ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds were undergoing dramatic change leading to increasing diversity, the champions of progressive education, which constitutes the great culprit in the eyes of today’s character educators, were among its leading advocates. A further twist is that the watershed Character Education Inquiry, carried out under the sponsorship of the Religious Education Association, produced a report that, thwarting the sponsor’s intentions, crippled the entire character education movement, putting it out of action for at least half a century. This happened because the academics who conducted the CEI had their own agenda: devout behaviorists, they wished to prove that conduct is determined by conditioned reflex. They argued that conduct is a function of the circumstance(4) and specific to the particular situation; therefore, strictly speaking character traits and, by extension, character do not exist.
The CEI brought to a head a question underlying the character education issue: can training be transferred from one situation to another? If the answer is yes, virtues are teachable. This problem has many ramifications, some of which, such as the localization of cognitive processes in the brain,(5) remain hotly contested in neurophysiology and other fields as of this writing. Thorndike, Hartshorne, and May took the extreme position that virtues could not be taught. Yet in effect they did not coherently maintain this view, and in their studies traits kept entering by the back door as it were as both conceptually valid and operationally functional, even to the degree of the authors asserting that children of English and Scandinavian extraction are frequently the most honest.(6) Thorndike and Hagon gradually retracted their radically negative stand concerning traits in successive editions of their work on psychological and educational measurement and evaluation between 1955 and 1977.(7)Nevertheless, the publication of research connected with the CEI proved instrumental in wrecking the first character education movement.
Although the radical stand on situational specificity is bound up with behaviorist assumptions that have since been largely discredited, appears intuitively false, and was not coherently put forth by its very proponents, the CEI made some positive contributions, one being that, to use their terminology, transference cannot be taken for granted, and people do not exhibit traits across the moral spectrum. However, the most important finding of the CEI had nothing to do with ideological considerations or learning theory; it was that the moral instruction offered by schools is ineffective.
Kohlberg, whose approach signals the next major development in US moral pedagogy, was in fact influenced by Hartshorne and May’s studies, although his distrust concerning traits as representing virtues did not rest on behavioristic grounds. The main thrust of his objection to virtues and traits-as well as rules and commands-was that they are too concrete and particular and consequently bound to conflict, whereas principles, such as the golden rule and the categorical imperative, are abstract and appeal to universality. Kohlberg stressed that these principles ought to be self-chosen and independent of egoistic cost/benefit calculation in order to attain to the highest ethical level in the scheme of moral development he devised.
Interestingly, just as Thorndike and other learning theorists who had initially rejected transference came to partially retract their views, in later years Kohlberg modified his stance concerning traits and virtues as well. I. e., he reversed himself on his earlier dismissal of Aristotle-thus recognizing the importance of habits in moral conduct-and no longer rejected virtues out of hand.(8) Indeed, when you look behind mere verbal markers to examine the conceptual content, you find that the difference between values, virtues, and traits often consists in choosing a substantive instead of a modifier without changing the essential meaning; further, you notice that some values, virtues, and traits stand for principles. Thus, a just person acts in accordance with justice, which can be a virtue, a value, and a principle. Kohlberg unwittingly confirmed this in a passage condemning what he termed the bag-of-virtues approach: “Virtues can come into conflict, and thus depend upon a principle such as justice for their ordering and application to concrete situations.” (9)
Kohlberg realized the projective function vices and virtues can play in a society whose values are self-contradictory and hypocritical when he wrote: “Virtues and vices are labels by which people award praise and blame to others….”(10) Unless they are founded on a coherent normative ethical theory, “core values,” “core attributes,” “pillars of character,” etc. will remain laundry lists whose items must be sorted out because some may not be compatible with the others.
