Character education is essential to a free society

By Charles C. Haynes

First Amendment Center

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Arcadia Elementary School 6th grade teacher Stacy Jones works with students L-R: Jackie Tover, Edith Cardenas and Anthony McGraw in Taylorsville Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. The school has been a great example of using differentiated instruction and it has helped Jones' class improve math scores from 17 percent to 70 percent.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Sanford N. McDonnell died on March 19 at age 89.

Not surprisingly, newspaper obituaries are highlighting his many successful years at the helm of the McDonnell Douglas Corp. But I predict that when the history of our era is written, Sandy (as everyone called him) will be best remembered as America's leading advocate for character education in our schools.

Of course, I'm biased because I got to see this humble, compassionate and visionary man up close for more than 20 years as a fellow board member of the Character Education Partnership — the organization he founded and guided after he retired from the business world.

Sandy led the way, making a compelling case for taking character seriously with business colleagues, political leaders, educators, parents, students — and anyone else who would listen.

It worked. Despite a misbegotten obsession with high-stakes testing among policymakers, character education is back on the education agenda after decades of neglect.

Today, thanks to the efforts of CEP and like-minded organizations, thousands of educators are transforming the culture of their schools by teaching and modeling core ethical values such as honesty, integrity, caring, responsibility and respect.

Although much more needs to be done to reach all schools, the character-education movement has made great inroads — and is here to stay.

What does educating for character have to do with First Amendment freedoms? In a word, everything.

"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom," wrote Benjamin Franklin. "As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

What Sandy accurately described as a "crisis of character" plagues our country. From corporate scandals to overcrowded prisons, from bullying and cheating in schools to widespread drug abuse, character-related failures threaten the health of American democracy — and the vitality of our freedoms.

Sandy understood that schools can't do it all — which is why CEP promotes strong partnerships with parents and communities in developing a character-education mission. But in the civic arena, schools have an obligation to prepare young people to be engaged, ethical citizens committed to "liberty and justice for all."

Yes, reading and math are important. But what matters most in a democracy is what kinds of human beings are reading the books and doing the math.

Understood properly, comprehensive, effective character education is all about giving students (and all members of the school community) meaningful opportunities to practice freedom responsibly in a school culture that encourages, among other things, respect for the rights of others, shared decision-making, civic engagement, peer mediation and ethical use of the Internet.

In short, a school committed to educating for character is a school that actually practices what it teaches in civics classes about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Every year at the CEP annual meeting, Sandy helped honor "schools of character" from every region of the country. One typical winner, a middle school serving a disadvantaged population in Sandy's own state of Missouri, has many of the "best practices" that define effective character education.

Students hold class meetings and participate in making class rules. Trained peer mediators help fellow students resolve conflicts. Teachers include discussion of ethical issues in classes across the curriculum. In these and other ways, students, teachers, staff and parents work together to create and sustain a caring, ethical community.

Before implementing character education, this middle school was considered a "failing school." Today, grades are up, suspensions and discipline problems are down, and parents are no longer fleeing — they're lining up to get in.

Sandy's message was simple, but profound: The character of a nation is determined by the character of its people.

"Is there no virtue among us?" asked James Madison, the primary author of the Bill of Rights. "If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."

For your inspiration and leadership — and for reminding us of the inseparable link between character and freedom — thank you, Sandy.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. His email address is chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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