250. "New Signposts on the Road to Civilisation" The Guardian (July 15, 1994) p. 22.
OUR CULTURE looks at new-born children through rose-tinted glasses. "They're so cute," everyone coos. Yet looked at objectively their behaviour is rather like that of animals: they take in food, expel waste and shriek. More importantly, they command no inborn moral or social values, and they do not develop such virtues on their own. These facts are the historical reason why families - nuclear and extended - were entrusted with civilising these little creatures.
Unfortunately, half of American families no longer discharge this duty satisfactorily. Our most urgent goal is to find out how to encourage families to reassume this elemental responsibility. Until we do, the task of socialising many of our children will fall by default to educators. The battleground for the character of the new generation will be fought in the publicly-run schools. Tough questions fly to mind: Will public schools distribute condoms? Will they teach that Heather has two mummies? Will they condemn abortion? Teaching values in a society embroiled in a passionate argument about how to define its values seems impossible.
Circumventing the land mines of the culture war is part of the mission of two new nationwide groups now mounting major character education drives in the US. Character Counts calls for schools to promote six character traits that our society can presumably agree on: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.
A much richer and more complex agenda is being advanced by a broad coalition of educational groups called the Character Education Partnership. It stresses that the experiences schools generate are much more character-forming than any ethics lectures delivered by teachers. If school parking lots are danger zones, corridors confrontational, and cafeterias wild, children learn that whoever pushes hardest carries the day.
If students are kept orderly by patrols of teachers and students, they learn the value of civility. Similarly, if A and B grades are handed out easily to encourage those lacking in self-esteem, then students learn that work doesn't pay. If high grades are allotted according to rigorous standards, they teach that dedication to work is rewarding.
The CEP argues that a constructive school environment can do what certain extra -curricular activities (sports in particular) have long been acknowledged to do: form character. They strongly urge schools to conduct annual retreats to examine the moral and social lessons generated by the experiences they impart, compared to the values they seek to transmit. If the messages are out of step, then they should be realigned.
The importance of these two bodies is that both stress the development of those personality traits that enable people to act c ivilly and morally instead of focusing on the content of the values that schools should embrace. First among these traits is the capacity to control one's impulses. The underlying assumption is that aggressive and other antisocial impulses cannot be extinguished; a mature person needs to learn to recognise urges such as murderous anger and acquire ways to curb them or channel them towards socially constructive outlets.
Second, the CEP suggests that a well-formed person must have what Adam Smith called "sympathy": roughly, the ability to see one's self in the other person's shoes, or empathy. Without this quality, there is little likelihood that children will develop charity, fairness, respect for other people, or the other virtues present in a moral person.
Only when a person possesses these two capacities is instilling commitments to other values possible. What those values should be is also less controversial than seems at first glance, for many values are widely shared. No one seriously maintains that lying is morally superior to truth-telling; that rape, theft - not to mention killing - are morally appropriate. Similarly, while there are considerable disagreements about what constitutes sexual harassment or racial discrimination, very few truly hold that such conduct is morally appropriate.
THE CEP urges educators to start by imparting these shared values. They may then wish to acknowledge that on other moral issues there are deep differences, and they might urge youngsters to rely on private institutions to learn more about these issues.
Other groups favour teaching values cafeteria style (pro-life beliefs in column A and pro-choice beliefs in column B, for example). I fear that such an approach will foster relativism. These values should be communicated with the full fervour of those who hold them, and this is best achieved outside publicly-run schools.
As Charles Haynes, from the First Liberty Institute, puts it: "Students should be encouraged to consult their parents and religious leaders for a fuller understanding of how their tradition addresses moral questions." We should not try to pack all values into publicly-run schools; schools should be the place for those values we all share and a place to recognise the importance of other values.
Finally, the CEP provides a clear guideline to the challenging question of whether or not schools should abide by the views of the local community it serves or those imposed from the outside. Should schools distribute condoms or teach junior school pupils about homosexuality if the community is adamantly opposed? The proposed rule of thumb in the American context is that the values of the local community should take precedence in all matters except those that violate the society-wide values reflected in the Constitution. Obviously this is more difficult in a country lacking a written constitution. But attention to the moral education of the young is moving up the public agenda. It is not coming a moment too soon.
Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit Of Community.