Character development - American EducationA broad area of education designed to teach students self-discipline, responsibility and good citizenship. Character development has provoked controversies in many public school districts between parents who prefer schools to be value-neutral and those who believe schools have an obligation to help shape their children’s characters.
The first group believes character development is the responsibility of parents and that schools should limit their work to academics. Many fear some teachers may indoctrinate children in religious or moral codes that differ from their own. Their opponents point out that teachers see more of children during their waking hours than the average parent and that more than 20% of the children in the United States live in single-parent homes where character development is often at a minimum. Under such circumstances, a teacher’s role in character development becomes inevitable. One source of controversy over character development, say some educators, is public confusion over differences between teaching children how to make sensible value judgments and moral or religious indoctrination.
Schools with well-developed programs to encourage character development are specific in listing the values and attitudes they expect teachers to impart to students. Most stress the use of democratic government in the classroom as the basis for teaching self-discipline, responsible citizenship and student willingness to take responsibility for their own actions in their relations with teachers and other students. Other elements of character development in the classroom include teaching the benefits of civic behavior and cooperation, the harm to the community of careless or thoughtless behavior, the need for patience (waiting in lines, for example), the importance of obeying rules and the benefits of majority rule and respect for dissenting opinions.
Prof. Roe Christenson at Miami University produced a list used by many schools for teaching character development: “Acknowledging the importance of self-discipline; being trustworthy; telling the truth; being honest in all aspects of life; having the courage to resist group pressures to do what we would refuse to do if alone; being ourselves, but being our best selves; using honorable means that respect the rights of others; conducting ourselves in a manner that does not fear exposure; having the courage to say, ‘I am sorry. I was wrong.’; practicing good sportsmanship; maintaining courtesy in human relations; treating others as we would wish to be treated; recognizing that behavior that may seem purely private often affects others; doing work well, whatever that work may be; showing respect for the property of others; giving obedience to the law; respecting democratic values of free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and due process of law; and developing habits that promote good health and refraining from those that don’t.”
The U.S. Department of Education sets aside more than $5 million a year to subsidize character development, and 28 states are using the funds either to train teachers to bring in outside organizations to teach moral values. In the South, Character First!, a Christian organization, teaches morality in more than 600 public elementary schools, although it is careful to steer clear of all discussions of religion— as does “The Curriculum Initiative” started by a Jewish organization. The latter focuses on such “earthly” topics as “how you treat a stranger”; “gossip and slander”; and “relationships with parents, friends and teachers.” A secular organization, the Concerned Businessmen’s Association of America” says it has reached 12 million elementary school children since 1983 with its “Set a Good Example Contest,” which teaches “honesty, trust, competence.”