The leaders of today’s character education movement do not formulate a theory of ethics because they know that the parental consensus and the unified long-standing tradition behind it are largely fictitious. Regrettably, even thoughtful critics like Kohn(11) and Lockwood,(12) who accurately remark that the character educators lack an adequate learning theory, have failed to point out the indispensable prerequisite of a consistent ethical theory or metaethics from which a coherent moral code can be derived. In order to be acceptable to people of different faiths, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations, this, at least to begin with, would have to be a minimalist one. It should appeal not only to people in this country but, if for no other reason than the fact that we live on an interconnected and rapidly shrinking planet, to as large a proportion of the world’s population as possible. The need for such an ethic has been recognized by numerous eminent scholars in the field.(13)
The elaboration of an ethical theory and of the code it entails would be out of place here. We must nevertheless indicate the basic premises in order to point out the inadequacies of the current character education movement and to show that neither the formulation nor the adoption of such a theory and code is a hopeless task. Though the concept of a morality built on absolute certainties is in itself logical, at present the prospects for general agreement on it remain dim; consequently, we have to be content with one that will permit all human beings to lead rewarding lives and pursue their aims freely as long as these do not conflict with the welfare and aims of others. To assure this, the key quality or trait needed is benevolence toward all humans, guided by truthfulness, nonviolence and avoidance of exploitation. We will refrain here even from enumerating the points that would need to be made by way of clarification and stipulations, except to say that action motivated by good intention has to be informed.
The insistence on core values and a handful of desirable character traits is part of a development prompted by such factors as diversity at home and advances made in the fields of science, technology, information processing, and cooperation on a global scale. Research such as the 1993 Phi Delta Kappa study attests to a surprising amount of consensus among US educators concerning core values. Of course this is not equivalent to saying that they inspire students to abide by them or even earnestly try to advocate them.
There is nothing wrong with the notion of core values per se, as long as they are subject to one overarching principle that can be translated into concrete application. The majority of the items subscribed to by prominent organizations involved in character education today, as given on their lists(14) are, in our opinion, unobjectionable, indeed laudable. Furthermore, a number of the lists can be interpreted without casuistry in such a way as to eschew internal contradictions that would lead to unavoidable conflict. This is a remarkable and encouraging development. But if an organization subscribes to fine core values, pays lip service to them while in concrete cases advocates actions that contradict them or equivocates on their application, the effect can be worse than none.
Furthermore, some of the items on these lists are not values at all. One such purported value appearing on numerous lists clusters around the idea of obedience and compliance with authority. Though it is easy to see that compliance helps the teacher’s task in a classroom situation, obedience may be a virtue or a fault according to what it is that one obeys. Maintaining, even to young children, that obedience is inherently good is a grave error, for at least two important reasons. First, children even as young as six or seven ought to refuse immoral commands such as those to steal, cheat, or lie; nor should they consent to abusive treatment, no matter what authority orders them. Second-and this goes for all qualities that can be good or bad depending on the concrete case-a misleading rule will be fatefully engraved in the young person’s mind for the rest of her or his life. Given the undeniable truth of character education’s favorite Aristotelian tenet that repeated actions tend to become habits, this particular exhortation, if heeded, will result, for example, in soldiers, law enforcement officers, and subordinates of all types who carry out orders to torture, commit larceny, endanger public safety, etc.
Another purported value or virtue is perseverance (diligence, resoluteness, determination). While you can persevere in helping the poor as a volunteer worker, you can equally persist in ethnic cleansing, giving false testimony, or denying people their human rights.
Courage, also a frequent item on the lists, is not in and of itself a virtue either. For one thing, it would appear to be at least partially an inborn trait; to the extent that it is, it is not ethically good any more than having sharp vision or keen hearing is morally meritorious. For another, terrorists and murderers are sometimes capable of exceptional feats of courage.
