Our local junior high school displays huge hallway banners reading, "Respect and Responsibility—We Can Do It Together." Respect, this year's theme, is meant to pervade the multiethnic school. (Last year compassion and caring took the lead.)

At the annual back-to-school night, our principal took a few minutes to explain the theme to us parents, then turned the program over to the cheerleaders. They illustrated respect by lip-synching a bump-and-grind rendition of Aretha Franklin's song of the same name. At the final beat, they turned around, bent over, flipped up their cheerleader skirts, and displayed the word RESPECT, spelled out on pieces of paper pinned to their bottoms.

I nudged my wife: "I don't think they've completely grasped the concept."

Which is roughly what I thought when I learned of the existence of a movement in the public schools to teach children virtuous character. Are educators, I wondered, really ready for this?

Still, the very existence of the character-education movement catches your attention. For some time, public schools have been saying that values are not part of their curriculum. It is news when a substantial group in public education says, "Yes, they are."

I have on my desk a brochure from the Character Development Foundation in Manchester, New Hampshire. Intended to attract teachers to a one-day seminar, it proclaims boldly, "You can teach kids to be smart & Good!" Good is defined (in language typical of the character-education movement) by the traits of self-control, respect, responsibility, honesty, courage, caring, courtesy, and friendship. Character education claims to teach old-fashioned values to kids who are not getting them at home.

It would be hard to be against such an undertaking. Surely it is part of a school's job to help parents turn their children into decent, responsible, moderately polite human beings. Yet it is also hard to entrust character confidently to the same people who embraced the values education of Planned Parenthood.


In Washington, D.C., I attended a national conference put on by a coalition of organizations called the Character Education Partnership. Most of the several hundred people in attendance were schoolteachers or school administrators, cheerful and energetic people who were launching character-education programs in local schools all over the country, or thinking about it. Some very large school systems, such as those from Baltimore and Saint Louis, were represented, as were many smaller places. Vocal supporters ranged from a Democratic White House aide to a conservative Republican senator, and organizations running the gamut—from the Rainbow Coalition to the National Association of Evangelicals.

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By all the signs, character education is a grassroots movement, springing up in a hundred different places. There is, so far, no "right" way to do it. Its popularity is perhaps best shown by the fact that educational entrepreneurs are jumping in, looking for a profit. At my first seminar, I met Robert Barden, a friendly, long-haired representative of the Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina. He told me of all kinds of gimmicky presentations people had brought to his school system, including a high-energy performance from a salesman dressed—for reasons unclear to Barden—in a NASA jumpsuit.

I hadn't gone to many seminars before I realized that character education is not the same thing as the "discipline" parents often want in school. Character education is much more upbeat and optimistic than that. As one principal told me, "Some parents want regimentation, and this is the very opposite."

Character education does emphasize clearly defined and enforced rules, but that is just one part of it. Character education tries to form the kind of person who does what is right without his being told and when he is not being watched. Strict rules and harsh punishments may prompt compliance, these educators say, but the behavior will not necessarily carry over to another environment. As Thomas Lickona, a professor of education at the State University of New York, writes in his book "Educating for Character," "Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good—habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of action."

Character education is not shy about using the terms right and wrong. Lickona notes that just a few years ago, the question "Should the schools teach values?" would be answered by the retort "Whose values?" "With remarkable swiftness," he writes, "that has changed. Escalating moral problems in society … are bringing about a new consensus." The "rights" and "wrongs" character educators want to bring back are consensus values, those that everybody can agree on. They ardently avoid including issues like abortion or homosexuality, putting the emphasis on teaching values that are, they claim, timeless and invariable across cultures. They talk about teaching "civic" virtues, those foundations of citizenship assumed in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Character-education advocates are not very philosophical about it, though. They want to teach the agreed-on values of the community they live in. And they assert that we agree on a lot more than we realize.

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For example, Robert Barden helped launch Fayetteville, North Carolina's program. One rainy night 700 interested people gathered in a school gym to decide on a list of values to teach. Every strand of the community was represented, from fundamentalists to feminists, Barden says, and he was not overly confident about reaching consensus. But to his and everyone's surprise, the meeting unanimously agreed on seven core values. Now, he says, the community is solidly behind the program.

People launching character-education programs often express surprise at the level of unanimity they achieve. The Saint Louis PREP program (Personal Responsibility Education Process) incorporates 23 different school districts, each of which chooses its own character traits to teach. Almost 50 different terms appear on their various lists: Respect and responsibility were chosen by nearly all districts. Honesty, cooperation, self-esteem, and perseverance were claimed by more than half. Traits like abstinence, reliability, and self-control were chosen by a few. What is remarkable is not the values, but the fact that schools are excitedly talking about values at all.

