For More Schools, Teaching Morals Is Right
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A12
"It was really hard on him. He didn't want to go against . . . his troops. It cut him in half, but he said he could not stand the atrocities that he had stumbled upon. He said he kept thinking, 'What if that was my mom, my grandmother, my brother or my wife?' " -- Margaret Blank, mother of Army Spec. Joseph M. Darby, interviewed May 6 by ABC News.
To Nader Twal, the way Joseph Darby talked himself into exposing that Americans had abused some detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison was a classic lesson in what Twal is trying to teach his English and philosophy students: the ability to make a principled decision.
The soldier saw behavior he believed was wrong. He personalized it and listened to his conscience, whatever the cost, said Twal, who uses literature, debate and role-playing to teach ethics at a special academy inside Millikan High School in Long Beach, Calif. Twal's students discuss issues ranging from the rules of war to the themes of injustice in such novels as "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"Conscience is like a muscle," Twal said. "We either practice it and it grows, or it atrophies. What I do in my classroom is to give students an opportunity to exercise their conscience. I want to develop character, not self-esteem. . . . I think the greatest disservice that we have done to our kids is to tell them they are okay the way they are."
Such teachings are not standard curriculum for a public school. In an era when test scores for core academic subjects such as math and reading are paramount, some educators say they have no time to teach character education -- and to some parents, it is best left in the home.
There are teachers, too, who say that in today's litigious society, they are afraid to insist that students adhere to rules of right and wrong.
Yet character education is gaining new strength across the country, as society grapples with questions about how ethically grounded young people are and what role schools should play in dealing with the issue. "Schools have to do this," said Sherrie Hart, a high school teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., and a former state character education teacher of the year.
"It can reinforce what many children learn at home," she said. "But there are a lot of students who don't have the support at home and don't have the moral education. A lot of schools say they don't want to do it, but where are the kids going to get it?"
Character education is a subject whose time has come and gone and come back again under different names and approaches.
In the 1960s, as the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles fueled students' political activism, "all hell broke loose," said Francis Ryan, director of American studies at La Salle University in Philadelphia. As a result of this questioning of authority and increasing cultural diversity, many educators became reluctant to pronounce what behavior was right or wrong, Ryan said.
Today, character education has reemerged, with debates raging among philosophers, psychologists and others about the nature of conscience and ethics.
Many schools have dipped in, with some states requiring character education. But there is no consistency to the requirements. Virginia mandates it in all schools, though the state doesn't mandate an approach; Maryland high school students must perform 75 hours of community service (which some ethicists say should be graded so students would take it seriously). D.C. schools don't have a systemwide requirement.
In some schools, students are exposed only to lectures about ethical behavior, lessons not apt to sink in, teachers and students say. Effectiveness requires a comprehensive approach, they say, incorporating all phases of school life, with connections that students of all ages can personalize and practice.
"If a teacher just touches upon the subject, it is going to take no effect," said Ryan Owen, 18, a senior at the PEACE Academy in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles. "What works is when we have interactive learning."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Mann Elementary in the District gives its students -- such as Annie Spaller, center, and Anna Fishbein, right -- character education.
(Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)