To begin with, the concrete application of just the three above-mentioned traits will raise questions in the mind of any child who is taking moral instruction seriously at all. The mainstream character educator’s answer will be truly astounding: forget it, the discussion of priorities-let alone conflicts-would lead to relativism and ambivalence, and doubts are not for the young.(15) Let them memorize the list! Clearly, at least on the face of it, the discussional approach of the developmental wing of moral education, from Simon’s values clarification through Kohlberg’s moral dilemma down to such contemporary directions as Larry P. Nucci’s domain theory(16) appear to offer preferable avenues. And this opens a Pandora’s box. Because the sad truth is that basically none of these methods have worked as envisaged and often claimed by their proponents or practitioners. The character education movement of 1890-1935 was born out of the realization that religious education could not cope with societal change; the CEI documented the ineffectiveness of character education; the values-clarification and moral-dilemma approaches, which had attempted to reassert the liberal perspective, were declared bankrupt by the new character educators, who typically point at the rising rate in juvenile crime as proof. If, then, we are now witnessing some improvement in the crime rate, can we ascribe this to initiatives such as the Character Counts Coalition or the Character Education Partnership? Perhaps they might be credited with a slight alleviation of the symptoms; they offer band-aid solutions, superficial expedients that conceal a much deeper flaw.
Even leaving questions of dogma or parable-which, though not factual, might be rich in significant moral lesson-aside, one has to face that as a guide to practical living moral instruction offered by religion left something to be desired. One of the authors of the present article can vividly recall a religion class at the Jesuit military academy he attended in the late 1950s where the instructor, having been asked the question, “What are the consequences of masturbation?” replied, “Insanity and early death.” His answer, treated as it was with disbelief if not derision by the students, only mirrored the official line.
The scene described above took place at a time when a certain tradition-and here one can justifiably use the term-had become contested even within the Church, although in a wider context it is not by any means defunct today. That tradition prescribes that children, supposedly for their own good, ought not to be told the truth. Some folk tales had the intent of scaring listeners into submission to rules. Another type of falsification aims on the contrary at sheltering the young from the unpleasant, horrifying, tragic aspects of reality. We believe that, whereas there is legitimate concern about the appropriateness of some subjects for minors, they should never be taught falsehoods.
With the ostensible purpose of shielding minors from the wickedness of the world, we have started a trend for building schools that resemble fortresses or penal colonies, located well outside of town. The principal’s office is sometimes located in a sort of guard tower. Students are whisked in and out almost furtively, so as to have as little contact with the corrupting influence of adult society as possible. In this atmosphere a youngster found downtown becomes a truant. (Of late, some community schools have been making a frail attempt to break out of this mold.) By contrast, adult, in its distinctive current usage, has come to signify not only pornographic, indecent, and abhorrent, but also murderous, aggressive, and predatory. All in all, this would seem to leave a young person with little to look forward to, were it not for the fact that in this obsessed atmosphere words are in newspeak, and what is classed as adult at the same time promises illicit pleasures forbidden to the underage that must be obtained on the sly.
Humanity is indebted to this civilization for contriving a system of mutual abuse affecting nearly everyone: sons, daughters, parents, and teachers as well as society at large. Then again, it also provides compensations: Hollywood celebrities whose popularity ratings slump can come out with the revelation that their parents sexually abused them; parents in turn can have fun setting their children like pit bulls even on unsuspecting strangers, alleging that they harbor evil designs against them. And so on. The trouble is that the abuse of children, spouses, the elderly, handicapped, underprivileged, poor, and generally discriminated against and exploited constitutes a vast real problem here and abroad, but in the din of mutual recriminations that are beginning to lose all connection with reality their plight gets ignored. Ours has become an adversarial system. Everyone is suing everyone else. Courts no longer deal with events that take place in the real world. Lawsuits amount to a formal exercise between attorneys who discuss legal technicalities. You can “plea bargain”only in a situation where justice has become a travesty. The highest-paid lawyers win, in more than one sense of the word.
In the 2000 presidential election both major candidates invoked the loftiest moral principles for their respective sides, wrapping themselves in the flag, to justify transparently expedient tactical moves to outmaneuver each other; judges made decisions on strictly partisan lines; while slogans like integrity, fairness, responsibility, impartiality, and civic duty were filling the air. Exactly the traits used on the character education lists!