The "New York Times," in an article published in January of this year, estimates that one out of every five public schools has some kind of character-education program in place. Most character-education programs are in elementary schools; some are in middle schools; and a few are in high schools. The programs vary widely. Many include schoolwide recognition for kids who behave well, a virtue-of-the-month program (usually underlined by posters in the halls), literature-based lessons that emphasize moral themes (much like William Bennett's best-selling "Book of Virtues"), training for students in conflict resolution, cooperative-learning strategies like "buddy-learning," and programs to improve behavior in the cafeteria, on the playground, and on school buses.

Any of these programs can be added on individually to a school's program, but character-education leaders emphasize that a comprehensive program is best so that the various facets complement one another. Ideally, they like to offer training to the school's teachers and staff. Behind it all is an idea of what a school should be: a community of people rather than a building, a place where one generation transmits its knowledge and its morals to the next. That, obviously, is what church schools have been trying to do from the beginning. The idea that public schools can have much the same purpose and meaning is a new, invigorating one to many educators.

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David Brooks, head of the Jefferson Center for Character Education, described overhearing a student asking his teacher whether a certain action was wrong. "That's for you to decide for yourself," the teacher said.

"I wanted to strangle that teacher," commented Brooks.

His response is typical of people involved with character education. They are weary of teaching kids that the center of the moral universe is in their heads. The notion that schools should be value neutral irritates them. Not teaching right and wrong is a value in itself, they say.

Character education often gets confused with "values clarification," a program of the sixties that explicitly rejected teaching right and wrong. The very mention of values clarification makes character-education advocates wince. Many educators see it as emblematic of a certain style of education, emphasizing the likelihood that kids, properly stimulated to reflect, will naturally choose to become caring, respectful individuals. Values clarification usually emphasized "hard case" predicaments and theoretical situations, asking kids to assign seats on an overcrowded lifeboat rather than to deal with cheating, fighting, stealing, and name calling.

Better, but still inadequate, were moral-education programs built on Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning. "Their focus was still on 'process'—thinking skills—rather than moral content," writes Lickona. "Teachers still didn't see it as their role to teach or foster particular values."

That, in a nutshell, is what gives energy to character-education programs: they are rejecting relativism, returning to old-fashioned virtues, teaching right and wrong. The means are prosaic. Nobody, surely, gets excited about putting up foil stars in the office and nominating admirable students, staff, and parents for "Shining Star" awards. Yet people do get excited about character education that majors on just such programs. The character-education conference seemed overrun with idealistic men and women who love kids and want them to become decent human beings. A good number volunteered to me that they are Christians.

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One seminar I attended was led by Michael Loren, a physician who had profited from a moral improvement program he found in Ben Franklin's writings. Loren had adapted the program for school children, but as he explained, had felt it necessary to change some of Franklin's 13 virtues. "I thought, 'Chastity—how am I going to sell this to the schools?' " He had replaced chastity with friendship, and changed temperance to alertness. But Loren, it seemed, had misjudged his audience. Someone raised a hand and suggested that he could have stayed with the original words, and others muttered agreement.

White House aide William Galston came to talk to the conference. "We're winning," he said. "We're winning this battle. The need for this work can no longer be denied." He said that a great social experiment had been tried in America, "based on personal freedom checked only by law," and the evidence was in: "No government and no society has enough courts to get people to do the right thing. The issue is knowing the good, loving the good, and, I would add, having a settled habit of doing the good."

Regarding teen pregnancies, Galston said, "Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom was that it was a problem without a solution." But now, he said, they had winnowed half a dozen successful programs out of hundreds and found one common component: they treated teenage pregnancy as a psychological and moral problem, not as a technological or medical problem. He called for a "clear moral message of personal responsibility, resisting temptation and, in many cases, resisting intimidation." The audience responded positively to the mention of abstinence-based programs, though some attendees told me they had avoided adding any sex education to their curriculum for fear of controversy.

After attending the Washington conference I had no doubt that character education was a real grassroots movement, appealing to a broad range of educators. What I could not figure out was how seriously to take it. Was it like those congressional resolutions to favor a balanced budget: all sensibility, no teeth? Does it do anything for children?


