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Seeking connection through character.

My inbox is filled with well-reasoned reports about school reform and forward-looking ideas for the nation's education system. However, at a time when most people in this nation - and especially those in the schools are trying to cope with a series of dispiriting events, these reports seem irrelevant.

Before this year, education officials typically opened the school year with optimistic rhetoric about the prospects for learning. This year, even though the crime rate within schools is down, we heard mostly about measures to study safety and to take actions to prevent the kind of student-induced violence in suburban and rural schools that took place last winter and spring.

At a time when the quality of education ranks as the public's most important concern, Congress is racing to get out of a town that is overcome with ennui. If there is such a thing as an education agenda on either side of the aisle, it could easily be swamped in the final rush and end up not reflecting much vision or direction.

Opinion polls show an all-out public disenchantment with politicians and with most societal institutions. The predictions for the November elections hint that they could represent a new low in voter participation. Pundits and researchers provide all sorts of reasons for the lack of public optimism and for the feelings of just drifting around. Robert Putnam of Harvard University traces the "civic disengagement in contemporary America" to television. The turning away from democratic idealism - the kind that showed up in service club memberships and long lines at the voting booths - began in the 1950s, at about the same time that television became a factor in people's lives. By the 1970s, Putnam says, televiewing took up much of the spare time of the better-educated classes, whose members had traditionally led the way in civic participation.

Now comes a new study from Carnegie Mellon University, revealing that at-home use of the Internet creates higher levels of loneliness and depression. Touted as an antidote to the passivism of television, the Internet, despite its chat rooms and e-mail, turns out to be no more personal and supportive than the television set.

This depersonalization worries many people in education. They look at how schools may be contributing to the sense of disengagement felt by too many young people. One frequently mentioned factor is the size not only of individual classes but of schools. Thus New York City is spending most of a large Annenberg Challenge grant on creating smaller high schools. The fastest-growing phenomenon in high school reform is the creation of academies within large high schools, primarily organized around career clusters, according to Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. This firm has a long-term research project under way that is following a dozen career academies.

At the same time, the growth of the charter school movement continues apace. And most charter schools are quite small, enrolling fewer than 200 students. Indeed, one of the most compelling reasons for parents and teachers alike to choose charter schools is that these schools can be more personal, for they are small enough that everyone can know everyone else.

Some public schools are also aware that they must find help to supply all the support that children and young people need. These schools are involved in organizing collaborative services. They are opening doors to after-school programs and making their facilities available for use by community groups. In addition, service learning sponsored by schools is seen as a way to connect students with their communities. And while it has never received the support it deserves within the curriculum, service learning is part of a larger recognition that students need to be more involved in shaping their own education. They also need to know that they can make a difference in their schools, neighborhoods, and communities.

The foundation of the discontent that is evident in society and in the schools, however, involves more than merely the loss of personal contact. It also has to do with the loss of character. One can't pinpoint an event that caused a rush of demands that the schools take on character education, but publications and conference agendas were suddenly awash with calls for and news of character education programs. Children were growing up amoral, some observers claimed, causing all sorts of problems for teachers and schools. Therefore, the proposed solution was often to package character education into kits or curricula.

Such programs are well meant, and some are very creative. They come from organizations that range from the Boy Scouts to centers for the study of ethics. Some initiatives are attached to university programs; some are offered by religious groups. Their curricula sound similar themes: students need to be taught about trust, respect, responsibility, honesty, and caring. One center claims that schools must be helped to "recapture their role as moral educators." The various providers of these programs offer curriculum resources, guides for teen forums, and teacher training. Congress even jumped into the action with a $1 million program to create pilot projects using partnerships for character education. California, Iowa, New Mexico, and Utah received the initial funding from Congress for programs in selected districts.

California, for example, has promised to work in four districts to improve student achievement in "caring, civic virtue and citizenship, justice and fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness." New Mexico is seeking, among other goals, to use a packaged program from Character Counts "as a means of supporting students as they strive to meet challenging state content standards." All the applications from the states say that they will involve communities in articulating a common vision of the elements of character.

These programs - as well as those that promote self-control, peer mediation, self-esteem, and other personal values - exist because there is a need for them. But they cause me to wonder how it is that we have allowed public education to treat values and character in such a segmented way. The programmatic solutions - select a novel for the moral of its story, set aside time in advisories to deal with discussions of ethics, use simulations to engage students in thinking about issues - seem sterile and disconnected. They seem to imply that morality, ethics, and character can be turned on and off by the ringing of a school bell.

Schools should certainly offer students every possible opportunity to express their values. Indeed, schools ought to exemplify character in all they do, making use of the same values that these packaged curricula seek to teach students: trustworthiness, fairness, and caring. In fact, I thought that this was one of the reasons for the existence of public education. I thought that the purposes for public education articulated by Thomas Jefferson in 1818 still represented the vision schools and teachers have for what they do. Among the purposes Jefferson listed were "to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.... and, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed."

Perhaps, in treating character as a separate subject rather than as a value that underlies everything, many schools have lost sight of their institutional role. Just as we could use a demonstration of individual acts of character at the national level in order to restore faith in government, in leadership, and in the many institutions that rule our lives, so every school needs to assess how true it is to a mission of building character in its students by exemplifying those traits. Students need to see character demonstrated all around them, not merely to find it on a list of electives.

ANNE C. LEWIS is a national education policy writer living in the Washington, D.C., area (e-mail: aclewis@crosslink. net).
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Title Annotation:character education
Author:Lewis, Anne C.
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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