Can young people be expected to believe that those ideals are meant seriously when they are used by their role models in mutually incompatible ways, or will they conclude that it is all a sham? Youngsters are, if anything, smarter than adults and can usually see through their elders when they do not mean what they profess. “Do as I say, don’t do as I do” is a safe recipe for failure.(17) Machiavellianism can beget Machiavellianism. Alternatively, it may destroy those who do not buckle under the hypocrisy. In any case, as Riesman correctly diagnosed half a century ago(18) what today hardly needs proof, family values have been declining. Already in the United States of 1950, the standards of the peer group had more relevance to teenage behavior than those of the previous generation. Conservative educators are right in their assessment that young people today tend to entertain an inflated self-image. Whether the blame for this should be placed at Maslow’s doorstep(19) is another question; more likely, the smashing success of Motivation and Personality was a sign of the times. The emphasis on what came to be referred to as “self-esteem” has at any rate provided moral justification for belittling others rather than respecting them as a necessary concomitant of respecting oneself.
But, at least when we consider the American scene of the early twenty-first century, Riesman’s interpretation of outer-directedness and peer pressure proves inadequate, because preteen and teen values, although less influenced by home, religion, or school than ever, are not free-acting either: they depend in large measure on media manipulation, or rather a reciprocal relationship obtains between the two. Media managers, whose dominant incentive is profit, pull the strings: they appeal to, and at the same time manufacture, teen tastes. While character education core value lists sing of love, the most popular video games, cartoons, TV programs, rock artists, etc. portray murder, mayhem, and aggression of the most ghastly sort.
School counselors, ministers, and parents frequently voice disbelief and incomprehension at the sight of average kids perpetrating mass murder. The question is often asked: how can we prevent juveniles from getting their hands on guns? Let us just single out one clue. The October 22, 2000 issue of The Spokesman Review of Spokane shows a picture of ten-year-old Darci Hasting buying her first deer tag. In Western states children can purchase tags that entitle them to shoot deer. The accompanying article explains that this is part of a tradition. We learn that even the Rev. Dashiell is absent from church on Saturdays in deer season. Thus a possible explanation of how children can get their hands on guns is that adults hand them guns and encourage shooting. Here we witness true tradition as opposed to the never-never-land one glimpsed by character educators who urge respect for every living being. It all goes into the same soup mix and, as we have had occasion to point out, teaches children a sliding scale of values.
Not only is it the case that some of the most prominent character education organizations would be the least likely to protest against gun control or the increasing commercialization of Internet, TV, radio, video, and song, but they are helpful in introducing corporate marketing directly into public schools. The ASCD and the American Association of School Administrators have long referred to propaganda items offered by business organizations as “free materials.” Few dissenting voices have been raised against the billowing waves of this tide which is, as Alex Molnar warns,(20) flooding schools through the channels of sponsorship and incentive programs, sponsored materials, and electronic marketing. In the last fifteen or twenty years, Morris Berman states, the increasing domination of the massive corporate-commercial culture has consolidated itself over our educational system.(21)
As for the methods character educators wish to employ in the schools to bring about the changes they desire, it may be revealing that Wynne and Ryan borrow their master metaphor from the world of sports: they set before us the athletic coach as the model for the ideal teacher of morals.(22)
The fact that the coach can publicly expose and humiliate players seems to have particular appeal to them-“conspicuous public humiliation”(23) is an important disciplinary recourse in their book. Uniforms, posters, rituals, pledges, ribbons, banners, trophies, pins, pep rallies, and cheerleaders enliven the atmosphere that reminds one, besides a ball game, now of a manipulated, fake “audience participation” TV show or infomercial, now of a party rally or revivalist meeting. It is hard to see how young minds formed in this greyhound race could become genuinely susceptible to the call of science and art. Whereas it might be too optimistic to expect intrinsic motivation to take care of all learning, here we are at the other end of the scale: this is a prison, a dependent society of the sort the sociologist James Coleman-although himself in sympathy with the character educators-has actually warned against, an institution whose inmates are taught to hate each other, potentially generative of places like Columbine High. Though they adamantly claim to uphold the tradition of past ages, Wynne and Ryan would hardly have inspired such educational theorists as Thomas More, Erasmus, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, or Froebel.