As teacher Jerry Harrington remembers, Philip was last in, first out for the 15-minute "How to Be Successful" classes that begin each school day at San Marcos Junior High School in Southern California. Philip never said anything, and Harrington had no idea the impact his teaching was making until one summer when he saw Philip bagging groceries at a local market. Making small talk, Harrington asked Philip how he got the job.

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"Shame on you, Mr. Harrington; don't you remember teaching me about goal setting? Don't you remember telling us to set a goal for the summer?"

Harrington, neat, trim, and graying, who looks every inch a math teacher, allowed that he did remember teaching that. But how had Philip gotten a job?

"I set a goal that I needed to earn $600 in the summer because my mother can't afford to buy me clothes for school."

So how had that led to the job?

"Mr. Harrington, don't you remember action steps? You taught us how to break our goal down into action steps." Philip had listed 20 businesses within walking or bicycling distance of his home. "The seventeenth one hired me," he said.

To himself, Harrington thought, "I've got to teach that lesson every year."

Two years later, Harrington happened to bump into Philip at a high-school football game. This time he was with his older brother, a junior-college student. After assuring Harrington that he was still working, Philip moved on, but his brother stayed behind to talk. He thanked Harrington for what he had taught his little brother. "You saved my life, too," he said. He told Harrington about their home, with an alcoholic mother and a changing cast of men. He said it had become impossible. "Philip and I moved out, and he is the one paying the rent," he said.

San Marcos Junior High is a set of low, stucco buildings and portable classrooms set among dry, bouldered hills north of San Diego. The population has mushroomed in the 25 years that Jerry Harrington has been a teacher. Some 1,600 seventh and eighth graders now attend year-round school there. About half the school is from minority populations, mostly Hispanic. The school has won the California Distinguished School Award three times in recent years.

For ten years, San Marcos has been involved in comprehensive character education. That is because ten years ago, nearby San Marcos High School reported a crisis: more than one out of every five girls in the school was pregnant. Over half were ninth graders, just out of San Marcos Junior High. According to Harrington, the district superintendent told the junior-high principal: "Solve this problem."

Given that mandate, San Marcos Junior High put into place four new programs, including one of the nation's first abstinence-based sex-education programs, and the "How to Be Successful" character-education program of the Jefferson Center for Character Education. By all measurable criteria, the programs have been a success. Pregnancies at the high school declined precipitously, even while the number of students continued to grow. The program has been maintained through several changes of principal. Harrington says that many skeptical teachers were won over as they saw kids actually profiting from help in forming positive values.

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The curriculum is not philosophical. At 7:30 on a recent Friday morning, kids stand in clusters, wearing their backpacks, baggy jeans, and sweatshirts. At the first bell, they file into class where they say the Pledge of Allegiance, hear announcements, and then discuss a sheet they had previously filled out recording who taught them various skills. Harrington starts the discussion by describing how his father taught him to ride a bike. A student remembers his dad teaching him how to fish. Another remembers her mother teaching her to tie her shoes.

"What are you going to do when you get older?" Harrington asks the class.

"Teach other people," someone says.

Harrington asks how many have younger siblings, and says, "As an older brother or sister, you're going to be an example to somebody." He reminds them that it takes a lot of patience to teach a skill.

The "How to Be Successful" curriculum offers a short lesson for every day of the year, based on the "Twelve Be's," such as Be on Time, Be Prepared, Be Polite, Be a Tough Worker. "It gave us a new language," Harrington said. "Not, 'You're tardy,' but 'You need to be on time.' " Eventually the atmosphere of the school changed for the better, with less truancy, less absenteeism, fewer suspensions.

Later in the morning the students at nearby Paloma Elementary School gather on the playground for Friday morning exercises. Principal Fred Wise discusses rules for tetherball and introduces members of the school's Peace Control (students trained in resolving playground conflicts).

Inside the school, posters of the "Be's" decorate the walls. Paloma is the third school at which principal Wise has introduced the "Responsibility Skills" character-education curriculum. "We used to assume a lot of things happened at home," Wise tells me. "Now we don't make that assumption."

Nevertheless, it was not crisis that drove him to try the curriculum. "It seemed so natural. I thought, 'Wow, where did I miss that?' " In one sense, the material is nothing new. Teachers, Wise thinks, have been teaching the same values for years, though in a haphazard, noninteractive way. The curriculum releases them to do it carefully and comprehensively.

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In Patricia Kurylo's fifth- and sixth-grade class, kids who have attended other schools tell me that Paloma is nicer, friendlier, more disciplined. I ask whether they had similar rules at the other schools. Yes, they say, but we never discussed the rules; we didn't understand the point of them.

