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The Case for Character Education

John Heenan

New Zealand National Character Education Conference. St. Andrew’s College, Christchurch, 26 - 28 September 2002

For twenty-three centuries of Western civilisation there was a universal assumption that somethings were right and that somethings were wrong. It did not matter whether that shared assumption of an external system of morality came from an unknown god of the Greeks, the Yahweh of the ancient Jew, the Christ of the Gospels or the great thinkers who called it Natural Law. What did matter was that there was a shared consensus about right and wrong that guided individual behaviour and created social cohesion.

Parents saw it as important to teach their children such simple virtues as honesty, thoughtfulness and respect. Those virtues were affirmed and upheld by the church and the school.

It was accepted that greatest responsibility of any generation was to hand on those virtues to the next generation.

That shared consensus lasted until the later decades of the twentieth century when a revolution started in America and swept like wildfire through the whole of the Western world. But the thinking that kindled that revolution took place in Europe over a hundred years earlier.

It is true that dead men rule from their graves.

That revolution was to change among other things education, social policy and the justice system.

Historically, education all over the world had two aims; to help young people master the skills of literacy and numeracy and to help them build good character. Societies since the time of Plato had made character a deliberate aim of education. They understood that to create and maintain a civil society there had to be education for character as well as for intellect, for decency as well as literacy and for virtue as well as for skills and knowledge.

Until comparatively recently, educational philosophers have stressed the critical role of moral education. Almost without exception they assumed that adults either as parents or teachers, were primarily responsible for shaping the character of the young.

It has only been in recent decades that psychology has replaced philosophy as the well-spring of education and teaching practice.

In the early 1900s my mother attended the Earnscleugh School near Alexandra. By today’s standards the school was impoverished. Slates for writing lessons, stayed readers and the bland school journal for reading resources, a dusty schoolyard where hopscotch was played with a stone and cricket in season with bat hewed from local willow and a battered kerosene tins for wickets.

Though most children only went to standard six they received an education for life. They could calculate in their heads, they were master spellers, they could express themselves in prose, they had beautiful handwriting, they were literate – they read widely. Until the day they died they had poetry dripping from their tongues. They absorbed life-lifting language that sustained them through the tough times. For some it was the Twenty-third Psalm or Longfellow’s – for others The Village Blacksmith –

Character training was important and Thackeray’s verse was more than a faded chart on the schoolroom wall.

But schooling for my mother’s generation was no bed of roses. The discipline was strict and by today’s standards barbarian.

One of my treasures is a photocopy of the Earnscleugh School Punishment Book for the years 1896 – 1915

It’s entries make interesting reading.

But though we can look back and laugh at that harsh prudishness our laughter can be no more than gallows laughter given the social indicators of our generation.

Since 1960

Throughout the country ordinary people are puzzled about the reason for all these statistics and wonder why there is a shortage of ethical behaviour in our communities?

But what do these statistics tell us?

There are no simple answers to our problem. Except for one.

Each of us must accept some responsibility and commit ourselves to do something. As adults we can not condemn the behaviour of our young people if we are unwilling to model and commit ourselves to the restoration of character training in the home and the school.

The solution is not to try and reclaim some mythical golden age when things were supposedly simpler and more honest.

Responsible adults acknowledge that we can’t turn the clock back – we can’t be old fashioned. But we can refashion what has worked through the generations.

We must refashion a generation that has the great potential to make a difference – to make character count – but is lacking in role models.

We have to provide our young generation with role models so that they can fashion our nation’s character.

We have to understand that the best education, in addition to developing skills and knowledge, makes young people keenly aware that it is their own character that is at stake.

We can help to achieve this by restoring character education to its rightful place at the centre of the curriculum.

It is no coincidence that almost ten years after the Ministry of Education declared “attitudes and values” must be an integral part of the school curriculum that schools have had little guidance to achieve this.

But the Ministry of Education’s failure to deliver support should not come as a surprise.

The essential relationship in education is not between the Ministry of Education and the school but between the school and the parents.

Effective character education is not initiated by centralized agencies.

Effective character education is a task for the grassroots.

For parents, teachers, and community organizations who understand that character is learned by being experienced, observed and modelled.

Since it is only through good relationships that good “attitudes and values” can be transmitted the first task is to create a positive, relational culture in our schools. That if we want to influence the character of our students, core objective values must influence everything that happens in a school, be it in the principal’s office, the classroom, the playground, the sports field or the board meeting.

