In the late 1900s, conservatives announced that America was in moral decline and blamed morally permissive liberal education. America's schools focused on modern technical skills and neglected traditional religious values. The conservatives' remedy was "character education": teaching school children an array of individual "virtues." People should be able to identify the ethically correct action in a variety of circumstances and should be held responsible for doing it.



This Post is the third in a Series on AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION – attempts to teach "values," mostly in American public schools. That topic may interest Chinese as China attempts to strengthen its own moral education.

The first Post introduced an important new Book on Western ethics. The second began that book's first Chapter, on recent attempts at moral education. This Post reports the CONSERVATIVE ideas behind recent "character education" in public schools.

Subsequent Posts will continue the Chapter. Overall a main point is that, despite thinking they are returning to Greek "virtue ethics," recent American approaches misinterpret the Greek notion of character, making it into a matter of individual DECISIONS, not social HABITS.

Another main point is that this individualist-volitional account of moral agency PERSONALIZES and DEPOLITICIZES moral discourse, blaming individuals for misbehavior and social ills while diverting attention from societal issues of power and justice.









From Heidi Ravven 2013 The self beyond itself, 11-23.

[For Notes, please consult the original printed book, where they are numbered differently. Here section Headings are added or shortened. ]


The current character education movement had its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, according to B. Edward McClellan, whose Moral Education in America: Schools and the Shaping of Character from Colonial Times to the Present remains the most complete history of moral education in the United States. The impetus for the recent movement for moral character education came from two quarters: those who had supported the character education movement of the early twentieth century, which had become eclipsed by midcentury, and a number of politically conservative intellectuals alarmed by what they regarded as the moral decline of youth. The movement had its initial headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, in the American Institute of Character Education (AICE) and was organized and funded primarily outside of mainstream educational circles but, despite that, has had a significant impact on public schools. By the late 1980s roughly eighteen thousand elementary classrooms in forty-four states had adopted AICE's Character Education Curriculum. That curriculum was made available to schools in kits that included books, films, story wheels, transparencies, and teachers' manuals to guide discussion, role-playing, and stories introducing virtues. According to McClellan, AICE generally avoided educational organizations and university departments of education, preferring to go directly to teachers and principals to further the adoption of its aims and materials. A substantial amount of the institute's funding has come from the Lilly Endowment, which has as its mission "to support the causes of religion, education and community development." Lilly defines its religious mission in two ways: first, to "deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians," and second, to "support projects that strengthen the contributions which religious ideas, practices, values and institutions make to the common good of our society." Moral character education began to take hold in the 1980s and 1990s when a number of public intellectuals called for the development of programs to (re)introduce into American schools the explicit defense and transmission of a set of virtues. Since the Columbine, Colorado, high school massacre in April 1999 by two alienated, disgruntled students, character education has really taken off in American schools at all levels. Columbine Elementary School became one of ten National Schools of Character in 2000. Character education now receives financial support from all levels of government, with most of its funding coming from the federal government.

"Virtues-centered" moral education had been a movement and then a commonplace of American schooling early in the twentieth century but was discredited in the 1930s and remained marginalized until recent decades, when a call for its revitalization could be heard especially from conservative quarters. In the words of B. Edward McClellan, who is not only the movement's historian but a clear sympathizer, "a newly alarmed group of elite intellectuals and educational leaders" were "appalled by the growing 'amorality' of the school and blamed it in part for the soaring rates of social pathology among youth in the modern era . . . alarming rates of teenage suicide, crime, drug use, and unwed pregnancies." They claimed that American schools had given up teaching moral values and were especially guilty of failing to convey a notion of individual moral responsibility and insisting upon its practice. The most prominent of the conservative intellectuals calling for a revival of character education to combat what they regarded as the moral decline of American youth were William J. Bennett, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities early in the Reagan administration and later secretary of education; Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction in California; and several prominent academics, some associated with conservative think tanks (among them the American Enterprise Institute): Andrew Oldenquist (professor of philosophy, now emeritus, at Ohio State University), Kevin Ryan (founding director, now emeritus, of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University), James Q. Wilson (expert on crime and public policy, UCLA and Harvard, emeritus), and Edward Wynne (a leading theorist of the character education movement and of Catholic religious education).

The public debate about the explicit teaching of moral values in the schools was initiated within the context of an expressed alarm over general societal moral decline and especially the waywardness of youth and within a conservative ideological framework.

Today in America we have far too may twelve-year-olds pushing drugs, fourteen-year-olds having babies, sixteen-year-olds killing each other; and kids of all ages admit to lying, cheating, and stealing. We have crime and violence everywhere and unethical behavior in business, the professions, and government. In other words, we have a crisis of character all across America that is threatening to destroy the goodness that . . . is the very foundation of our greatness. . . . We need to dramatically uplift the character of the nation. [Emphasis added.]

