Amid the clamor of our recent presidential contest, the mass media coverage ignored one clear difference between the major candidates. The contrast may seem undramatic, but it could prove to be the most consequential issue of all for the future of our children, which is to say the future of our society. The issue is character education, and the candidate who spoke up for it is our new president. This means that we may anticipate renewed national attention to the fostering of virtue and moral commitment among the young.
The attention will be welcome. Yet it must be accompanied by sound strategy if it is to produce results. Many areas of education today have been debased by fuzzy thinking, low standards, and a feel-good, anything-goes mentality. Character education is no exception.
In my visits to schools across the country, I have seen much lip service paid to “good values” and many skin-deep programs that ask students to recite virtuous words such as honesty, temperance, and respect. I also have seen adults promoting the very behaviors that they are supposedly warning children against. I have heard teachers tell students that they don’t blame them for cheating on tests that are unfair or meaningless. I have heard of sex education programs that instruct students in the use of contraceptives. I have observed adults who counsel underage minors about alcohol abuse by telling them to stay within a one-drink-per-hour limit.
Such ambivalent messages make a mockery out of character education. Children are brilliant at picking up subtexts, and they love to explore the half-forbidden. Any instruction that begins “I’d rather not have you do this, but if you are going to anyway, be sure to...” is an irresistible invitation to give it a full-throttle try. The only way to dissuade a child from harmful behavior is through firm guidance that a child understands and takes seriously. The only way to stop cheating is to tell children that it’s wrong, to explain why, and to enforce the sanctions rigorously. The only sex education programs that work—that result in less rather than more risky sexual activity—are programs that stress abstinence.
Conveying “do nots” to children is key to successful character education, but it is only part of the story. Character education must have a positive side, a call to serve others and to dedicate oneself to a higher purpose. In the long run, it is a sense of inspiration that will sustain the child’s good character, often making the learned prohibitions unnecessary.
Charitable work is one way to introduce students to a larger purpose. Another is through expressions of religiosity. One great blow against character education in our time has been the virtual banning of religious sentiment from the public schools. In earlier days, schoolbooks and lessons were full of nonsectarian religious ideas, and children benefited from the uplifting values that these ideas conveyed. It is time to open our schools once again to free expressions of faith, the spiritual underpinning of character development.