297. "How Not to Discuss Character Education," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 79, No.6, (February 1998), pp. 446-448.
In his essay "How Not to Teach Values," Alfie Kohn criticizes just about everyone involved in character education. Asserting that the values taught in classrooms across America are based on "the ideological legs of behaviorism, conservatism, and religion." One wishes he would consider at least one of them, that of humility. His long essay is full of statements about how everyone, except for himself, has gotten it all wrong. I will let others speak for themselves; I speak here only for the core positions that the Communtarian Network has developed over the years, articulated both in position papers and in The Spirit of Community. In doing so I focus on the following issues:
1. The School as a Total Environment
One of Kohn's major claims is that advocates for character education, specifically The Communitarian Network, argue "for the most part" in favor of "a collection of exhortations and extrinsic inducements." His own recommendation, albeit very sparsely discussed, is the following: "More than specific practices that might be added, subtracted, or changed, a program to help children grow into good people begins with a commitment to change the ways classrooms and schools are structured." Welcome to club. Our position is and has been from the onset that all that happens in school, the total culture and social environment, shapes experiences that either help build good character or end up undermining it.
Educators have long been aware that extra-curricular activities, especially sports, influence character. If young athletes learn that "winning is not an important thing; it is the only thing" rather than "it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," their character will develop accordingly. Less well understood is the fact that everything a school does affects character.
More generally, from the viewpoint of character formation it is best to see education as a series of experiences, whether they take place in the classroom itself, in the gym or elsewhere. Are the parking lots negotiated with consideration or recklessness? Do students throw food in the cafeteria? How are the corridors conducted? Are children pushing one another or are boys grabbing at girls? Are grades dished out according to performance or to enhance self-esteem? These and other such non-curricular factors, have deep effects on the experience schools impart, and they in turn impart strong lessons.
2. On Human Nature
Kohn's notions of fair dialogue are about as strong as his notions of humility. He argues, "indeed, the [character education] movement seems to be driven by a stunningly dark view of children." He then provides a few quotes of people who are known to have a "somewhat dim" view of human nature -- a difference as striking as between destruction of the sun and acknowledging the existence of shade. Kohn notes that a more balanced view is one that acknowledges that it is "as natural" for children to "help as to hurt." That is there is no iota of difference between having a somewhat dim view of impulses and suggesting that children hurt as well as help; if anything the second phrasing is more pessimistic.
Kohn closes his tirade on the subject remarking gravely, "any educator who adopts this more balanced position might think twice before joining an educational movement that is finally inseparable from the doctrine of original sin." A person who cannot read should not write.
As has been laid out in Communitarian Network education platform, The Spirit of Community, and most recently in my book, The New Golden Rule, character formation primarily concerns the development of a set of psychological traits that in turn enable young people to commit to values and abide by them. One core trait is self-discipline. Like animals, people experience a variety of temptations (lusts, needs, desires); people of character differ from animals and from their less civilized neighbors in that they are able to review and judge their temptations before responding.
I choose my words carefully here; I am not suggesting that people of character can (or should be expected to) always withstand their temptations and live by their values. We humans cannot be made so saintly. However, people of character are not enslaved by temptation. For such individuals, life is a continuous struggle between their conception of what is right and what they are tempted to do. (An observation of dieting, a relatively trivial activity, provides a fine example.) As character becomes stronger, as one's ability for self-discipline grows, so does an individual's capacity to choose what she believes is the right course to follow -- and to move towards it.
Discipline, as many people understand it, unfortunately takes on an authoritarian meaning. A well-disciplined environment is often considered one in which teachers and principals "lay down the law" and will brook no talking back from students, who "show respect" by rising when the teacher enters the room and speak only when spoken to. Former Washington, D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly even suggested that schools ought to reexamine the use of corporal punishment. Indeed, in quite a few states physical punishment is still considered an effective way to maintain discipline. Moreover, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court that had maintained that schoolchildren were not protected by the Constitution from corporal punishment. The justices let stand a Texas law that authorizes the use of corporal punishment "short of deadly force."
