The Centrality of Character Education

Promoting civility and goodness undergirds the essential work of public school leaders by PAUL D. HOUSTON

As we careen toward a new millennium, we are struck by the mixture of prosperity on the one hand and a sense of dread on the other. We are better off than we have ever been, and yet something is not quite right.


We fear for our safety walking down the street. We worry about our world changing around us in ways we cannot control. And while we are currently experiencing a booming economy, we wonder whether Social Security will be around for us in the future.

We are suffering this same confusion in education. Schools are more successful than ever in having children graduate and in meeting our traditional mission of providing a basic education for all. But at the same time, we see schools roundly criticized and under attack. Some believe school people are not doing their job in preparing students for the new world of work, and the cause of the perceived "moral" decline in our society is laid at the schoolhouse door. All of this has led to an increased interest in the teaching of character and civility as possible solutions.

Character education and the teaching of values has been an ongoing discussion for some time. We have seen schools introduce programs to teach it, school boards veer sharply away from dealing with it, acrimonious debates around it, and politicians on both sides demand it. Yet it always has been central to what we are about, and we have hurt ourselves by losing sight of the centrality of character in our work.

If you look back in history, you will find the core mission of public education in America was to create places of civic virtue for our children and for our society. As education undergoes the rigors of re-examination and the need for reinvention, it is crucial to remember that the key role of public schools is to preserve democracy and, that as battered as we might be, our mission is central to the future of this country.

Builders of Society
School leaders have a sacred duty and a crucial role, for we stand at the intersection that allows communities to be built. We have a dual task. We must build good citizens so they, in turn, can build a good society. As Jim Carnes of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of this month’s featured authors, writes, "Perhaps one reason we have trouble finding community is that we have forgotten how to be individuals." It takes people of virtue to build villages that can stand the rigors of a changing world.

The issues of character and civility are not merely esoteric or an add-on to the curriculum, like driver’s education. They are central to our mission and to our very survival as an institution and a society. We chose this theme for a special issue of The School Administrator because it undergirds so much of what we, as school leaders, must be about: the creation of community, advocacy for children and the preservation of democracy through public education.

The lineup of authors in this issue represents a broad range of philosophies and backgrounds but with one common agreement--schools are central to the transfer of our society’s deepest beliefs and our nation will rise or fall on our success in carrying out this task.

Recapturing Civic Duty
We begin the issue with an article from Benjamin Barber entitled "The Apprenticeship of Liberty: Schools for Democracy," which I believe you will find singularly incisive and provocative. Barber provides a powerful treatise on why we have common schools and why their preservation is so important to America. He points out, "Our schools are public not just in that they must educate everyone, but in that they must turn a host of ‘everyones’ into a single civic entity that we call a ‘public.’ ... Public schooling and the public weal are intimately bound together." Barber, a professor at Rutgers University, goes on to state that "if our nation is to repossess its civic soul, it needs to recapture the central civic responsibilities of public schools. ... Public schools (not only) serve the public, but ... they establish the public." Barber’s article is followed by Carnes’ "Three Chairs," which draws from the work of Henry David Thoreau and calls for us to see the relationship between the individual and the community in which he or she dwells. The three chairs in the title come from Thoreau’s note that he had three chairs in his cabin: one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society. Carnes reminds us of the tension between public and private imperatives and how we must provide balance for that tension.

Sanford McDonnell, chairman emeritus of McDonnell Douglas, shares his thoughts about ethics and freedom. He, too, draws on the notion that a free republic is the most powerful form of government, and also the most fragile because it depends on a virtuous people. Virtue calls for balancing our own needs with those of society as a whole. McDonnell’s article moves from the philosophical to the practical by sharing some specific school programs that work toward that virtuous society.

Eric Schaps and Catherine Lewis of the Developmental Studies Center further our understanding of what is possible for schools in their article, "Breeding Citizenship Through Community in School." They point out that you cannot teach children about community without their being a part of a community and that schools must not merely tell children what to do, they must become the places where that doing happens. They also point out that "a school that is a caring community helps students ... by providing them with an environment rich in friendships and connection, a say in shaping that environment and meaningful, important learning." They, too, provide concrete examples of what they are hoping others will do in building these kinds of school communities.

Reconnecting Disaffected Youth
Sheldon Berman, a district superintendent from Hudson, Mass., provides a central contribution in his article on "the bridges to civility: empathy, ethics and service." Berman traces some of our current challenge with students who feel disaffected and disconnected to the greater good. He shares research that shows that pro-social behavior is stimulated by the unity of one’s sense of self and one’s morality, the sense of connectedness to others and the sense of meaning that derives from contributing to something larger than oneself.

Berman describes at length programs in his own district that provide that sense of empathy and connection that is so vital to becoming a good citizen.

Amitai Etzioni, the father of the communitarian movement, authors a "Character Education Inventory" that gives specific guidance on the "what" and "how" of building character education into a school setting. He points out that schools must continually take inventory of their own actions to see that what they are doing matches what they are telling the children they should do and how they should live.

The final article comes from an author whose presence here shows the range of concern for this issue. I believe former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett might profit from reading Barber’s article on public schools because Bennett’s strident criticism of public education and his calls for vouchers have not helped the cause of public education.

However, his consistent message on the value of character in the lives of children and the centrality of that to our democracy should be taken seriously. He may be mistaken in his thoughts on what is wrong or right with schools, but he is dead-on in his thinking on the importance of character as a basic skill. I commend his thoughts on this subject.

A Dire Alternative
I think we have gotten sidetracked in the discussion of education in recent times. It appears many people see education as merely a means to an end--that end being a good job and becoming a productive contributor to our economy. That sense of education as an instrument misses the point that the real goal of education is to produce a total person--one who has a sense of efficacy and a sense of responsibility to self, as well as others. Education is not a goal as much as it is a journey. The real goal of education in this democracy is to produce citizens who are individually whole and who are also caring for the whole.

David Mathews, of the Kettering Foundation, recently wrote a provocative book entitled Will There Be a Public for Public Schools? He raises the specter that we are losing our public and that public schools may cease to exist if we cannot find a way to get the public back.

This month’s issue of The School Administrator raises an equally important question: Will there be a republic without public schools? For if we fail in our task to create a civil society by abandoning public schools or if we, in public schools, abandon our central mission of creating citizens, the answer to that question is a dire one indeed.

You will notice three recurring ideas throughout the essays in this issue: connection, bridging and balance. Ironically, these are three words I have used frequently in describing the role of the school leader in our changing times. Leaders must make connections between people and ideas. Leadership is really the stewardship of relationships. Connections must be made between the pieces of the work we do and between the people, to whom and for whom, we are responsible.

To do that we must be bridge builders. We must help people find safe passage across the chasms that separate us from each other. We must build bridges between where we are as a people and where we want to go. We must strike a balance. We must find the balance in our own lives. We, as educators, must find that balance between the world of the mind and that of the heart and soul. It is the mind that preoccupies our time and that will take us to the information age. But it is the heart and soul that will allow us to remain connected to our own humanity and that will build that bridge between us that creates a good society.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org