The Problem with Character Education

Most social psychologists, would have us transform the structure of the classroom rather than try to remake the students themselves - precisely the opposite of the character education approach.

Related to allowing only students with the majority religious belief to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance are character education programs in schools that likewise seek to reinforce the social and cultural values of the majority. Promoted as researched and proven programs to correct "bad" behavior in students, the available literature on the subject indicates that, at its foundation, character education is part of an agenda to introduce conservative ideology, alone, into the minds of every student. Worse, the available evidence shows that these programs cannot accomplish even that purpose.


A Morality Tale

A father asked his young daughter, "Tell me, why do you clean your room?"
"I do it because Mama and Papa ask me to."
"Why do we ask you?"
She replied, "It has to be done."

Not believing that she had quite answered it, she then started guessing, "Because it's nice to have a clean room?" (More something she might have been told that is mostly meaningless to her.) Then she hesitated and said, "Because it's responsibility." The father shuddered. This is something she picked up at school. The kind of non-reasoning a soldier uses during an act of genocide! Or rationalizing participation in an illegal war! It is the opposite of education: an unreasoned because.

By contrast, recently the family read a book that explained how cleaning your room keeps it organized and hygienic, prevents toys or their pieces from being lost, and cuts down on once-a-week laboriousness. You know...real education, with real reasons for doing things. No abstractions, no "shoulds" about it. And if you ask the daughter now, she will give you a reasoned answer.

Another question the father had asked was: "What did you learn in the Character Counts! assembly, today?" She told him, "Respect is the Golden Rule." He followed with, "What's the Golden Rule?" She shrugged. Even if she knew and was older, would she be able to answer the why of it? "Why should you do unto others as you would have them do unto you?"

If there are reasons for the Golden Rule, instead of just reciting the platitude, why is the school not simply stating them explicitly? In fact this widely acclaimed moral homily is a wonderful example of the simplicity problem with Character Counts! and character education, in general.

Are there actually valid reasons for following the Golden Rule? For instance:

  • What if the other person doesn't also follow it?
  • What if how you like things done to you is offensive in manner and result to others when done to them?
  • What if more than one other is involved and their goals are in conflict?
  • What if you both want things that will hurt you?
  • Does following this principle lead to success, self-esteem, less abuse, less poverty, greater rights for all, a better environment?
  • Which of these goals does the Golden Rule achieve more effectively than say, straight reciprocity (tit for tat), or the communist rule - "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need", or plain old manipulation via marketing, selling, framing, half-truth and other widely regarded political and commercial means of manipulating others for one's own "benefit"?

Accountability of School Programs

This is not nuance. These are the fundamentals for mature decision-making. Character Counts! and similar character education programs deliver no such clarity or insight, no depth, no contrast. Instead what we get are arbitrarily chosen, ill-defined pillars and folksy slogans whose language seems to be an appeal to a nebulous, sentimental, touchy-feely sensibility - stuffed with culturally idiosyncratic assumptions. In other words, there is nothing offered relevant to the complexity of real choices in the real world - even from the viewpoint of a young child.

One is left with a lingering suspicion that the entire Character Counts! program is full of this kind of "reactionary, conforming robot as moral being" instruction: compliance with authority, implied defect, group intimidation, contracted behavior, external recognition and rewards for behavior...Really, aren't grades bad enough for showing a kid how to do the right things for the wrong reasons? 

Shouldn't all school programs be held to a higher standard than this, showing a sound basis in theory, and demonstrating real-world results before being adopted? Particularly, that the program be able to ensure it is not doing harm to our children?

To return to the main point, accountability, there are really only three practical questions one needs to answer to assess the desirability of implementing any program in the school:

  1. Can the need for it be demonstrated in individuals?
  2. If one is able to concretely identify a need for "better" character in some qualifying number of students, will any given program A) improve the condition or B) make it worse.
  3. Does the degree of improvement and the number of students benefited justify the time and expense?

Character Education is not a Verifiable Scientific Concept

As applied to character education, in terms of the first question, "character" is an archaic, quasi-metaphysical term, more related to horoscopes than any scientific concept. It is a term with no agreed upon definition, even among proponents of character education that, moreover, confusingly blends personality and behavioral components. This reveals the fundamental problem with character education: how can there be accountability for a program that seeks to address something (a quality, ability, aptitude?) with no clearly defined or quantifiable attributes and which, therefore, can demonstrate neither need nor success.

This absence of anything to gauge or measure makes the second and third questions impossible to answer. We cannot know if correcting the lack of whatever CE proposes to improve does the students any good, at all.

But, let's say we can define character, not as a personality trait of some kind, but in terms of quantifiable behavior that hypothetically might link with something localized within the child (lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, etc. although it is notable that the list of problem behaviors does not include: conformity, lack of innovation, uncritical thinking, self-righteousness, ostentation, gluttony, greed, etc.).

Still, how does one leap from the desire to address corrective action for an arbitrarily selected set of behaviors in a trifling small handful of identifiable students to deciding to implement pre-emptive measures in the entire cohort of uninvolved students? Are we talking original sin here? Enough of them will err unless indoctrinated? In that case, character education programs are no less than ideological tools in a religious campaign.

Possibly the most telling indicator that the character education movement builds its educational claims on flawed scientific method and unfounded psychological and social theory is the absence of any study published in peer reviewed journals that would support character education. To the contrary, the flaws in the "research" that is promoted on the Character Counts! web site are well documented. Such a dearth of validity makes it hard to just give it the benefit of the doubt. To the contrary, properly conducted, peer reviewed studies have shown character education programs to be not only ineffectual, but negatively correlated with results!