Parents are best able to impart core objective values. They are the child’s first and most important teachers of character. Nothing can ever replace the home as the place where character traits and taught and observed.

It is in the home that with or without parent’s help children during their earliest years begin developing character. This is both a conscious and unconscious process that takes place by simply watching their parents “being.”

What is taught and observed in the home is far more influential on children that what is taught in the school or any other way. Nevertheless, children do partly learn character from their friends, the popular culture, the social environment and significant relationships.

Among those significant relationships is the relationship between a child and her teacher.

A college professor had his sociology class go into the Baltimore slums to get the case histories of 200 young boys. They were asked to write an evaluation of each boy’s future. In each case the students wrote, He hasn’t got a chance. Twenty-five years later another sociology professor came across the earlier study. He had his students follow up on the project to see what had happened to these boys. With the exception of 20 boys who had moved away or died the students learned that 176 of the remaining 180 had achieved more than ordinary success as lawyers, doctors and businessmen. The professor was astounded and decided to pursue the matter further. Fortunately, all the men were in the area and he was able to ask each one, How do you account for your success? In each case the reply came with feeling, There was a teacher. The teacher was still alive, so he sought her out and asked the old but still alert lady what magic formula she had used to pull those boys out of the slums into successful achievement. The teacher’s eyes sparkled and her lips broke into a gentle smile. It’s really simple, she said. I loved those boys.

The starting point for character education is belief. Values, regardless of whether the are preferences or principles, do not exist in a vacuum. They are rooted in belief. There is a connection between belief and behaviour. In terms of values education, or as I would prefer to call it, character education, there are two beliefs that determine a school’s approach, methodology and objectives. These two beliefs are mutually exclusive for they represent the opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

Each belief has profound but different implications.

The belief that there are no core moral precepts produces values that are preferences while the belief that there are core moral precepts produces values that are principles. Like the belief in which each is rooted preference and principle values are mutually exclusive. Preference values, like all preferences, whether for tea or coffee, for long rather than short hair, for a Mazda rather than a Maxima, are personal choices. They are always subjective and open to a change of mind. They are neither right nor wrong. Their correctness, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. The individual can rightly claim of her preference values that My values are as good as your values. I like my coffee with milk as much as you like coffee without milk.

The measure of values that are principles lies beyond individual preference. Because principle values are the product of the belief that core moral precepts exist they are objective. Their truth lies beyond the preference of the individual. Principle values are traits of character - honesty, compassion, courage and perseverance – they transcend personal preference. The defining difference between preference and principle values is that preference values are something “to have” while principle values are something “to be.” Indeed, the most important thing to be.

Belief is not only the genesis of values it is also the starting point for social change and personal behaviour. Social change starts with belief and ends with behaviour. All social change reflects basic changes in the values system of a nation, but these changes in values are themselves preceded by changes in beliefs. Beliefs – what is held to be true or real – produce values, and these values in turn determine the norms [what everyone is doing] that govern behaviour. No one has the luxury of having no belief, for believing in nothing is itself a belief. Behaviour is always the final stage in social change. To change behaviour, which is governed by norms, the regard or disregard for belief must first be changed. So the starting point for a change of social behaviour, whether societal or personal, is always with beliefs.

It is for this reason that many well-intentioned and often generously resourced intervention programmes fail. As a nation we pour millions of dollars into the black hole of the well-intended.

The way objective values work explains why they are inexplicably linked to character, and therefore behaviour. Each objective value – honesty, kindness, compassion, respect, responsibility, obedience, and duty – has three working components.

For an objective value to function each of the three component parts must be operating. To show, for example, compassion, one must first know what compassion is and what it requires of our relationship with others.

To be compassionate we must first have moral knowledge. But knowledge, by itself, does not make us compassionate. We have also to care about compassion and be emotionally committed to it. We must have the capacity for appropriate guilt when we behave without compassion and be capable of moral indignation when we see others suffering or the victims of injustice. Yet even an emotional commitment to compassion will not make us compassionate. A further step is needed. We must practise compassion in our personal relationships and carry out our obligations as a citizen to help build a caring and just society.

These three parts - moral knowing, moral attitudes (feeling) and moral behaviour can be expressed as the involvement of the head, the heart and the hand. Objective values produce behaviour that benefits the individual, others, and the community. Moreover, these values prevent harm to both individuals and society, they are the essence of healthy relationships, and they build a sense of community. In short, they enhance the well-being of all and create a civil society.

