Youthful Poor Elijah was a Boy Scout. Scouting meant everything from dragging a sled in the Klondike Derby to wearing knee socks and garters. Both were less than complete successes, one owing to an open winter and a landscape of rocks, and the other due to the less than robust appearance of his 12-year-old legs.

Sandwiched in the middle were 12 Scout virtues. Some like “thrifty” seem quaint. Others like “reverent” are likely today to spark a constitutional brawl. He knew what all the words meant — trustworthy, loyal, helpful — and that even though he often didn’t live up to them, most people agreed that’s what we were supposed to be like.

Scouting reinforced the moral education he received at home. So did school. Nobody was shy about using words like right and wrong, good and bad.

Today, right and wrong are more frequently applied to opinions than to conduct and issues of fact. Schools give math tests where there isn’t a right answer, or where getting the right answer doesn’t matter. Teachers trip all over themselves shielding children from the reality that all answers aren’t equally valid and all values and behavior aren’t equally acceptable.

Partly, we’re preoccupied with making students feel good about themselves, even if they’re ignorant or rude. We also commonly exercise the worst kind of tolerance, with critics condemning zero tolerance discipline policies on the ironic grounds that they demonstrate “intolerance” toward students who behave badly.

Reformers have preached for years that knowledge isn’t important. Students don’t need to learn facts, just how to think and look things up. Experts likewise reason that character education shouldn’t teach students right from wrong, just how to figure it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, you can’t think successfully without something to think about. And you can’t make moral decisions without moral laws to base them on.

Twenty years ago No Child Left Behind tried to help by distributing “character education grants.” But while it may sound positive to “incorporate character-building lessons and activities into the classroom,” too many grants, too many wannabe psychologists, and too many unsubstantiated sex, drugs and bullying programs have for too long stolen too much academic time. Academic learning is already adrift in a sea of trauma-based learning, social-emotional learning and non-cognitive learning.

Advocates aim for students to “grow as moral beings” into “caring, principled, and responsible adults,” but many programs mistakenly rely on “posters, banners, and bulletin boards,” “motivational assemblies,” and “awards” for students who get caught “doing good.” The hoopla quickly wears thin, and the prizes, not the good conduct, soon become the point.

Advocates typically oppose “moralizing” and “direct instruction in moral principles.” Somehow they expect students to “commit to the values that are core to our society” without telling them what those values are. Otherwise we might merely be “promoting good manners and compliance with rules.”

Newsflash: “Polite and law-abiding” school citizens wouldn’t be a disappointment for most students, parents and teachers.

Two Ivy League professors, for example, promote public school efforts to produce “morally reflective human beings.” These character education experts, however, are disenchanted with “obedience” and “virtues.” Their “organic,” “process” approach favors injecting a “moral dimension” into academic subjects and holding weekly “circle” meetings during English class, where students “vent, philosophize, and tease apart complicated issues” like teen pregnancy.

Proponents of moral education programs commonly maintain that “character education ought not to be seen as a threat to the nation’s current emphasis on academics.” Excuse me, but if you’re planning to replace one-fifth of my English classes with character sessions, don’t ask why my students can’t read. And while we’re on the subject, I’m afraid reports of a national emphasis on academics are greatly exaggerated.

Don’t look to the professors for undisrupted, orderly classrooms. One of their instructional scenarios features a student who’s deliberately burping. The teacher “senses” he’s “struggling to fit in with his peer group” and “tries to ignore the distraction.” When she finally ejects him for additional offenses, she laments that she “forced obedience” on him. Another of the professors’ moral protégés categorically refuses to throw any students out of class, “no matter how they’re acting up.”

By the way, the character education part of No Child Left Behind appeared just a few paragraphs after the part about removing “persistently disruptive students from the classroom.”

I’ve taught ethics to middle-school students, and I use moral dilemmas and legal cases to goad them into reading, writing and debating. In the process, some realize that making a moral decision can be more than a reflex. On the other hand, some students are no more nimble with moral fine points than they are with quantum mechanics.

The ideology behind some character programs is unmistakably political and tilts toward the instructor’s views on “social justice.” The professors, for example, explicitly equate immorality with “being success-oriented.” Like many moral educators, they sniff disapprovingly at “lists of virtues” and “conventional rules.” The trouble is practical, conventional rules and values — honesty, respect, kindness and reasoned obedience — are precisely what we’re lacking and what most children can understand.

We don’t need a character bandwagon. We don’t need to usurp parents’ sovereignty and discretion. We don’t need posters, we don’t need grants, we don’t need curricula, and we don’t need to preempt academics for “organic” moral musings.

I teach students character by what I believe, what I expect, what I enforce, and how I act. I acknowledge when I fail. I try to judge justly.

This can be a heavy lift for schools and teachers in a narcissistic age when lawsuits and student empowerment matter more than knowledge and decency. It’s hard to stand up for what’s right when it’s considered virtuous to tolerate vicious behavior. It’s hard to demand more respectful discourse from students than they witness every day on the national stage. It’s hard to champion virtue when expediency and ambition are prized above truth.

Moral education belongs at home. School should be a workplace where practical morality rules. I’m supposed to teach English, and my students are supposed to learn it.

Character is what we develop and display along the way.

Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

(1) comment

Searey Pilot

Very well said. We need more teachers like you in the world, but especially in Vermont.

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