The Problem with Character Education
School Choice Weekly #38
To what extent should government be involved in shaping citizens’ character? America’s founders long recognized that governing is not morally neutral. As John Adams wrote in a 1776 pamphlet, “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government. … All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. … If there is a form of government then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?”
In other words, if government exists to foster human happiness, and humans are truly happy when virtuous, good government must therefore promote virtue. It really cannot do otherwise, as every law sets forth what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what is unacceptable. That’s not a very complicated set of ideas, except in a time when so many believe government exists to perpetuate comfort rather than courage, legalized theft rather than industry.
What does this have to do with education? A lot. Nowadays, people tend to push education as a means to higher salaries and less welfare. The state constitutions that created our system of public education, however, typically echo Adams in setting forth the purpose of public education as promoting something far deeper: the intellectual and moral virtues necessary to undergird our republic. Some schools appear to be returning to this idea when instilling character and personality traits researchers say correlate with high incomes, but in The New Republic, professor Jeffrey Aaron Snyder argues such initiatives are more materialistic than idealistic:
KIPP [charter schools] and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character. It is also a bet without precedent, as there has never been a character education program so relentlessly focused on individual achievement and “objective accomplishments.” Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves--a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.
His thoughts are worth digesting in full. And here’s another aspect. Parents nowadays are growing weary of government attempts to indoctrinate and condition their children according to statist principles. Endless class recycling initiatives, writing assignments on “social justice,” and even collective homework projects all aim to shape children in the progressive mold. In reaction, some insist they want schools just teaching knowledge and not delving into character, habits, and so forth.
Those are worthy sentiments, but they ignore the impossibility of teaching knowledge in a vacuum. What these parents really mean is that they want their children taught values that correspond with their own. The real question is whether an education system they no longer control will secure that on their behalf. Doubtful.
MORE INFORMATION: The New Republic
IN THIS ISSUE:
- FLORIDA: Parents of 100,000 children have started applications for the state’s tax-credit scholarships, the most ever. Lawmakers failed this spring to create more spots in the hugely popular choice program.
- NORTH CAROLINA: The state supreme court allows 2,200 kids to receive vouchers while a case against them proceeds.
- WISCONSIN: State senators face off with the Obama administration over its demand to oversee the state’s voucher program.
- FLORIDA: The ‘godmother of digital learning’ retires after helping pioneer a national model for online education.
- MISSOURI: A bill would let students from the unaccredited St. Louis school district attend private, nonreligious schools using tax funds after jumping through many hoops.
- MISSOURI: The House and Senate again pass, by large margins, a bill to end Common Core. It now heads to the governor.
- PHILANTHROPY: Lenore Ealy explains how big philanthropy is corrupting education and America by attempting social engineering rather than supporting networks of private initiative.
- NEW YORK: How the arrival of Common Core shelved better work that teachers had been doing to create state-specific standards.
- MASSACHUSETTS: Some students and teachers cling to poetry as national mandates erode that art in schools.
- POLL: A survey of teachers in the nation’s largest union shows growing opposition to Common Core.
- FLORIDA: Another anti-Common Core candidate beats a GOP incumbent in this spring’s primaries.
- ALABAMA: Anti-Common Core candidates have gotten $700,000 from a local PAC during Alabama’s primary races. The vote is June 3.
- MICHIGAN: School districts that privatize services such as lunch and busing pay teachers more.
- NORTH CAROLINA: A judge says the state can’t stop teachers from getting a guaranteed job for life, overturning a state law restricting tenure. Supporters will appeal.
- SELECTIVITY: Contrary to popular belief, school districts don’t serve all students. Even so, they often resist school choice on the grounds that specific choice schools don’t serve every need.
- PRESCHOOL: Should the feds just block-grant preschool money back to the states? No, says Jason Richwine, because states will likely send it to the ineffective establishment. It would be better to cut federal spending on preschool dramatically and focus on a few randomized experiments.
Thank you for reading! If you need a quicker fix of news about school choice, you can find daily updates online under the Ed News Roundup at http://news.heartland.org/education.