Neil Riley is a father of three boys and head of English at Southland Boys' High School. He is the past chairman of the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education.

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Character Education Key to Turning the Tide

By Neil Riley. Published in The Southland Times 26 November 2002

Twenty-five years is quite a while. That's how long I've been a secondary teacher.

Occasionally I pause to wonder what will become of the young people passing through my care.

Many are confident, arrogant and so self-absorbed that no one else matters. Generation X is boldly going where no generation has gone before – or so they think.

In their world everything is up for grabs, history sucks, what I do with my life is up to me as long as it doesn't hurt someone else, if it feels good, do it, no one can tell me what to do. Sound familiar? Ask a parent of teenagers.

It's easy to blame them.

They are in fact, only the product of what my generation has taught them.

We've conveyed moral relativism and a radical individualism that is now bearing fruit. They are kids adrift, as one writer has put it.

My generation (the Baby Boomers) has pursued materialism with religious fanaticism, proclaiming God is dead and religion is worthless.

We have been easily bored with our new toys or spouses, so we swapped them for others.

We have boldly asserted our right to pursue dreams while struggling with addictions to food, drugs or sex.

We shake our heads at Enron, Worldcom and the Brisbane Broncos, but cheat on our own taxes.

And then we bemoan the drunkenness of our children, the recklessness of the boy racers, teenage pregnancies and broken homes.

In my better moments I sense perhaps the tide is turning. There is a renewed interest in values education.

The national curriculum refers to attitudes and values, but little has been done about it. The ministry position is to encourage values clarification – a voguish approach from the 1970s where students are presented with moral scenarios and told to discuss their values. I tried this as a young adult and received no help from it whatsoever. All it did was confirm my own prejudice and ignorance. The group leaders gave no guidance and they were meant to be neutral anyway.

When people are lost they need a compass, not a series of choices.

The usual question, Whose values? is the nub.

In a pluralist age where all are entitled to their opinions, values are simply preferences because my values are as good as your values. The final arbiter is the individual, or worse, the state. Because today there are no clear and consistent values (no common or shared sense), we have come to rely on legislation. But when officialdom dictates how we are meant to behave, the result is a state-driven ethic.

This is political correctness.

One approach addressing these concerns is Cornerstone Values. It is based on CS Lewis' research into the core values of civilisations through history. This approach is significant because we learn we are not the only generations to have ever lived and, in fact, if we care to explore what's gone before, there are common beliefs evident across a range of cultures.

The human condition hasn't changed and surely we can learn from the folly of others as well as try to emulate their wisdom.

Director of the Foundation for Character Education John Heenan has identified a set of values generic to any civil society. Honesty and truthfulness, kindness, consideration and concern for others, compassion, obedience to rightful authority, responsibility, respect and duty form a solid foundation for building character and creating genuine community.

And it's making a difference.

A growing number of New Zealand schools are using the Cornerstone Values curriculum and can demonstrate improvements in behaviour and learning. They seek accreditation as a way of recognising commitment to developing character.

Kew School here in Invercargill was the first and the momentum is building.

The inaugural conference for character education, held recently in Christchurch, attracted ministry sponsorship and more than 100 registrations. Speakers included:

Dr Mary English, on the role of families in developing character.

Otago academic Dr Gerald Pilley, who provided an absorbing overview of the philosophies shaping Western thought during the past two centuries, and urged delegates to build a humane society through character education.

Wellington College principal Roger Moses, who explained how Cornerstone Values were impacting his school.

The most challenging and moving addresses were from John Crossan, the principal of Mount Gilbert Community College, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Teaching is tougher than it used to be. The recent strikes and lists of suspensions confirm this.

Listening to Mr Crossan though, I wonder how many of us would cope where:

Twenty-five percent of those killed during the troubles of the past 30 years lived within four miles of the school.

Many of the students have been traumatised by politically motivated violence.

Eight out of every 10 homes in the Shankill area are dependent on social welfare benefits.

The average disposable income is less than $NZ300.

The area has the highest level of juvenile court convictions in Northern Ireland.

It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of young people take drugs and 23 percent of 10 to 15 year-olds do so on a regular basis.

Despite the odds, the college under Mr Crossan's leadership has made inroads to building peace and cross-community co-operation. The school's Wall of Peace, for example, has received praise from leaders all around the world, while the initiatives of Margaret Gibney and other students together with the Cross Community Choir are nationally and internationally applauded.

What's made the difference? Several factors, of course, but consistent efforts to build character in these young people has played an integral role.

Character education recognises young people need clear guidelines, that actions flow from beliefs and attitudes and there are consequences for our behaviour.

A values curriculum weaved into every sphere of school life will have an outcome – the formation of character where people are valued and freedoms that so many have fought for will be maintained.

GK Chesterton was right when he said: We need to teach the oldest truths to the youngest people. I just wish my generation had learned that lesson. But maybe not all is lost on those who follow.


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