I ask how many students have parents who talk about the kind of issues that "Responsibility Skills" covered. When almost none of them lift their hands, I push a little. Really? I say. Parents don't talk about any of this stuff, ever? Eventually, I get some to admit that their parents have input. Others, however, hold fast. The class is divided about half and half. Half say their parents sometimes discuss such ideas. Half say they do not. Not ever.


There are three sources of resistance to character education. One is among liberals, often educators, who suspect it is a cover for the Religious Right. "There's a small group of vocal people," Jerry Harrington told me, "who don't think we should teach values. They think they will come straight out of the Ten Commandments." When Benjamin DeMott reported for Harper's on a White House conference on character, he wrote a snarling review of the conferees who "all knew themselves to be, seemingly, morally superb." For such critics, religion, values, and pharisaism are inevitably joined; you cannot have one without the others, and they would rather have none.

The leaders of character education would argue that this ironic detachment, and moral neutrality, is itself a value, one that kids catch rather quickly.

A second source of resistance is purely educational. Schools are under fire for not teaching basics, yet they are constantly being told to add yet another important subject—earthquake preparedness, dental hygienics, and now character education. To the claim that schools can teach children to be both smart and good, these critics answer, "Can we do 'smart' first?"

Character-education advocates respond that their material need not take away instructional time, as it can and should be integrated into the regular curriculum-in literature and history, particularly, and into the ordinary life of the school.

They also point out that lack of character inhibits education. Contentious, disrespectful students disrupt learning. Furthermore, many educational tasks require character. Amitai Etzioni, a leader in the communitarian movement, observes, "Numerous commissions that have studied why Johnny can't read have found it easier and less controversial to focus on matters that can be measured, such as math and vocabulary tests, and have shunned those that raise moral issues."

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Thomas Lickona told me that character education "is at the heart of the answer" to the crisis of public schools. It offers, he said, a way to make school a joy to students and teachers alike, a way to get people to cooperate around a shared vision, a way to restore decency and respect to playgrounds and the classrooms. "School has to be a moral community if it's going to be a learning community," he contended, because education isn't simply the transmission of knowledge and skills, it is the transmission of habits of mind and heart. It is a moral endeavor, and if moral concerns are not at education's heart, the whole enterprise disintegrates.

The third and most notable resistant group is religious conservatives. This might seem surprising—religious conservatives are usually thought to regret that schools stopped teaching morals—but the antagonisms and suspicions between educators and religious people can be profound. "We've been called a virus," one teacher from Pittsburgh said, fearful of even beginning a conversation with conservative Christians.

In New Mexico, the implementation of a statewide values program has been stalled because of deep-seated suspicions from the Religious Right. In upstate New York, conservative religious people suspect the schools will teach a prohomosexual, antidevelopment, pro-abortion rights agenda, according to Sharon Banas of Sweet Home Middle School. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, some parents expressed fears that teaching boys to be caring would promote homosexual values.

Skeptical Christians share, ironically, the perspective of nervous liberals. They would rather keep morals out of the schools than take a chance that children might be taught something unacceptable to them. Character education opens up too many dangerous possibilities.

Others, however, see character education as a bridge. Judy Hoffman, an active evangelical who chairs the Wake County Board of Education in Raleigh, North Carolina, says of her role in launching a character-education program, "I really think God led me." "Cheating was rampant," Hoffman says. "We were seeing lots of discipline problems. We had a violence task force." The community was ready for action, even if not all school leaders were. The county sheriff, an African American, brought black ministers together to support the program. Hoffman had to work against staff fears that character education would be a political time bomb, and against conservative Christian fears that it would be taken over by more liberal elements of the community. Thanks to her prodding, a 32-member task force produced a list of eight consensus values. "Tolerance" was not on it, because of political overtones; "abstinence" was, as part of the definition of self-control.

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In Baltimore, where 126 elementary schools have character education integrated into a multicultural curriculum, religious leaders have been actively involved. "I'm a believer," says assistant superintendent Maurice Howard, "in linking schools and religious communities as crucial institutions in helping parents assume their pivotal role in developing character." For a special citywide emphasis on character, educators asked for—and received—support from church pulpits. Coordinator Jim Sarnecki told of one fundamentalist leader who pushed his way onto an oversight committee despite educators' misgivings, then became one of their key supporters.