If discipline is achieved by authoritarian means, youngsters will behave as long as they are closely supervised and fear punishment. But as soon as the authorities turn their backs, they will misbehave. Moreover, their resentment at being coerced will express itself in some form of antisocial behavior. This is because the discipline is linked to punishment rather than to a commitment to doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong.
What youngsters require is self-discipline, the inner ability to mobilize and commit to a task he or she believes in and to feel positive--that is, self-rewarded--for having done so. For this to happen, the person needs to incorporate into the self the guiding voices, although originally they may come from parents, kin, educators, and others. Such internalization occurs in structured environments, but not under authoritarian conditions. Close, continuous, external supervision and punitive environments are counterproductive. What is required is a school structure made up of educating figures, rules, and organization of tasks that motivate students by providing clear guidelines. These must be both firmly upheld and be reasonable and justified, so that students can understand and accept the need to abide by them.
Self-discipline is not merely essential for a graduate to be an effective employee, community member and citizen, but also for a person to be a learned student. For all these reasons, schools must pay special attention to character formation and to the experience they generate, to ensure that these will support rather than undermine the formation of the young.
The other core trait character development requires is empathy, the ability to walk in the other persons shoes and feel what pains them. Without empathy, self discipline may be marshalled to selfish purposes. Moreover, it is an important source of our sense of fair play and social justice. It is not further discussed here because it is much more widely studied in psychological works and more accepted in educational literature than the need for self discipline.
3. Which Values Should We Teach?
Kohn first observes quite correctly (without citing us and others who made this point repeatedly) that schools and their teachings are imbued with values and there is no way to avoid them. He then scoffs at those who suggest that there are some values we can all agree about and can start with teaching those. He closes with a statement I cannot figure out after reading it three times: "In short, the question is not whether to adopt the conservatives values offered by most character education programs, but whether we want to consolidate the conservative values that are already in place." What is he saying? Does he favor non-consolidated conservative values? Consolidated liberal ones? And how does he envision this consolidation?
The challenge "Whose values will you teach?" can be readily answered by starting with the myriad values we all share. Nobody considers it moral to abuse children, rape, steal, murder, be disrespectful of others, discriminate, and so on.
Take the example of date rape. Assume that we can all agree that students must realize that using force to impose themselves on others is morally unacceptable. In teaching it, we run into a "specific," the belief that surprising many young males hold that when a woman says "no" she means "yes," and hence it is alright to proceed despite her protests. An educator should be able to build on the students' value that "real no's" are to be heeded, to show that when a woman says "no, " a decent person holds back; and that if he has any doubt about a "yes," he should seek further clarification from her before proceeding. That is, a position on specifics can often be worked out when the basic value commitments are in place, an position that almost everyone will find morally compelling.
Or take the value of truth-telling. No one argues that lying wantonly is commendable. And we all realize that there is room for "white" lies, those that are clearly aimed at helping the person to whom we lie. For instance, it is better not to discourage a patient who is about to be wheeled into surgery by reviewing all the dangers involved, unless the patient clearly indicates a desire to be retold the anticipated risks.
Far from being necessarily controversial, values education has wide support. Why don't we just teach the values that most Americans agree upon? A 1992 survey found that 79 percent of Americans, and more specifically, 86 percent of blacks and 85 percent of Hispanics favor "fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination." A poll of New York residents shows that the vast majority of respondents consider teaching "the common heritage and values that we share as Americans" to be "very important." Seventy percent of whites, 89 percent of Hispanics, and 88 percent of blacks surveyed held this position.
To say that advocates of character education have deliberately embraced conservative values and have forced them upon students is to dramatically misrepresent its project and process. We do favor teaching our children values, but in public schools limit ourselves to those we all share. These lessons compete and are combined with narratives and experiences that children get on television, in the street, and in some homes, but moral notions are not forced down their throats. If educators are silenced about moral issues, all that means is that the other voices will have exclusive call on children's minds and consciousness. No one, include Mr. Kohn, could possibly favor such a world.
Amitai Etzioni is founder and director of The Communitarian Network and author of The New Golden Rule. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Both available from The Communitarian Network and Simon & Schuster, respectively.