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Moral Education

A Brief History of Moral Education, The Return of Character Education, Current Approaches to Moral Education

Only a handful of educational theorists hold the view that if only the adult world would get out of the way, children would ripen into fully realized people. Most thinkers, educational practitioners, and parents acknowledge that children are born helpless and need the care and guidance of adults into their teens and often beyond. More specifically, children need to learn how to live harmoniously in society. Historically, the mission of schools has been to develop in the young both the intellectual and the moral virtues. Concern for the moral virtues, such as honesty, responsibility, and respect for others, is the domain of moral education.

Moral education, then, refers to helping children acquire those virtues or moral habits that will help them individually live good lives and at the same time become productive, contributing members of their communities. In this view, moral education should contribute not only to the students as individuals, but also to the social cohesion of a community. The word moral comes from a Latin root (mos, moris) and means the code or customs of a people, the social glue that defines how individuals should live together.

A Brief History of Moral Education

Every enduring community has a moral code and it is the responsibility and the concern of its adults to instill this code in the hearts and minds of its young. Since the advent of schooling, adults have expected the schools to contribute positively to the moral education of children. When the first common schools were founded in the New World, moral education was the prime concern. New England Puritans believed the moral code resided in the Bible. Therefore, it was imperative that children be taught to read, thus having access to its grounding wisdom. As early as 1642 the colony of Massachusetts passed a law requiring parents to educate their children. In 1647 the famous Old Deluder Satan Act strengthened the law. Without the ability to read the Scriptures, children would be prey to the snares of Satan.

The colonial period. As common school spread throughout the colonies, the moral education of children was taken for granted. Formal education had a distinctly moral and religion emphasis. Harvard College was founded to prepare clergy for their work. Those men who carved out the United States from the British crown risked their fortunes, their families, and their very lives with their seditious rebellion. Most of them were classically educated in philosophy, theology, and political science, so they had learned that history's great thinkers held democracy in low regard. They knew that democracy contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction and could degenerate into mobocracy with the many preying on the few and with political leaders pandering to the citizenry's hunger for bread and circuses. The founders' writings, particularly those of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John and Abigail Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, are filled with admonitions that their new country make education a high priority. While the early leaders saw economic reasons for more and longer schooling, they were convinced that the form of government they were adopting was, at heart, a moral compact among people.

Nineteenth century. As the young republic took shape, schooling was promoted for both secular and moral reasons. In 1832, a time when some of the Founding Fathers were still alive, Abraham Lincoln wrote, in his first political announcement (March 9,1832), "I desire to see a time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present." Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century champion of the common schools, strongly advocated for moral education. He and his followers were worried by the widespread drunkenness, crime, and poverty during the Jacksonian period in which they lived. Of concern, too, were the waves of immigrants flooding into cities, unprepared for urban life and particularly unprepared to participate in democratic civic life. Mann and his supporters saw free public schools as the ethical leaven of society. In 1849, in his twelfth and final report to the Massachusetts Board of Education, he wrote that if children age four to sixteen could experience "the elevating influences of good schools, the dark host of private vices and public crimes, which now embitter domestic peace and stain the civilization of the age, might, in 99 cases in every 100, be banished from the world"(p. 96).

In the nineteenth century, teachers were hired and trained with the clear expectation that they would advance the moral mission of the school and attend to character formation. Literature, biography, and history were taught with the explicit intention of infusing children with high moral standards and good examples to guide their lives. Students' copybook headings offered morally uplifting thoughts: "Quarrelsome persons are always dangerous companions" and "Praise follows exertion." The most successful textbooks during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the famed McGuffey readers, which were filled with moral stories, urgings, and lessons. During this period of our evolution as a nation, moral education was deep in the very fabric of our schools.

There was, however, something else in the fabric of moral education that caused it to become problematic: religion. In the United States, as a group of colonies and later as a new nation, the overwhelming dominant religion was Protestantism. While not as prominent as during the Puritan era, the King James Bible was, nevertheless, a staple of U.S. public schools. The root of the moral code was seen as residing there. However, as waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy came to the country from the mid-nineteenth century forward, the pan-Protestant tone and orthodoxy of the schools came under scrutiny and a reaction set in. Concerned that their children would be weaned from their faith, Catholics developed their own school system. Later in the twentieth century, other religious groups, such as Jews, Muslims, and even various Protestant denominations, formed their own schools. Each group desired, and continues to desire, that its moral education be rooted in its respective faith or code.