So states Sanford N. McDonnell, chairman of the board of the Character Education Partnership and chairman emeritus of McDonnell Douglas, in the foreword to Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin's Building Character in Schools. In response to a claim of a precipitous decline of morals in America, those at the forefront of the character education movement called for what McClellan describes as an "educational counterrevolution . . . to restore both educational and behavioral standards they believed had been destroyed by the disruptions of the [nineteen] sixties and seventies."


To get a fuller idea of the public debate in which the movement to introduce or reintroduce explicit and directive moral character education into American schools began to be heard, I need quote only a few more passages from some of the widely discussed and loudly trumpeted books by several of its main advocates. Their overriding presupposition was that American society was in a precipitous moral decline and that American youth had lost its moral compass and was out of control. The overall assessment was that things were going to hell in a handbasket and youth were the victims of a wider societal moral decline—the moral bankruptcy of families, neighborhoods, and other aspects of the social fabric. In addition, the argument went, American children were the victims of morally misguided and even pernicious recent policies of the public schools themselves. Together these two factors were thought to amount to an alarming feedback loop in which this sorry state of social decline, rather than being mitigated by the schools, was in fact being aggravated by public schools' neglect and even abandonment of the teaching of morals. This purported failure was, in the view of these conservative intellectuals, to be chalked up in part to the dominance in education since the 1960s of liberal models of ethics that amounted to nothing short of a moral relativism in which anything goes. Another factor, they believed, was educators' reluctance to bring religion into the classroom, which was a result of Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and other decisions that strengthened both the separation between church and state and the rights of children and minorities in schools. Finally, they argued that the decline was due to the increasing focus of education on technical and (what they regarded as morally) neutral knowledge and skills.

William Bennett remains the most prominent advocate of the view that there is a decline in American social institutions and in the public schools and that the two declines reinforce each other. Bennett also believes that introducing moral education—both in schools and outside them—can turn the situation around. In The Book of Virtues, Bennett set out to provide children with the means to "moral literacy" through the telling of moral tales, a practice that he believes has been lost. He indicts not only the schools but also what he calls the decline of the American family. (He titled his 2001 book The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family.) So character education through morality tales taught both in and out of school is the hoped-for remedy to America's social problems. The purpose of these books and many others like them is to shape children's individual personal behavior, or character, by offering a catalogue of virtues and corresponding examples of virtuous behavior. Such tales are held to be capable of playing a major role in reversing the alleged state of social disintegration that Bennett attributes to a widespread and catastrophic failure of individual morality. In The Broken Hearth, Bennett argues that individuals across society have chosen to ignore the standard and universal knowledge of right and wrong in "a vast social experiment" to reinvent family life, in turn leading to the "collapse" of "the" American family, a collapse that can be seen everywhere, he says, in high divorce rates, children born outside of marriage, the widespread neglect of children, and sexual immorality, including the acceptance of homosexuality. All this in turn gave rise to a further loss of morality in the next generations in an ongoing vicious circle. Bennett proposes that what we are witnessing is a social experiment with devastating effects, and he quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as holding that "the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world."

"The dissolution of the family is the fundamental crisis of our time," Bennett argues, whereas "the ideal of the nuclear family [is] the essential foundation of society." “"Marriage and family are cultural universals," he goes on, and "throughout history they have been viewed as the standard to which humans should aspire." Bennett points to "cohabitation, illegitimacy, fatherlessness, homosexual unions, and divorce" as "the most important contemporary challenges to marriage and the modern family." And the underlying cause of this social catastrophe is unwise and ultimately immoral individual decisions on a society-wide scale: "To put it simply: We could not have experienced the scale of marital breakdown we have witnessed since 1960 unless huge numbers of our fellow citizens—conservative and liberal, believers and non-believers alike—had willingly detached themselves from once-solemn commitments made to spouses and children." (Emphasis added.) "One reason so many American families are dissolving or never forming," Bennett goes on, "is that many of us have forgotten why we believe—and why we should believe—in the family." It is not the case, he assures us, that conditions of poverty and of economic dislocation and transition drive social breakdown, because "the decline of marriage and the American family happened during one of the greatest periods of economic expansion ever seen on earth." In harder times, "the black family was relatively stable" and "the vast majority of black children lived in two-parent homes," while at present "eighty percent of black women will be heads of family at some point in their childbearing years." So we are led to conclude that the problem is not economic conditions but individual moral failure, especially of black women but also of liberals and others, on a vast societal scale. And the proposed remedy, in The Book of Virtues, is moral literacy as the basis for transforming individual moral decision making. We have, as individuals, failed to learn right from wrong, and we are suffering the consequences. But the "we" here, we now realize, does not really apply equally to all of us. Only a large dose of moral education can save us from ourselves—or, by insinuation, save Us (prosperous whites, especially men) from Them (blacks and women, and particularly black women, homosexuals), and the country as a whole. But the situation is dire and the need immense.

