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Bringing character into the classroom

MORALITY, like honor, is a word often misused and misunderstood. Much like honor is more basic than not lying, cheating or stealing, morality is not about specific issues or agendas. Whatever label one wishes to ascribe to the difference between right and wrong -- whether it be morals, values or character -- morality is best looked upon as a viewpoint. Morality may be a vast area of inquiry, but it also provides a specific premise, a perspective, a standpoint from which a variety of subjects may be discussed. It is this fundamental distinction that critics of character education overlook.

George W. Bush has provided a good definition of morality. In a recent speech in New Hampshire, he defined it as "Respect. Responsibility. Self-restraint. Family commitment. Civic duty. Fairness. Compassion." These simple terms represent the building blocks of a life dedicated to the pursuit of justice and service of one's fellow man.

Everyone eventually comes to a crossroads in his or her life, the site of a tough ethical dilemma. Man looks into the dark abyss, looking for the right path to take. Some say that at that moment man finds his character. What is certain is that choosing the right path is often akin to choosing the difficult path. Which path will our children take if we do not provide them with the tools to face the darkness?

If our public schools could teach only one lesson, it should be the difference between right and wrong. What is the use of knowing the multiplication tables if one does not understand compassion?

Public education was started in this country because of an unwavering belief that all children, not merely those who enjoy wealth and privilege, should be given a fair chance at a fulfilling life. What is more necessary to such a life than to know how to give our respect and to receive responsibility?

Though appropriately teaching these values to children is a challenge, it is not full of the pernicious pitfalls that liberal critics claim. Some Cassandras worry that such lessons will allow teachers to inculcate impressionable children with their own views, and indoctrinate them into their own brand of morality. Yet this fear could apply to any subject taught in public school. Should we not teach about World War II merely because a teacher might tell her students that the Holocaust never happened? Are we not to discuss the Civil War for fear that a teacher will say that slavery was a benevolent institution?

Like any other subject, character and morals must be taught along strict guidelines. There are ways to teach these principles without applying them to controversial topics. The importance of family commitment can be taught without providing an exclusionary definition of family. The importance of voting and political activism can be taught without telling children which issues they should vote for.

Some critics say character education has no place in public schools, and instead is the province of churches and Sunday school. It is ironic that, in a country so dedicated to the secularization of public life, we should leave such an important issue to sectarian education.

It is similarly a shirking of responsibility to depend on parents and families to teach children basic values. We hope that they do; we want the family to be the first school of manners and morals. But if that school fails, society must stand ready to pick up the slack. It is not a matter of replacement -- it is a matter of augmentation.

Morality, even to the most cynical among us, cannot fairly be said to be malleable. The application of morals and values certainly is amenable to manipulation, as evidenced by just war theory and defenses of slavery. But through the centuries and across religions, certain basic principles call out for recognition. Whether we choose to pervert these principles for our own evil designs is a matter of individual choice and a question of free will. Whether a society chooses to deceive itself through its application of moral principles is a matter best left to historians and hindsight.

What is clear, is that the mere fact that past societies and generations have not been true to basic notions of goodness does not mean that these notions shouldn't be taught. If anything, we must recommit ourselves to the basic principles of fair play and justice so that they are not lost in the cynical darkness of the modern world.

(Sam Waxman's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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