Twentieth century. During this same late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century period, there was also a growing reaction against organized religion and the belief in a spiritual dimension of human existence. Intellectual leaders and writers were deeply influenced by the ideas of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, the German political philosopher Karl Marx, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, and the German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche, and by a growing strict interpretation of the separation of church and state doctrine. This trend increased after World War II and was further intensified by what appeared to be the large cracks in the nation's moral consensus in the late 1960s. Since for so many Americans the strongest roots of moral truths reside in their religious beliefs, educators and others became wary of using the schools for moral education. More and more this was seen to be the province of the family and the church. Some educators became proponents of "value-free" schooling, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to create a school devoid of ethical issues, lessons, and controversies.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, as many schools attempted to ignore the moral dimension of schooling, three things happened: Achievement scores began to decline, discipline and behavior problems increased, and voices were raised accusing the schools of teaching secular humanism. As the same time, educators were encouraged to address the moral concerns of students using two approaches: values clarification and cognitive developmental moral education.

The first, values clarification, rests on little theory other than the assumption that students need practice choosing among moral alternatives and that teachers should be facilitators of the clarification process rather than indoctrinators of particular moral ideas or value choices. This approach, although widely practiced, came under strong criticism for, among other things, promoting moral relativism among students. While currently few educators confidently advocate values clarification, its residue of teacher neutrality and hesitance to actively address ethical issues and the moral domain persists.

The second approach, cognitive developmental moral education, sprang from the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and was further developed by Lawrence Kohlberg. In contrast to values clarification, cognitive moral development is heavy on theory and light on classroom applications. In its most popular form, Kohlberg posited six sequential stages of moral development, which potentially individuals could achieve. Each stage represents a distinctive way an individual thinks about a moral situation or problem. Teachers are encouraged to engage students from an early age and throughout their schooling in discussion of moral issues and dilemmas. In the later years of his life, Kohlberg was urging educators to transform their schools into "just communities," environments within which students' moral stage development would accelerate.

The Return of Character Education

In the early 1980s, amid the widespread concern over students' poor academic achievements and behavior, educators rediscovered the word character. Moral education had a religious tinge, which made many uneasy. Character with its emphasis on forming good habits and eliminating poor habits struck a popular and traditional chord. The word character has a Greek root, coming from the verb "to engrave." Thus character speaks to the active process of making marks or signs (i.e., good habits) on one's person. The early formation of good habits is widely acknowledged to be in the best interests of both the individual and society.

In addition, character formation is recognized as something that parents begin early, but the work is hardly completed when a child goes to school. Implicit in the concept of character is the recognition that adults begin the engraving process of habituation to consideration of others, self-control, and responsibility, then teachers and others contribute to the work, but eventually the young person takes over the engraving or formation of his own character. Clearly, though, with their learning demands and taxing events, children's school years are a prime opportunity for positive and negative (i.e., virtues and vices) character formation.

The impetus and energy behind the return of character education to American schools did not come from within the educational community. It has been fueled, first, by parental desire for orderly schools where standards of behavior and good habits are stressed, and, second, by state and national politicians who responded to these anxious concerns of parents. During his presidency, William Clinton hosted five conferences on character education. President George W. Bush expanded on the programs of the previous administration and made character education a major focus of his educational reform agenda. One of the politically appealing aspects of character education, as opposed to moral education with its religious overtones, is that character education speaks more to the formation of a good citizen. A widely repeated definition (i.e., character education is helping a child to know the good, to desire the good, and to do the good) straddles this issue. For some people the internal focus of character education comfortably can be both religious and civic and for others the focus can be strictly civic, dealing exclusively on the formation of the good citizen.