"I'm beginning to see," a woman from Atlanta said at the character-education conference, "that it isn't going to work without the religious community's support." She and her committee, anxious to limit controversy, had been trying to avoid any religious involvement in their planning process. Others at the conference told her that once religious people understood the program, they would be its most enthusiastic supporters.


Sometimes I think the public schools have a death wish, so sure seems their instinct for alienating the goodwill of parents. Take the insistence that distributing condoms is a needed educational reform. Or consider the famous brouhaha in New York City, where a gigantic school system was paralyzed over educators' insistence that the normality of lesbian sexuality be taught to elementary school students. Issues like these have helped make school vouchers an attractive concept.

Character education promises, of course, to be a completely different experience—deeply moral, quite in tune with the community's values. The question is raised, nonetheless, whether the public schools are capable of teaching character that amounts to anything. Will it be so watered down as to be transparent?

Thomas Lickona writes that the teacher with a relativistic moral code is "incapacitated as a moral educator." I pointed out to him that there are many moral relativists in America, and many teach school. He sighed and said he thought it would take a generation to fully change the schools. "It took us a while to lose any sense of objective morality, for that to be washed out of the culture, and it's going to take a long time to bring that back in.

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"But," he added, "I think that process is already in motion. People are beginning to see that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. One reason is that people have lost their moral nerve, parents and teachers aren't talking to children about right and wrong. In the meantime, schools are finding ways to implement character-education programs even before this big philosophical shift takes place." People may be relativists, he said, but when it comes to cheating and stealing and fighting, they operate as though by objective truth.

The most trenchant criticism of public schools I ever heard was made by the late evangelical social critic Joe Bayly, who said he could not imagine the Israelites sending their children off to the Philistines every morning for an education. He had a point. But people of faith do not necessarily see their neighbors as Philistines. For example, how did the faithful Jewish remnant of Isaiah's time see their fellow Jews who were unfaithful? Or consider first-century Christians in Athens: would they have sent their children to learn philosophy and mathematics in Athenian schools? I don't think the answers are absolutely clear. The education of children is very religiously sensitive, but in America, Christians have often believed that they could cooperate on it with their neighbors.

The character-education movement consciously harks back to the days of the McGuffey Readers, which emphasized simple moral and patriotic lessons. Nineteenth-century public schools were developed as a civilizing force, intended to train the poor and immigrant population in Protestant virtues and turn them into good citizens. Schools used a watered-down morality, referring to a vague God and the Golden Rule, but Protestants embraced them. (Catholics, it should be noted, felt alienated and supported their own separated system of schools.)

Character education is an attempt to get back to those days of common purpose—when teachers could take up where parents and churches left off. But America today is not the America of the 1950s, let alone of the nineteenth century. Even a vague notion of God cannot win general acceptance in today's social context. Character education tries to reassert the concept of right and wrong, but it is notable that this confidence goes out the window when certain issues appear—abortion, for example, or sex.

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American public schools must still answer the question raised by the cheerleaders at my local junior high—do they completely grasp the concept? Character, as all the old moral tales assume, cannot be handed out like stickers. It comes through courage, sacrifice, and discipline. It is not clear that public schools are mentally tough enough to communicate that, or that communities share enough common values.

Lickona, a devoted Roman Catholic, admits that Christians have reasons for skepticism. But he abhors a strategy of keeping values out of public schools because we are afraid they might be misused. "Schools need to be moral places. We're not going to bring that about if we sit back and give ourselves the luxury of mistrusting everybody. I don't think that's a responsible role for Christians to play."

Granted that controversial questions—abortion, pregnancy, homosexuality—will not stay at bay forever; if character education prevails, at least "tolerance" will not be the only possible value one can appeal to. The ground for more complex moral discussion might be laid.

What do evangelical Christians gain from supporting character education? Potentially, at least, they may gain the sense that they are not at odds with the schools to which they send their children. Despite the growth of home schooling and private Christian schools, the vast majority of Christians still use public schools.

Character education has welcomed people of faith back into the dialogue about what schools should stand for. It has enabled communities to discover they have more in common than they suspected. In at least a few communities, the hostility and suspicion between conservative Christians and educators have been reduced.

More than mere education is at stake here. Perhaps the issue is as big as whether a pluralistic society can endure. Is there such a thing as a community of purpose that is less than a church? Most Americans, historically, have felt so about their country, and schools were one great reason. In public schools, Americans from different backgrounds and different perspectives come together in one building-in one room. Character education attempts to bring us together from the heart.


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