Regrettably yet predictably, the most widely endorsed and powerful “independent”character education organizations tend to be those with corporate sponsors and with a generous sprinkling of company CEOs on their boards. They are also likely to push their materials and products. For instance, one highly recognized nonprofit institution offers the following bargain: “Intermediate Classroom Kit (a $585.20 value) $399.95”-note the word value, which may serve as a hint about the true core values of this worthy enterprise, which charges hefty sums for participation at its seminars as well: “September 11-14, 2000. Cost: $2,400. Enroll early and receive a $200 discount.” If it does nothing else, character education obviously pays. Role models are predominantly business executives, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and athletes.(24) Commerce, government, media, and both public and private educational establishments are inextricably interwoven in this tapestry.(25) It is nearly as likely to confuse young persons earnestly searching for answers, dupe the gullible, and reward the deceitful as it is to improve ethical standards.
1. Howard A. Wynne and Kevin Ryan, Our Schools: A Handbook On Teaching Character Academics, and Discipline (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993).
2. Frank Raymond Leavis, The Great Tradition (London: Chatto & Windus, 1948).
4. Mark A. May, “What Science Offers on Character Education,” in Building Character: Proceedings of the Mid-West Conference On Character Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928), p. 39.
8. See Clark Power, Ann Higgins, and Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Habit of the Common Life: Building Character Through Democratic Community Schools,” in Moral Development and Character Education: A Dialogue, eds. Larry P. Nucci (Berkeley: McCutchan Publishing Corp., 1989), p.137.
9. See Lawrence Kohlberg, “Education for Justice: A Modern Statement of the Platonic View,” in Moral Education: Five Lectures, ed. Theodore Sizer and Nancy F. Sizer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 58-70.
14. Among the sources we have examined were lists from the following organizations: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Boy Scouts of America, Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, Center for Civic Education, Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs, Character Counts Coalition, Character Education Center, Character Education Network, Character Education Partnership, Ethics Resource Center, Hartwood Institute, Jefferson Center for Character Education, Utah Code on Character Education.
16. Larry P. Nucci, “Challenging Conventional Wisdom About Morality: The Domain Approach to Values Education” in Moral Development and Character Education: A Dialogue, Larry P. Nucci, ed. (Berkeley: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1989), pp.183-201. Nucci’s Education in the Moral Domain will be brought out by Cambridge University Press in 2001.
20. Alex Molnar, Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America’s Schools (Boulder: Westview Publications, 1996). See also Deron Boyles, American Education and Corporations (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).
22. Wynne and Ryan, op. cit., p. 47. For a very different appraisal of the influence sports have on American education, we refer the reader to Murray Sperber’s study, Beer and Circus (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2000).
23. Ibid., p. 67.
24. A case in point is Role Models On the Web (http://www.rolemodel.net), recipient of the Britannica Internet Guide Award, the PC Mike Web Site Award, and the Eagle Award for Excellence. On the blurb listing its backers, the project names exclusivelyshow biz personalities. The sit includes a study guide for teachers. Another illustration: the Character Education Partnership, whose board of directors is headed by the chairman emeritus of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation and whose president is Kevin Ryan, prominently features Miss America 2001 on its website (http://www.character.org).
25. It is hard to see a legitimate reason for including financiers, corporate executives, entertainers, athletes, and similar celebrities on an ethical organization’s board of directors or advisory council. In our view, educators and scholars willing to serve on boards so composed inexcusably compromise themselves and debase the cause they represent. To take one example from among many that could be cited, Character Counts includes on its advisory council civil rights activist Marian Edelman, an eloquent advocate for gun control and actor Tom Selleck, who does commercials, and is a spokesman for, the NRA.