Current Approaches to Moral Education

The overwhelming percentage of efforts within public education to address the moral domain currently march under the flag of character education. Further, since these conscious efforts at addressing issues of character formation are relatively recent, they are often called character education programs. The term program suggests, however, discrete initiatives that replace an activity or that are added to the school's curriculum (e.g., a new reading program or mathematics program). And, although there are character education programs available, commercially and otherwise, most advocates urge the public schools to take an infusion approach to educating for character.

The infusion approach. In general, an infusion approach to character education aims to restore the formation of students' characters to a central place in schooling. Rather than simply adding on character formation to the other responsibilities of schools, such as numeracy, literacy, career education, health education, and other goals, a focus on good character permeates the entire school experience. In essence, character education joins intellectual development as the overarching goals of the school. Further, character education is seen, not in competition with or ancillary to knowledge- and skill-acquisition goals, but as an important contributor to these goals. To create a healthy learning environment, students need to develop the virtues of responsibility and respect for others. They must eliminate habits of laziness and sloppiness and acquire habits of self-control and diligence. The infusion approach is based on the view that the good habits that contribute to the formation of character in turn contribute directly to the academic goals of schooling.

A mainstay of the infusion approach is the recovery, recasting, or creating of a school's mission statement, one that reflects the priority placed on the development of good character. Such a statement legitimizes the attention of adults and students alike to this educational goal. It tells administrators that teachers and staff should be hired with good character as a criterion; it tells teachers that not only should character be stressed to students but also their own characters are on display; it tells coaches that athletics should be seen through the lens of sportsmanship rather than winning and losing; and it tells students that their efforts and difficulties, their successes and disappointments are all part of a larger process, the formation of their characters.

Critical to the infusion approach is using the curriculum as a source of character education. This is particularly true of the language arts, social studies, and history curricula. The primary focus of these subjects is the study of human beings, real and fictitious. Our great narrative tales carry moral lessons. They convey to the young vivid images of the kinds of people our culture admires and wants them to emulate. These subjects also show them how lives can be wasted, or worse, how people can betray themselves and their communities. Learning about the heroism of former slave Sojourner Truth, who became an evangelist and reformer, and the treachery of Benedict Arnold, the American army officer who betrayed his country to the British, is more than picking up historical information. Encountering these lives fires the student's moral imagination and deepens his understanding of what constitutes a life of character. Other subjects, such as mathematics and science, can teach students the necessity of intellectual honesty. The curricula of our schools not only contain the core knowledge of our culture but also our moral heritage.

In addition to the formal or overt curriculum, schools and classrooms also have a hidden or covert curriculum. A school's rituals, traditions, rules, and procedures have an impact on students' sense of what is right and wrong and what is desired and undesired behavior. So, too, does the school's student culture. What goes on in the lunchroom, the bathrooms, the locker rooms, and on the bus conveys powerful messages to students. This ethos or moral climate of a school is difficult to observe and neatly categorize. Nevertheless, it is the focus of serious attention by educators committed to an infusion approach.

An important element of the infusion approach is the language with which a school community addresses issues of character and the moral domain. Teachers and administrators committed to an infusion approach use the language of virtues and speak of good and poor behavior and of right and wrong. Words such as responsibility, respect, honesty, and perseverance are part of the working vocabulary of adults and students alike.

Other approaches. One of the most popular approaches to character education is service learning. Sometimes called community service, this approach is a conscious effort to give students opportunities, guidance, and practice at being moral actors. Based on the Greek philosopher Aristotle's concept of character formation (e.g., a man becomes virtuous by performing virtuous deeds; brave by doing brave deeds), many schools and school districts have comprehensive programs of service learning. Starting in kindergarten, children are given small chores such as feeding the classroom's gerbil or straightening the desks and chairs. They later move on to tutoring younger students and eventually work up to more demanding service activities in the final years of high school. Typically, these high-school level service-learning activities are off-campus at a home for the blind, a hospital, or a day-care center. Besides placement, the school provides training, guidance, and problem-solving support to students as they encounter problems and difficulties.

