character education

One of the things I like best about my job is the opportunity to move almost daily from one professional context to another. Today, I attended a conference organized by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS). This is a federal program, buried deep within the bureaucracy of the US Department of Education. It is also an educational program, so most of the people who attended today were teachers, principals, or district supervisors. Federal bureaucrats and educators are two groups with their own distinctive folkways and vocabularies.

OSDFS has responsibility for “character education,” which is a national movement. For me, it raises several questions:

  • To what extent is character education driven by the desire to prevent school shootings and other famous atrocities? I don’t believe that any general policy can possibly reduce the chances of extremely aberrant behavior. After all, only about 0.0001% of American students slaughter their classmates. So there isn’t anything in the general context of American schools that causes this behavior. If character education is expected to prevent extreme acts of violence, it will fail, or the whole problem will disappear–but either way the program will lose support.
  • Do we want kids to internalize norms (such as sexual abstinence, or non-violence, or being polite)? Or do we want them to think critically about ethics–weighing competing values, challenging assumptions, and reasoning with people who hold different moral beliefs? We may want to encourage both good behavior and critical thinking; but these are quite different objectives.
  • What kind of change (and how much change) can we expect from a $25 million federal program?