On a Character Education Inventory

What matters most is, not textbooks, but the total social culture by AMITAI ETZIONI

What do sports, discipline infractions, grades and community service have in common? Seemingly nothing.


And yet, this list of incongruous items reflects key assumptions in my approach to character education. Why? Because how well schools handle conflicts and expectations around these issues-in classrooms, corridors, playing fields and communities-has much to say about the direction of students' and staff s character development and, ultimately the strength of a school district's community spirit.

As founder of the Communitarian Network, I have spent more than a decade probing the implications and moral dimensions of self-seeking individuals and their commitments and responsibilities to the social community that surrounds them.

More recently, my book, The Spirit of Community focuses on the argument that morality is anchored in a strong community. Without attempting here to review the immense literature that others and I have written on the subject, suffice it to say that I believe school leaders cannot ignore the task of character development. Indeed, they must regularly take a character education inventory of their district's practices and policies and take corrective action to ensure positive character building measures.

My observations and analysis lead me to suggest that schools would be well served to consider what key message-sending activities are draining or bolstering the spirit of community in their districts and schools. In particular, schools should review the distribution of grades, the ways minor and major disciplinary infractions are dealt with, the orientation embedded in school sports, conflicts in the corridors and playgrounds and whether students' community service yields the expected results.

School administrators would be wise to involve teachers and coaches in this character-education inventory, perhaps as part of a full-day retreat and then on subsequent occasions to assess what corrective actions still need to be taken.

I believe character education requires the development of two specific personality capabilities rather than learning to debate finer moral points or acquiring specific values or virtues. These capabilities are self-discipline and empathy.

Ability to Discern
The first capability, self-discipline, is needed because families and schools cannot, even under the best of conditions, expunge anti-social urges. We all have sexual and aggressive and selfish tendencies that push us to conduct ourselves in ways considered inappropriate by our communities. Good students, citizens and spouses differ from others in that they have acquired an ability to discern when such feelings swell in their chest and activate countervailing voices that enable them most times to restrain or deflect the anti-social urges.

To use a simple example, if a driver cuts in front of me on the highway, I (and millions of other drivers) would likely grow angry. Our first response would be to honk at the driver, cuss him or her out and try to catch up with the offender. However, this first inclination is curbed by our self-discipline, allowing us to listen to our better self, which informs us that the initial raw inclination is not the correct one.

The second capability, empathy, augments the first one. If students only acquired high levels of self-discipline, they might use their ability to dedicate themselves to projects that might harm others. Empathy, the ability to walk in another person's shoes and feel others' pain and joy, guides students to activities that would enhance their lives without undermining those of others. Better yet, empathy allows students to enjoy helping and sharing with and caring for others.

Once a young person develops self-discipline and empathy, they have the personality foundations on which specific moral values can be grafted. Given that these personality capabilities are the mainstays of character education, schools best ensure that the messages and experiences they generate-in the total school environment and not merely in classrooms-will help develop these two cardinal capabilities.

Inventory Checkoffs
I should note here that from my viewpoint the question of whether a school should engage in character education is an idle one. Schools cannot avoid influencing character. The only difference among schools is whether their character education efforts are unwitting or deliberately geared to an educational agenda and what that agenda is. Thus, a disorderly school affects character just as much as an orderly one; the only difference is the direction of the effect.

The same holds whether or not a school ignores minor infractions or uses them as educational opportunities or whether it provides opportunities for community service or fosters it. It is true whether a school body is homogeneous or diverse.

I turn now to provide a rather preliminary, illustrative list of the items that might be included on a character education inventory.

  • Grades. Grades are the major currency of the school, the "wages" that are given to students for their work. Basically, the question crucial to character building is whether students learn from their school experience that hard work pays off or if other messages are sent to them by the ways grades are handed out.

    Staff who do the inventory need to think about the following issues related to grades: Does the school issue grades or qualitative evaluations? Are grades given in a timely manner? Are high grades easy to attain? Are grades accorded to some or many or all students to foster self-esteem rather than to recognize specific achievements? Do students understand the bases on which grades are given? Do they believe, in general, that grades are handed out fairly?

  • Sports. Sports have been recognized since the ancient Greeks and the first Olympics to be a major tool for character building. Sports belong in the core curriculum of character building and certainly are not "extra" from this viewpoint. Schools that cut back on team sports and physical education should note that they diminish one of the most potent sources of character education.

    The ways school sports are conducted can send widely disparate messages, ranging from the notion that "It does not matter if you win or lose but how you play the game" to notions that "Winning is not the important thing, it is the only thing." The educational messages and issues involved are obvious, but note that correction in this matter might require inter-school cooperation and might not be possible for individual schools to resolve on their own.

    Another sport-related issue that deserves examination is the balance between physical education and team sports in terms of resource allocation and attention granted to these two lines of activities and what messages are imparted in the way physical education is conducted. Some schools use sports to teach that it does not matter if you win or lose but how you play the game, an important piece of character education. Others, in effect, use sports to teach that winning is not the important thing but the only thing, a significant item of character mis-education.

  • Infractions. Much attention has been paid to how schools deal with major discipline infractions, such as bringing guns to schools or assaulting teachers or fellow students. Similar attention also should be paid to the ways schools deal with small infractions. Indeed, cities have found that when they ensure that social mores are respected on small matters, such as not playing boom boxes too loudly in public places, the total culture changes and crime is curbed.

    Likewise, in schools, ignoring minor infractions may set the ground for larger ones.

    In any case, a systematic review of the tools available to teachers and principals to deal with infractions, how these tools may be enhanced, the school policy about these matters and the extent to which it is followed or circumvented (if this if often the case) are all essential elements of a character-building inventory. This, in turn, leads to renewed efforts to line up treatment of infractions with the school's character-building agenda.

  • Other items. Other items that might be included in the inventory are best developed by each school and surely will be suggested by future research. The main strength of the character-building inventory is that it helps schools move away from a focus on textbook selection and the subject matter taught in classrooms. Instead, the inventory examines the total school environment because all elements and aspects of it affect character building for better or worse.

    Amitai Etzioni is director of George Washington University's Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, 2130 H St., H.W., Suite 714-J, Washington, D.C. 20052. E-mail: comnet@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu. He is the author of The Spirit of Community and The New Golden and the founder of the Communiturian Network.