The trouble with teaching character

Three business executives (including the former CEO of Harley Davidson) published an editorial in the Milwaukee (WI) Journal-Sentinel calling for more focus on character education in schools, and also arguing that kinder schools are more academically successful schools. In their own words:

To people who run companies, honesty and punctuality are as important as computer literacy. Traits such as these are about respect for ourselves and others; they make up our character. Without character, quality work is almost impossible to produce no matter the number of employee incentives…

…Milwaukee is in the midst of a heated debate about salvaging our distressed public schools. Nowhere have we heard discussions about character education. We’re here to help. Teaching kids to be good is low hanging fruit with a lifetime payoff making for a productive society.

As is common with articles like this, I felt some distress myself after reading it. Given how much I blather on about the importance of raising compassionate, kind kids, you’d think I’d be wildly joyous whenever an article like this comes along. But I’m not. The trouble is that these sorts of articles almost inevitably fall prey to the fallacy that learning is a product of teaching.That assumption suggests that, in order to make good kids, all we need to do is add some new units to the curriculum and it’ll magically happen. While there’s nothing wrong with adding an overt focus on good character (it’s probably a good thing), assuming the learning is a product of teaching eliminates the need to consider all the non-overt lessons we teach kids.

In fact, we do teach character in schools. It just doesn’t seem to work. I don’t think I’ve  ever been in an elementary classroom that doesn’t at least have the Golden Rule up on the wall, and most classrooms (sometimes even in colleges) have a long list of rules posted somewhere. Punctuality is certainly a highly valued trait. Students usually get in trouble for showing up late to class (or not showing up at all). Honesty may not be as consistently enforced, but students caught cheating on tests surely get into trouble. So why don’t kids learn good character? Here are some of the reasons, I think, and they go far beyond not “teaching” character enough.

My own sense of honesty compels me to point out that I’m being unfair to the authors of this editorial. They are all members of an organization called the Character Education Partnership, about which I know next to nothing. One of their Eleven Principles for Effective Character Education is “Creating a caring school community,” including fostering respect, fairness and cooperation among staff, between staff and students, and between students. That suggests that they recognize that implicit lessons and demonstrated behavior are more powerful than overt lessons, and have identified most of the factors I’m going to list. Still, CEP appears to be very much a project of “the establishment” and I have trouble believing that they are seriously questioning the foundations of their own establishment (though I’d love to see evidence to the contrary). And if that’s the case, they’re missing at least #2 below, which I happen to think is the most crucial factor because it underlies pretty much everything else. At any rate, back to my list.

  1. Society is not a nice place. Our culture glorifies poor character. Open you nearest newspaper, or news website, or tv news channel. Chances are most of the prominent space is given over to liars, cheaters, thieves, murderers, rapists, terrorists, and finger-pointers. Poor behavior gets attention. It’s not usually positive attention, but it’s attention, and a lot more attention than good behavior usually gets.

    Donald Trump is not a particularly nice person, but he gets (uh…got?) his own TV show. Bill O’Reilly is famous for screaming at people on his own show. Survivor-type reality shows expend a great deal of energy showing the back-stabbing and the viciousness of the contestants, and I can’t think of a scripted TV show that demonstrates kind, compassionate speech and careful listening (though if you can think of an example, please share). Meanwhile, in the current big movie among adolescent girls–New Moon–every single relationship qualifies as abusive. (There was actually a better article about this, but I can’t find it. If I do, I’ll post it.) And that’s just TV and a movie…

  2. Schools are not nice places. If you read my recent post on the School is Prison argument, you’ll know that I think this claim might be overkill, but I still agree that the school system is coercive. No matter how kind and caring your school is, forcing kids to be there who don’t want to be is not nice. As long as you are required to go to school, sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told and are punished for objecting, you are not being treated with respect. Let me say that again. As long as you are required to go to school, sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told and are punished for objecting, you are not being treated with respect.

    What difference does that make? I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t know what sort of research has been done on this, but here are two ways I think this creates problems. First, people tend to do as is done to them, rather than is told to them. If you are constantly given the message that it’s okay to force someone to do something, at least if it’s for their own good, you’re not very likely to question your own desire to force someone into something, even if you’ve been told you shouldn’t.
    Second, as Peter Gray pointed out in his School is Prison article, people want to be free. They want to feel in control of their own destiny, and will often go to whatever extremes necessary to be free. As long as children feel unfree, nothing is more important than fighting their “captors.” Lots of kids decide to get there through cooperation and waiting out the years of school (or maybe are so crushed they stop caring), but others use whatever weapons they have: rudeness, disobedience, violence, and anger.
  3. Teachers don’t have to be nice. Of course, the vast majority of teachers are kind the vast majority of the time and genuinely care about their students (most are not Professor Snape), but everyone knows they don’t have to be. Whenever one of my students has trouble with something in their math class, I ask them if they talked to their teacher. About half the time, the student says, “I asked my teacher, but he just yelled at me.” I do think this is a place where CEP has figured out that there’s a problem, and wants to help figure out how to encourage teachers not to treat students this way.
  4. Students need a moral compass, not moral rules. Once again, this is a place where CEP seems to have identified part of the real problem. Although it varies from class to class and teacher to teacher, in general teachers (or principals)  are the ultimate arbiters of good behavior in most schools. Whether you’ve been good or bad is ultimately determined not by whether you feel good about your behavior, nor by whether you’ve harmed yourself or someone else, but by whether or not your teacher says you are. And the consequence for poor behavior is not necessarily a logical consequence (cleaning up your mess, apologizing to the person you hurt, a discussion about why that wasn’t a good thing to do), so much as a punishment. In the same way that tests and grades take the focus away from learning and put it on meeting someone else’s expectations, this kind of approach takes the emphasis away from developing an internal sense of ethics for the sake of being a good person and puts it on doing the things you’re supposed to do to avoid getting in trouble.

Somewhere (unfortunately, I can’t find the reference), the Dalai Lama talks about three levels of morality. The first level is following rules because you’ll be punished if you don’t. The second level is following rules because you know it’s the right thing to do. The third level is responding to every situation you encounter with kindness and compassion, and choosing the most appropriate course of action for that situation. I’d like to see everyone get to that third level, and I really, truly believe that humans are capable of this level of ethical standard when they are allowed to develop their own sense of rightness and wrongness. But as long as schools dictate “goodness” largely without student input, students won’t have any chance to develop their own ethics.


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