In recent years, schools across the country have adopted the virtue (or value) of the month approach, where the entire school community gives particular attention to a quality such as cooperation or kindness. Consideration of the virtue for that particular month is reflected in the curriculum, in special assemblies, in hallway and classroom displays, and in school-home newsletters. Related to this are schoolwide programs, such as no put-downs projects, where attention is focused on the destructive and hurtful effects of sarcasm and insulting language and students are taught to replace put-downs with civil forms of communication.

There are several skill-development and classroom strategies that are often related to character formation. Among the more widespread are teaching mediation and conflict-resolution skills, where students are given direct teaching in how to deal with disagreements and potential fights among fellow students. Many advocates of cooperative learning assert that instructing students using this instructional process has the added benefit of teaching students habits of helping others and forming friendships among students with whom they otherwise would not mix.

Issues and Controversies

The moral education of children is a matter of deep concern to everyone from parents to civic and religious leaders. It is no accident, then, that this subject has been a matter of apprehension and controversy throughout the history of American schools. Issues of morality touch an individual's most fundamental beliefs. Since Americans are by international standards both quite religiously observant and quite religiously diverse, it is not surprising that moral and character education controversies often have a religious source. Particularly after a period when moral education was not on the agenda of most public schools, its return is unsettling to some citizens. Many who are hostile to religion see this renewed interest in moral education as bringing religious perspectives back into the school "through the back door." On the other hand, many religious people are suspicious of its return because they perceive it to be an attempt to undermine their family's religious-based training with a state-sponsored secular humanism. As of the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the renewed attention to this area has been relatively free of controversy.

Contributing to the positive climate is the use of the term character rather than moral. While moral carries religious overtones for many, the word character speaks to good habits and the civic virtues, which hold a community together and allow us to live together in harmony.

A second issue relates to the level of schools and the age of students. The revival of character education in our schools has been evident to a much greater degree in elementary schools. Here schools can concentrate on the moral basics for which there is wide public consensus. The same is true, but to a somewhat lesser degree, for middle and junior high schools. And although there are many positive examples of secondary schools that have implemented broad and effective character education programs, secondary school faculties are hesitant to embrace character education. Part of it is the departmental structures and the time demands of the curriculum; part of it is the age and sophistication of their students; and part of it is that few secondary school teachers believe they have a clear mandate to deal with issues of morality and character.

A third issue relates to the education of teachers. Whereas once teachers in training took philosophy and history of education–courses that introduced them to the American school's traditional involvement with moral and character education–now few states require these courses. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the American schools are seeing the large-scale retirement of career teachers and their replacement with large numbers of new teachers. These young teachers tend to be products of elementary and secondary schools where teachers gave little or no direct attention to moral and character education. In addition, a 1999 study by the Character Education Partnership of half of the nation's teacher education institutions showed that although over 90 percent of the leaders of these programs thought character education ought to be a priority in the preparation of teachers, only 13 percent were satisfied with their institution's efforts.

Evaluation of Moral and Character Education

There are a few character education programs with encouraging evaluation results. The Character Development Project (CDP) has more than 18 years of involvement in several K–6 schools, and in those schools where teachers received staff development and on-site support over 52 percent of the student outcome variables showed significant differences. The Boy Scouts of America developed the Learning For Life Curriculum in the early 1990s for elementary schools. This commercially available, stand-alone curriculum teaches core moral values, such as honesty and responsibility. In a large-scale controlled experiment involving fifty-nine schools, students exposed to the Learning For Life materials showed significant gains on their understanding of the curriculum's core values, but they were also judged by their teachers to have gained greater self-discipline and ability to stay on a task.

Still, evaluation and assessment in character and moral education is best described as a work in progress. The field is held back by the lack of an accepted battery of reliable instruments, a lack of wide agreement on individual or schoolwide outcomes, and by the short-term nature of most of the existent studies. Complicating these limitations is a larger one: the lack of theoretical agreement of what character is. Human character is one of those overarching entities that is the subject of disciples from philosophy to theology, from psychology to sociology. Further, even within these disciplines there are competing and conflicting theories and understandings of the nature of human character. But although the evaluation challenges are daunting, they are dwarfed by the magnitude of the adult community's desire to see that our children possess a moral compass and the good habits basic to sound character.


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