SHOULD SCHOOLS be in the character-formation "business?" The heated debate on this issue is largely theoretical in the worst sense of the term. Whether educators are aware of it or not, schools do shape the development of their students' characters, for better or for worse. Schools that follow a policy of automatic promotion -- for example, allowing students who are disruptive, truant or failing, to advance from grade to grade and ultimately to graduate -- send a strong message to students that misconduct carries no undesirable consequences. As this message is repeated year after year, throughout one's school career, it has clear characterological effects.

To put it more generally, educators have long been aware that extra-curricular activities, especially sports, influence character. If young athletes learn that "winning isn't the important thing, it's the only thing" rather than "it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," their characters will develop accordingly. Less well understood is the fact that everything a school does affects its students' characters. I stress "does" because in the debate concerning character education, which is often treated as synonymous with moral or value education, the emphasis is often on curricular content -- on what teachers and textbooks say. Should there be classes that seek to transmit values in the first place? If the answer to that is affirmative, should the classes focus on value clarification? Should they encompass sex education, religion and so on? While these are very important issues, much less attention has been paid to other dimensions of life in school, which are at least as powerful educators as classroom materials.

From the viewpoint of character formation it is best to see education as a series of experiences, whether they take place in the classroom, the gym or elsewhere. Are the parking lots negotiated with consideration or recklessness? Do students throw food in the cafeteria? How are the corridors monitored? Are children pushing one another? Are boys grabbing at girls? Are grades dished out according to performance or to enhance self-esteem? These and other such non-curricular factors, have deep effects on the experience schools impart, and they in turn impart strong lessons.

The following account does much to illustrate what I mean: In 1968, Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in Iowa, was trying to impart to her class a notion of the evils of discrimination. The class did not quite understand what she was discussing. She tried what she thought was going to be merely an educational game. She divided her class into two groups according to eye color and declared that brown-eyed people were unequivocally smarter, cleaner and more civilized than those with blue eyes. Blue-eyed children had to sit in the back of the class, were not allowed to use the water fountain and were not to speak unless spoken to. The game was to continue for two days, but Elliott felt she had to cut it short. "By the lunch hour," she recalled, "there was no need to think before identifying a child as blue- or brown-eyed. I could tell simply by looking at them. The brown-eyed children were happy, alert. The blue-eyed children were miserable." At this point, the class was ready to be told: Now you know what it feels like to be discriminated against. When a TV network assembled members of the class 25 years later, it was evident that the discrimination "game" was the most memorable lesson of their third grade.

Once one recognizes the importance of school-generated experiences, a policy recommendation readily comes to mind: Schools should examine their grading policies, sporting events and everything else from the perspective of what kinds of educational character-forming messages they impart. An ideal format for such an analysis is an annual staff retreat, during which the staff reviews the school as a set of structured experiences. (Such a review is likely to benefit from a facilitator to avoid a sterile and defensive discussion.) If the messages of experience are found to be incompatible with the values the school seeks to transmit, these features can be modified appropriately.

I am unaware of any public school that has experimented with this. However, I participated in an intensive discussion at the Harvard Business School when it sought to introduce ethics teaching into the school. Beside curriculum adjustments and discussion groups on the subject, the Business School changed the way it assigned tasks and grades. Instead of assigning projects almost entirely on an individual basis, the school shifted the focus towards more frequent group work, encouraging cooperative experiences, skill development and collaborative behavior. Instead of always grading on a curve (i.e., in a highly competitive manner), professors began to evaluate work on a performance basis, thereby relaxing the cutthroat culture. In this way the school brought its structure (teaching policies) closer in line with the values it sought to communicate.

What is the exact relation between character education and moral or value education? Many use these terms as if they were synonymous. Actually, while these concepts are closely related, it is useful to use character in a narrower and more precise sense. Character formation primarily concerns the development of a set of psychological traits that in turn enable young people to commit to values and abide by them. The core trait is self-discipline. Like animals, people experience a variety of temptations (lusts, needs, desires); people of character differ from animals and from their less civilized relations in that they are able to review and judge their temptations before responding.

I choose my words carefully here; I am not suggesting that people of character can (or should be expected to) always withstand their temptations and live by their values. We humans cannot be made so saintly. However, people of character are not enslaved by temptation. For such individuals, life is a continuous struggle between their conception of what is right and what they are tempted to do. (Dieting -- a relatively trivial activity -- provides a fine example.) As character becomes stronger, as one's self-discipline grows, so does an individual's capacity to choose what she believes is the right course to follow -- and to move toward it.

In several public opinion surveys, teachers, school administrators and parents rank a lack of discipline as the number one problem in our schools. They correctly perceive that in a classroom where rules and routines cannot be developed and maintained, learning is not possible.

Discipline, as many people understand it, unfortunately can have authoritarian connotations. A well-disciplined environment is often considered one in which teachers and principals "lay down the law" and will brook no talking back from students, who "show respect" by rising when the teacher enters the room and speak only when spoken to. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly of Washington, D.C., even suggested that schools ought to reexamine the use of corporal punishment. Indeed, in quite a few states physical punishment is still considered an effective way to maintain discipline.

But if discipline is achieved by authoritarian means, youngsters will behave well only as long as they are closely supervised and fear punishment. As soon as the authorities turn their backs, they will misbehave. Moreover, their resentment at being coerced will express itself in some form of antisocial behavior. This is because the discipline is linked to punishment rather than to a commitment to doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong.

What youngsters require is self-discipline, the inner ability to mobilize and commit to a task he or she believes in, and to feel positive -- that is, self-rewarded -- for having done so. For this to happen, the person needs to incorporate into the self the guiding voices, although originally they may come from parents, kin, educators and others. Such internalization occurs in structured environments, but not under authoritarian conditions. What is required is a school structure made up of responsible adults, clear rules and a cohesive set of tasks and guidelines that motivate students. These must be firmly upheld as well as reasonable and justified, so that students can understand and accept the need to abide by them.

Self-discipline is not merely essential to the effective employee, community member, nuclear family and citizen, but to the learning student. Given their critical role in a child's life, schools must pay special attention to the ways in which they already influence their students' characters, and to make a deliberate decision to be supportive rather than neglectful in such an important aspect of the formation of the young.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of "The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda," and a member of the board of the Character Education Partnership, a consortium of educators and other professionals interested in the character issue.

The following organizations can provide further information about character education:

Character Education Partnership

1250 N. Pitt St.

Alexandria, Va. 22314

703-739-9515

Communitarian Network

Gelman Library, Suite 714J

2130 H St., NW

Washington, D.C. 20052

202-994-7997

Character Counts

Josephson Institute of Ethics

4640 Admiralty Way, Suite 1001

Marina del Rey, Ca. 90292

310-306-1868

Jefferson Center for

Character Formation

2700 East Foothill, Suite 302

Pasadena, Ca. 91107

818-792-8130

Ethics and Public Policy Center

1015 15th St., NW, Suite 900

Washington, D.C. 20005

202-682-1200

Additional Reading:

Educating for Character by Tom Lickona (Bantam, 1991).

Reclaiming Our Schools: A Handbook on Teaching Character, Academics, and Discipline by Edward Wynne and Kevin Ryan (Merrill, 1993).

Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment by William Damon (Free Press, 1992).

Bringing Up a Moral Child: A New Approach for Teaching Your Child to Be Kind, Just, and Responsible by Michael Schulman and Eva Mekler (Doubleday, 1994)

Also, the Communitarian Network is issuing a position paper on character education that will be available later this month (see information on the Network above). -- Amitai Etzioni