James Q. Wilson goes even further than William Bennett and makes the explicit claim that poverty is the result of personal immoral decision making. Poverty is, in Wilson's estimation, a kind of karmic punishment for bad individual moral decisions. Hence the poor (by implication) are getting what they deserve. Nevertheless, they are bringing the country (Us) down with them, and that is where the problem lies. This blame game is insinuated in Bennett's analysis but is made explicit by Wilson, a prolific writer on crime and punishment—for example, in his essay "The Rediscovery of Character." Commenting on a 1985 essay by economist Glenn C. Loury, Wilson says:

The very title of Loury's essay suggested how times had changed [since Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report on the problems of the black family]: whereas leaders once spoke of welfare reform as if it were a problem of finding the most cost-effective way to distribute aid to needy families, Loury was now prepared to speak of it as "the moral quandary of the black community."

Two decades that could have been devoted to thought and experimentation had been frittered away. We were no closer in 1985 than we were in 1965 to understanding why black children are usually raised by one parent rather than by two or exactly what consequences, beyond the obvious fact that such families are very likely to be poor, follow from this pattern of family life. [Emphasis added.]

Here's the argument: "the black family" (all lumped together as one entity) has made the fateful immoral choice of single parenthood, and hence is poor and the children immoral. A negatively stereotyped black family is demonized here in a way reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's excoriation of "welfare queens" as the model of immorality, an immorality consisting of bad personal decisions and choices. By implication, "these people" are to blame and they get what they deserve. Nevertheless, we need to morally educate them. Enter moral character education.


A similar alarmist message pervades William Kilpatrick's Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, another influential book in this genre. Kilpatrick, a professor of education at Boston College, begins his book with a look at "The Crisis in Moral Education." "The core problem facing our schools is a moral one. All the other problems derive from it," he insists.

If students don't learn self-discipline and respect for others, they will continue to exploit each other sexually. . . .

If they don't learn habits of courage and justice, curriculums designed to improve their self-esteem won't stop the epidemic of extortion, bullying, and violence. . . .

If . . . schools were to make the formation of good character a primary goal, . . . hitherto unsolvable problems such as violence, vandalism, drug use, teen pregnancies, unruly classrooms, and academic deterioration would prove less intractable than presently imagined. [Emphasis added.]

The title of Kilpatrick's book recalls a 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read, which was an attack on the whole-language technique of teaching reading as a disastrous fad that replaced an earlier focus on phonetics and precise skills. (Most schools now use a combination of whole language and phonetics to teach reading; the claim that the whole-language method of teaching reading is disastrous is not well founded, but that need not concern us here.) Kilpatrick argues that "the failure of moral education in the schools parallels the failure of the schools to teach reading" Not only are "students . . . being taught by the wrong method, a method that looks more and more like a fad that won't go away," he says, but that method both "fails to encourage virtuous behavior" and "seems to actively undermine it." Kilpatrick's objection to the whole-language method seems to be that it does not consist of rote rules transmitted in an authoritarian way by teachers to be memorized by students and then applied to concrete, specific situations. Analogously, Kilpatrick believes that moral education should consist of a principle to be memorized and then a freely willed decision to apply that principle—a moral choice for which each of us is individually responsible. It is this approach, of directive training in identifying the relevant moral principle and then applying it through choosing the actions that accord with it, that Kilpatrick identifies as "character education." "All the various attempts at school reform are unlikely to succeed," Kilpatrick warns, "unless character education is put at the top of the agenda."

Kilpatrick uses the analogy to reading education to indict liberal models of moral education as disastrous for American children and for society as a whole. The underlying message seems to be that a newfangled, nondirective, nonauthoritarian method derived from some crazy theory is being imposed on us normal people and on our innocent children by elite intellectuals removed from normal life in isolated ivory towers, and this is ruining the country. There is an appeal to what is purported to be (but of course isn't) pure common sense—to what "everyone knows" is really the right way of doing things—and there's more than a hint of conspiracy theory in the various alarmist claims that follow:

In addition to the fact that Johnny still can't read, we are now faced with the more serious problem that he can't tell right from wrong.

Not every Johnny, of course, but enough to cause alarm. An estimated 525,000 attacks, shakedowns, and robberies occur in public high schools each month. Each year nearly three million crimes are committed on or near school property—16,000 per school per day. About 135,000 students carry guns to school daily; one fifth of all students report carrying a gun of some type. Twenty-one percent of all secondary school students avoid using the rest rooms out of fear of being harmed or intimidated. . . .

The situation is no better outside of school. Suicides among young people have risen by 300 percent over the last thirty years. . . . Drug and alcohol use is widespread. Teenage sexual activity seems to be at an all-time high. . . . Forty percent of today's fourteen-year-old girls will become pregnant by the time they are nineteen.



Heidi M. Ravven is a Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College in Central New York. She is a leading proponent of basing ethical philosophy on empirical studies of how human beings actually function, particularly as revealed by current neuroscience.

Ravven has published widely on Jewish philosphers Spinoza and Maimonides and on Jewish ethics and Jewish feminism. Ravven's 2013 book The Self Beyond Itself explores Moral Agency: why we are moral, why and when we are not, and how to get people to be more moral.

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