Nineteen years ago, when my family moved from Ohio to Massachusetts, my daughter's new high school issued her a student handbook that was 26 pages long. After the front page, came 24 pages of student rights. At the end, there was one single page of student responsibilities.
To me, that handbook was a metaphor for the school. The kids were enormously aware of their rights—the fact that you couldn't give them a test without two days' notice; the fact that teachers were not allowed to inspect lockers; the limits on what teachers were allowed to say. But the students were a lot less clear about their own obligations.
This school, like every other, was teaching children values. In the '70s and '80s, people talked about value-free education, and there was an attempt to remove moral instruction from schools. Yet, as this example illustrates, it is profoundly silly to think you can have children for six or seven hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year, and not give them a sense of what is right or wrong, what is worthwhile, and what is not worthwhile.
On the contrary, schools should embrace their role as a partner with parents in character education. By this, I do not mean trying to get kids to have the right attitude about gun control or ecology or gender issues or energy use or whatever the hot topic of the day is. There is a role for engaging children in discussion of such complicated ethical dilemmas, but true character education is about acquiring virtuous habits. It's about knowing what persistence is and then being able to stay the course, or about having a rich understanding of what kindness is and then being able to apply it.
What does that look like in the classroom? We can answer that question in terms of what I call "the six Es of character education."
The first is "example." Human beings aren't born civilized; we have to learn almost everything important by example. The great English philosopher Edmund Burke said, "Example is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other."
Imprinting in children a vivid picture of what a good human being is like-that was a major component of education at an earlier period in our history. In colonial times, for example, education consisted largely in reading books like Plutarch's Lives and picking out a person to craft your life after.
George Washington chose the Roman Lucius Cincinnatus. Like Washington, Cincinnatus had been a farmer who was drawn into warfare. He rose through the ranks to become a great general. After he had retired from military service, he was called back by the senate to rescue the Roman army from annihilation by the Aequi, a feat he accomplished in 16 days.
At that point, the senators said to him, "Listen, we've been struggling with this republic for a while, and we can't make it work. We want you to be the emperor."
Cincinnatus said, "I'm sorry. I've served my country. You've got a government. I'm going back to the farm." And that's exactly what he did.
At the end of the Revolutionary War in Yorktown, when the British surrendered, Alexander Hamilton and some of the other generals came to Washington and said, "Congratulations. The war is over. Now we want to make you king."
Washington's reply was, "If I ever hear anybody mention anything like that again, that's the end of our friendship. I've served my country. Now I'm going back to Virginia."
One of the reasons for Washington's response was his clear idea of what his model would do. We need to resurrect this kind of learning by example.
"Ethos," my second E, comes from a Greek term for the ethical environment that must be an integral part of school life. These days, we tend to conduct school by programs: We see a problem; we have a program. A lot of people have responded to societal crises like the shootings at Columbine by calling for character education programs.
But character education is more an attitude or approach than a program; it's something that permeates the entire school. It's as much a part of school bus life or locker room life as it is a part of classroom life. It means that instead of talking about "inappropriate behavior" or "stages of moral development," everyone in the school community talks about what is right and what is wrong, what is ideal and what is evil.
Yet even in a school like Columbine, which is disorganized or troubled, an individual teacher has the opportunity to develop a safe environment in his or her own classroom. Teachers can create a place where kids can't put one another down, where kids can get a hearing, and where there is a sense of fairness and respect.
The third E, "explanation," is one of the most enervating aspects of teaching. Here, I'm not talking about explaining quadratic equations or the causes of the Civil War; I'm talking about what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim says is the real purpose of education: to socialize the young for life in a very complex society-to teach them the rules of the game.
My youngest son Justin's experience is a good example. On the very first day of kindergarten, when we dropped him off, he dashed out of the car and ran right to the playground. Immediately, he and a friend from the neighborhood starting doing what kindergarten kids did in those days: They picked up sticks and began dueling.
My wife and I were watching from the car, so we got to witness my son's first encounter with a teacher. Just as Justin was about to jab his little friend's eye out, all of a sudden this hand came out of nowhere. Then we could see the teacher talking to him. That night at the dinner table, I asked Justin what she had said.
"Dad, she looked right at me, and she said, 'We don't do that here.'"
In the next few years, my son heard that phrase a lot: "We don't just get up and go to the bathroom whenever we want." "We don't punch people." "We don't do that here."
If you are a teacher, you are society's explainer; you tell children about why they ought to be more self-controlled, why they ought to think about other people, and why they ought to set and meet goals.
However, there are limits to explaining. It doesn't always work. There are times when you've really got to appeal to the moral "emotions," my fourth E.
Sometimes you've even got to use shame. Shame has gotten a bad name in education, but I would suggest that there are occasions when it's necessary. In my own life, I've been enriched by being made to realize when I've committed shameful acts. Shame is an important corrective in human nature.
There are also exhortations that inspire people—appeals not so much to the mind, but to the heart. You can think of character education as teaching children to know the good, to love the good, and to do the good. My own sense as a parent is that this middle term—loving the good—is where the real engine is. If you can get young people to love the right things, to commit emotionally to being a certain kind of person, then you're on the right track.
When I talk about the fifth E, "experiences," I'm talking about moral action. Today, many children have few opportunities to become moral actors because they're not really needed by their families. The only things we ask them to do are occasionally put out the garbage or make the bed.
One of the most constructive movements in schools right now, service learning, tries to address that problem by giving kids opportunities to behave in responsible, compassionate, moral ways in the larger community. My daughter did a service learning project at a mental hospital one afternoon a week during her junior year in high school. The first couple of sessions, she came home in tears. She said, "Dad, these people are bizarre. They say terrible things. They don't like me. I don't know what I'm doing there. I want to work with young children. Can we go back to school and get a different placement?"
The school administrators wouldn't change her placement, but they did make sure she learned some skills that helped her in her work. By November, the most important part of her week was her Wednesday afternoon at the hospital. That service learning project was probably the most profound experience she had during high school.
Expectations for Excellence
The last E is "expectations for excellence." Today, we hear a lot in educational circles about the excellence movement, which is very closely associated with high test scores. Of course, a focus on this kind of excellence may have some effect in making kids more knowledgeable, and it may help them get better jobs. But it's going to be another educational snare and delusion if it just means getting kids to jump through higher hoops. In the long term, we must tie excellence to character formation-to the demand that children become involved in the forging of their own best selves.
Kevin Ryan is director of the Boston University Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character and editor of Character Development in Schools and Beyond.
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 13, N. 1 Summer 2002