There doesn't seem to be any objective reason for these program to be in our schools. In that regard, Character Counts! would seem to fall right in line with a string of similarly flawed and failed school programs: religious education, moral education, values education... Not to be deterred by lack of results, CC! and other character education programs forge ahead -  each trotting out an entirely different list of politically-entangled core values and ways to implement them!  It is unfortunate for the entire field that there is no agreed upon definition of character or any reliable way to measure it, otherwise, one might be able to see the benefit of one over the other - or any at all.

Another School Program that Excludes Students

However, all strains of character education do find agreement that the desired goals for these programs are compliance with authority and conformity with conservative values. Perhaps those goals are desirable in some societies. But that is an ideological position, not in line with the greatness of American "character", of independence and innovation that many, if not most us want for our children. When reading between the lines of the marketing appeal to school boards and parents, it becomes quite clear that character education, and Character Counts!, in particular, are plain attempts to inculcate conservative social values in students and return religious moral instruction to the classroom.

The uncomfortably close alliance of Character Counts! and conservative political and religious groups should give anyone in a free society serious pause. In fact, the stealth part of the marketing approach behind character education" as code word for "religious indoctrination" is very similar to how intelligent design winks at religious creationism and abstinence at the religious idea of chastity.

In this way, parents and school board members in localities across the nation have been sold on two unfounded, unsupported conclusions regarding Character Counts!:
    1) Something needs to be done to develop character in our students.
    2) It is possible to do something to develop character in our students.

Because the flimsy evidence and weak theory offered are not sufficient to justify it, if asked why they are in favor of adopting Character Counts! these same parents and board members can only offer sentimental and anecdotal reasons, while citing the popular clamour.

A university professor of physics, with children in public schools, offered:

"We adults may want to lead by example by showing that we base decisions on evidence rather than speculation, hearsay, or the like. We make a big fuss in public about the lack of decent science education, and then we ourselves don't care squat about reasoning."

Ideologically and politically, it's a fine idea to brandish about nostalgic, unscientific terms like character, responsibility, respect, citizenship... But such concerns belong in popular politics and churches, outside the school. A scientific approach would agree with the conclusions of psychologists, sociologists and educational theorists that the source of these high-lighted "problem behaviors" in children does not derive from built-in flaws in them, rather that they are the natural and desirable expressions of growth, discovery and testing limits children need to explore on their own in order to mature.

Generation Gap - Especially in liberal republics, there is added stress in older generations when each succeeding generation exhibits their own version of the freedoms such societies enjoy. Our own generation was certainly freer than proceeding ones and we would expect that living in a free country - which increasingly supports children's rights - this trend will continue, unabated. Will there be excesses? In all likelihood. Is it natural and even necessary? Of course.

Fix the Problem, Not the Person

There is something that we can do, however. We can limit the destructive behavior in children which arises from their own healthy coping mechanisms when confronted with flaws in endemic to the system (injustices, hypocrisies, confused messages). In fact, most social psychologists would have us transform the structure of the classroom rather than try to remake the students themselves - precisely the opposite of the character education approach. As an example, was it the poor character of Rosa Parks that motivated her to disrespect authority and violate the law when she refused to move to the back of the bus? Is it lack of citizenship or patriotism that motivates children to decline participation in the Pledge of Allegiance?

This difference in approach is a very big deal. We hear, anecdotally, about the increase in cheating, lying and covering up in today's students. That there is any such increase is dubious. Even so, it is telling that, few, if any of these perceived problems have their root in poor character. They arise, for the most part, as a natural and appropriate human response when confronted with a system that teaches people to do the right things for the wrong reasons. And it doesn't take long to "get" that if it is the wrong reasons that are important (i.e., prizes, grades, test scores, trophies, salaries, bonuses,funding), then there is a surer way of having them - and that is doing the wrong things.

It is perhaps an unavoidable truth when W.C. Fields says: "Anything worth winning is worth cheating for."Yes, indeed! We can predict that, as more and more emphasis is placed on winning, ranking and appearances, even the earning of character prizes, instead of on the inherent pleasures of social interaction and learning and focusing on the equitable social structures that are required for them to flourish - including exemplary behavior by leadership at the highest levels of not using means tot justify ends - then we should find that things will be rapidly be getting worse and worse. Scheming and lying to win a reality show, steroids in professional sports, corporate cheating of stockholders and consumers, elimination of employee benefits, spinning the message, looking for the answer in drugs (legal or otherwise), the glorification of greed, war and fear.

If parents and school districts are truly serious about supporting our students and our community, isn't it so much more important that we get serious about addressing the irreconcilable systemic problems that we and our children confront rather than trying to bend over backwards to blame or change them. Our children come into this world just fine, thank you and stay that way. Children aren't the problem, folks! They are easy victims of the impossible situations we put them in (like having to abstain from the Pledge of Allegiance), the no-win conditions built of the priorities from our own misguided education.It may seem easier to put the fault on kids, but a more honorable and surer path is to assume responsibility by changing ourselves: our own attitudes, our social institutions - starting with the schools.


Following in the tradition of the true character of American greatness, entitled to the free pursuit of happiness, we have always been a people of independence, innovation, egalitarianism, empathy, fairness and moderation*, dedicated - not to changing individuals - but to progressive change in our social institutions so as to embrace all of the wonderful variations of individual character and colorful diversities of culture in our country and help them to flourish. 

*Our pick for 6 pillars of social motivation that social institutions should exemplify to children.