On the bulletin board in Scott Goldstein's classroom hangs a banner that reads "Leadership Is Not a Choice." Below it, the Patuxent (Md.) High School social studies teacher posts and defines the words of the month. All of them are value-driven watchwords. Respect, integrity, honesty - words he and his students use frequently in class discussions.
When Latrell Sprewell attacked his coach in December, stirring a national debate over crime and punishment in the National Basketball Association, Goldstein's class put lessons of world history aside to consider what lessons might be learned from the incident about anger and violence. In February, after weeks of daily news coverage of allegations of a presidential affair and coverup, 11th-graders in Goldstein's American history class discussed ethics and morality in the White House."These issues come up constantly," says Goldstein. "I try to provide examples of good character from history. But it seems like the negative ones tend to get into the news more often, and kids want to know more about lapses in character than the positive examples."
Encouraging discussion of values
Like an increasing number of educators nationwide whose school districts have instituted character education programs, Goldstein is not only allowed but encouraged to integrate right-vs.-wrong lessons and value-based discussions into the curriculum. Words such as responsibility and justice have become classroom battle cries. Tales of exemplary behavior are the tools educators hope will fortify the moral fiber of the next generation.
But every time another high-profile figure publicly falls from grace, what's the lesson for youngsters? With the president of the United States under investigation for alleged X-rated misconduct and other improprieties, it's natural to ask: Where have all the role models gone?
"Today, when we look at people who we think ought to be role models, we know too much about them. Familiarity breeds contempt," says Michael Josephson, founder of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, which conducts ethics workshops and initiates nationwide character programs like Character Counts! in schools. "When they don't measure up to our ideal expectations in every way, we throw up our hands as if the world is going to Hell in a handbasket."
Distorted ideas of role models
Americans today have distorted ideas about role modeling, says Josephson. Some people look to celebrities as role models, which proves to be a mistake as soon as the sordid details of a star's private life are exposed. "Is the president a good role model? Of course not," says Josephson. "But almost everyone in their own time would fail the test of being the perfect role model."
With the possible exception of George Washington, Josephson can't think of a president, leader or hero who was a perfect role model in his own time. "Lincoln was much reviled. ... And he had real fits of depression and very low self-esteem," he says. "People thought Eisenhower was a real military hero, though the comments then were that he was lazy, uninvolved and may have had an affair."
Nor did all sports heroes of the past exhibit admirable behavior. Babe Ruth was a boorish philandering drunk. Ty Cobb tried to spike opponents in the face. "We consciously want to match ourselves up to a time that never was," he warns. "That we have these romantic illusions about a better time and better people, when human nature was better, actually hampers rather than helps us."
It has hampered the character education movement, in which role modeling is an important ingredient. "What you really do when you set up role modeling in a proper way is you set up characteristics instead of people," says Josephson. "We don't want our kids to drink like Winston Churchill, but they can learn from his courage. It is rare to find someone who has the strengths in every particular area."
That doesn't mean parents and teachers nurturing good character in kids should ignore learning opportunities provided by the reported shortcomings of prominent public figures.
Teachers and parents need to address negative examples explicitly and directly, says Thomas Lickona, director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth R's (for "respect" and "responsibility"), a character education group based at the State University of New York at Cortland.
"If you try to turn a blind eye to what kids are seeing all around them and hearing on the 6:30 news, or in conversation in the corridors and playgrounds, kids will draw their own conclusions," Lickona says. "And they may be the wrong conclusions, namely that this is how most people act and it is okay."
Not every instance of sexual sleaze or violence needs to be brought up, however, nor is scandalous news generally on a younger child's mind, says Lickona. "You can pretty much conclude if your child is fourth grade and up, he's going to be hearing about these matters in the schoolyard or catching the latest developments in the Washington sex scandals on the television."
Putting behavior in perspective
Most important is that teachers and parents put unethical behavior and negative characteristics into perspective for kids, he explains. When a child is horrified by the news of shootings in schools, he needs to be reminded that every day millions of kids go to school and don't shoot anyone. "That's normal behavior, not the shootings," says Lickona. "How do most people act most of the time?"
Making a full and fair character assessment of someone who falls from upstanding-citizen status is also key. "Most of us have character flaws," says Lickona.