Cornerstone values such as honesty, compassion, consideration, responsibility and respect have only positive and constructive outcomes. They reproduce themselves as they are practised. They are given as they are gained and gained as they are given. Honesty, for example, is returned as trust, respect and loyalty; consideration as courtesy, gentleness and helpfulness. Objective or principle values – cornerstone values – are inextricably linked to character. Character is the inner form that makes someone or something what it is. Character is distinct from such concepts as personality, image, reputation, or celebrity. A person’s character is the inner reality in which thoughts, speech, decisions, behaviour and relations are rooted. Character determines behaviour just as behaviour demonstrates character. Character is who we are no one sees.

Character can also be defined as knowing the good, desiring the good and doing the good. It is about the habits of the head, the habits of the heart and the habits of the hand.

The three functions of an objective core value which involve the heard, the heart and the hand are coupled with the three components of character which also involve the head, the heart and the hand. In the language of the educator both involve knowledge, attitudes and behaviour.

A wheel illustrates the connection between objective values and character.

The rim represents character. The spokes, all of equal length and spacing, represent the objective core values. The give the wheel, character, its form, shape and strength. The hub, which holds the spokes in position, is a special core value -duty.

A sense of duty is pivotal to good character. Duty is misunderstood by our generation. Duty is obligation. Our obligation to our children, parents, elders and posterity. Duty has as much to do with child abuse, honest business practice and treating those of a difference race or colour with respect as it does with flags and war memorials. What we destroyed we have to replace or re-invented.

Over recent decades attempts have be made to replace character training with theoretical constructions, fancy strategies and therapies. We seek the form of character but not the substance. The reality is that you can not reinvent the wheel.

C. S. Lewis spent decades studying a host of civilizations including the Ancient Egyptian, Old Norse, Ancient Jewish, Babylonian, North American Indian, Hindu, Ancient Chinese, Roman, Christian, Greek, Australian Aboriginal, Anglo-Saxon, Stoic and Ancient Indian. He identified objective values that they all held in common.

He wrote that:

Lewis conclude that such objective values as honesty, generosity, duty, justice, mercy and fairness were built into all human beings and that society would be foolish not to take them into account. He said that they were as vital to the community as the heart is to the human body. How absurd it would be, for example, to remove someone’s heart and still expect other organs (like the brain, liver and stomach) to keep working.

Lewis’s point was that if we fail to pass on to our children clear standards of right and wrong, of what is admirable or ignoble, then we must share the blame if our communities eventually fall apart.

When writing of this in 1943 C. S. Lewis penned my favourite passage about education.

And all the time – such is the tragicomedy of our situation – we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more drive, or dynamism, or self-reliance, or creativity. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.

Modern curricula have moved schools from the historical understanding that educating for character is a core responsibility of schools.

The result has been that character training has been replaced by intervention strategies based on theoretical constructions. Not only do most of these not work in practice but they make the management of schools and parenting unnecessarily difficult.

A teacher may talk as if right and wrong are matters of personal preference to be determined by time, place and circumstance and that the last thing a person should be is judgmental. But when confronted by real situations [Johnny punches Mary, someone pinches the teacher lunch or tells her to get stuffed or a defiant Shaun arrives drunk at the school assembly] the teacher, the principal and the trustees react as if there are common objective values.

Theoretical constructions, like relativism, create tensions that become barriers to the management of schools and parenting.

Young people interpret the belief that nothing is right and nothing is wrong, that it all depends on time, place and circumstance as meaning that all behaviour is acceptable.

There are compelling reasons for restoring character education to its rightful place at the centre of the curriculum.

The good news is that character education does not cost a lot of money. Nor is it an add on to the already crowded curriculum.

Character education is both small and large. Small because it does not add to what the school is already doing but large because it informs and directs everything that happened in the school. It’s like a pebble being thrown into a pond.

Quality education systems since the time of the Romans have been characterised by:

There is nothing to suggest that, despite the prevailing worldview that underpins modern education, these are not the characteristics that today’s parents and grandparents desire for their children and grand children.

To think that we can have a civil society and social cohesion without character is as illogical as thinking that we can have trees without roots or flowers without petals.

Once there was a rug merchant who saw that his most beautiful rug had a large bump in its centre. He stepped on the bump to flatten it out – and succeeded. But the bump reappeared in a new spot not far away. He jumped on the bump again, and it disappeared for a moment, until it emerged once more in a new place. Again and again he jumped, scuffing and mangling the rug in his frustration. Finally, he lifted one corner of the rug and out slithered an angry snake.


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