The Cavalier Daily
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Character education benefits children

IT SEEMS that mankind consistently thinks things were better in the past. Whether arising from wist-

ful nostalgia or the simple failing of our brains, this rosier picture of yesterday always seems to seep into the collective consciousness. In so doing, it creates the impression that the world is on the road to hell - a perception that often is exploited by politicians. One of their favorite focuses is the perceived moral decay of America. Every recent major election has included rhetoric about "family values" and the like. This election has proven to be no different, with Texas Gov. George W. Bush's plan to increase federal spending for character education in the schools. Of course, it's a political ploy. But it may actually be a good idea.

The influence of nostalgia for happier times has less effect if there's a real trend that strongly counters the impression of the past. For instance, nobody longs for the days of outhouses - the benefits brought by plumbing are too great. But some complaints about moral life have a basis in reality. For instance, while the murder rate has declined in recent years, it is awfully high, and there have been a number of school shootings in recent years.

Often, we are tempted to blame these events on societal influences. Lots of people talk about the easy availability of guns as a cause for violence. The factor of parents who have guns, however, has always been around. And the fact remains that back when you could order a Tommy gun through the mail, we didn't have eighth graders opening fire in the classroom.

Media influence usually is the next culprit picked out by critics. Violence in film and television almost certainly contributes to violence in the classroom, but we will never wash all the blood out of the mass media. The stimulus will remain, so we must forestall the response. Doing that requires that we give children the strength to resist the influence that the media has on them, and character education provides that strength.

Of course, influence is one of the problems that regularly is discussed in conjunction with moral education. Few people will contend that there is no benefit to teaching children honesty, respect for each other, and the other kinds of values that usually are presented in character education. They fear, however, that teachers will insert other lessons.

This undue influence is something to be afraid of, but it's not something unique to moral education. Teachers can insert their own counter-curricular ideas into any discussion. Parents and administrators will have to provide a check as with other parts of education.

This, of course, illustrates one of the weaknesses of character education. It's not a panacea, like some people think it is. It's just another method for solving the problem, and one that requires careful attention from parents and administrators. And it won't make our children into perfect people. Having it, however, at least gives us the chance of making them into better people.

Beyond the simple benefit of creating more conscientious people, the teaching of morality has value to the academic mission of the schools. Discussing morality in class provides an excellent opportunity to teach children critical thinking skills. Morality has several qualities that make it a particularly rich topic for developing critical thinking skills.

The first of these is its universality - everyone has faced at least one moral dilemma, probably more. Since these range from the easy to understand (i.e. whether or not to steal) to the very complex (i.e. whether or not to have an abortion), moral discussion could be used at every grade level to improve critical thinking.

The benefit of teaching critical thinking with morality not only would be that such a program improves skills instead of taking time away from teaching them, but also that it at least partially forestalls extraneous indoctrination. Teaching the students to actually think about the issues instead of just blandly taking lessons ensures some resistance to a teacher's undue influence.

It's easy to dismiss the voices calling for stronger moral education in the classroom as the rumblings of those lost in the past. The value of teaching morality to students, however, ought not be ignored. Such teaching benefits the students and society, not only by helping to shape more conscientious citizens, but also by providing a vehicle for improving critical thinking skills. True, it won't solve all the problems that society has. But imperfection is no reason to reject a cure, and no reason to turn our backs on moral education.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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