Character miseducation

J. Martin Rochester

By Marty Rochester

School seems to start earlier and earlier for most kids. As the summer is flying by, many parents are already thinking about what the coming school year holds for their children. All of us, in fact, have a stake in our schools.

I am against character education; that is, using schools as a primary mechanism for teaching virtue. I guess that makes me a bad person because it puts me at odds with many educationists today – for example, Marvin Berkowitz, my University of Missouri-St. Louis colleague who is the Sanford McDonnell Endowed Professor of  Character Education and a leader locally and nationally in K-12 character training.

As I wrote in my “Class Warfare” book, “there has always been the temptation to use schools for purposes other than schooling, for proselytizing and other ends, since children are the ultimate captive audience.” Both conservatives and liberals have been behind such moralizing at various times, from the McGuffey Readers introduced in 1836 to inculcate the Protestant ethic, patriotism, personal responsibility and traditional values, to the more recent efforts of multicultural consultants to promote social justice and global citizenship. 

So what’s the problem? 

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First, although teachers can be wonderful role models, I believe it is primarily the responsibility of parents to teach their children character, if by that is meant a moral code of conduct. I, for one, have not relied on the schools to do this, and any parent who does is arguably a bad parent. Just because some parents are derelict in this duty does not mean that schools should assume that all kids are in need of such training under their direction. I have half-jokingly suggested that perhaps kids should be allowed to test out of the basics of character education in the same way they can test out of remedial math.

Second, to the extent that schools should be involved in character education, it should not be in the form of a prescribed weekly curriculum or laundry list of positive traits but rather by simply epitomizing good behavior through the normal everyday rhythm of the school building, insisting on: 

• Honesty, rather than excusing the cheating and plagiarism that is commonplace in K-12; 

• Respect for teachers, elders and peers, rather than permitting the lax discipline typically enforced; 

• A strong work ethic, rather than promoting runaway grade inflation that rewards sloth; 

• Diligence, rather than giving students endless opportunities to redo mediocre exams or turn in late papers; and 

• Persistence rather than stroking student self-esteem with false praise. 

“Social justice,” for example, should be taught not only through reading about poverty in America but also by penalizing students who do not complete their homework. Aside from teaching individual responsibility, this gets classmates to understand the concept of fairness, treating all students with the same expectations rather than privileging some by cutting them slack. 

Likewise, while educators increasingly stress the importance of teaching students “grit,” it is hard to do when schools adopt the slogan that “failure is not an option,” as if one can hope to overcome adversity without failure. Schools do not foster “impulse control” (the ability to delay gratification), which researchers have found a key to academic and other success, when they cater to student whims and constantly try to make the classroom more fun.

Schools can, in fact, usefully supplement the home in building character. But the school should not be the first provider and, as suggested above, it cannot help parents furnish moral guidance if it teaches the wrong values.  

This points to a third problem with the character education movement. Unfortunately, in our culture, there is wide disagreement regarding what are the “right” values. Even some of the fundamental precepts I alluded to earlier, such as hard work and respect, are contested today by some folks. This is why my misgivings about character education apply mainly to public schools, because parents who enroll their children in private schools at least can choose ones they know will reinforce their own family values. In public schools, they cannot be sure.

Some parents want their children to emulate a Boy Scout or Girl Scout code of honor, while others would view that as “right-wing.” The latter might well want to imbue their children with an “it takes a village” ethos and more progressive nostrums, while the former would view that as “left-wing.” And, of course, there are all kinds of religious differences (various faiths as well as agnosticism) that public schools must be sensitive to, especially the very ones that preach the most about “diversity.” 

Thus, as much as one might hope for consensus on the values to be taught in school, it is sheer hubris for teachers to usurp that role from the family and to assume they know what is best for my child. 

Fourth, schools should stick to what they do best and are uniquely suited to do – teach math, physics, English and other subject matter and, beyond that, a love of learning. Schools should not aspire to be churches or social work agencies, and teachers should not pretend to be psychologists and sociologists or ethicists, for which they are untrained.  In an already crowded school day in which our schools strugglea to find the time to get students to become proficient in the “three R’s,” character ed can become a huge distraction. 

Moreover, insofar as character ed can easily morph into ideological indoctrination of the left or the right, it can undermine the free inquiry that is so essential to the academic mission.

Allow me one final word about character and how complicated a term it is. Inspired by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, David Brooks in his recent book “The Road to Character” distinguished between what he called “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues,” the first being the values one exhibits that contribute to career success and the second being those values that enable one to command respect as a human being. Although Brooks finds eulogy values the more important of the two, are they necessarily separate domains or is there not considerable overlap? 

This is a conversation worth having with your child. Don’t wait for a teacher to initiate it.

 J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.