Character Education and love

The effectiveness of character education programs, according to Lynn Revell (2002), remains unclear. Conducting research at 12 schools (seven elementary and five high schools), Revell focused on issues of citizenship and identity and reported that high school students tended to be “cynical or sceptical about specific character traits promoted by Character Education,” especially those students in non-magnet schools who were even “hostile” (pp. 427-428). Despite the similarity of programs across schools and the enthusiastic support of parents and school staff, students’ attitudes toward the programs’ tenets varied according to personal experiences in their communities.

Besides experience, it seems likely that other factors are likely at play, too. One factor is that character education is almost nonexistent in teacher preparation programs (Milson & Mehlig, 2002). Teachers and schools have little, if any, theoretical or practical experience in implementing character education. Although expertise is required to teach a “subject,” it apparently is not required to teach character. Second, and just as importantly, many proponents of character education programs focus on the students and neglect the character of school staff. (Exceptions exist, for example, Lickona and Meier.) And one wonders how schools and teachers simply acquire character if they did not already possess it. Huebner (1999) is worth citing at length on this point:

First, recent discourse about moral and spiritual values in the classroom is incorrectly focused. That discourse assumes that there is something special that can be identified as moral or spiritual. This assumption is false. Everything that is done in schools, and in preparation for school activity, is already infused with the spiritual. All activity in school has moral consequences. The very highlighting of the need to teach moral and spiritual values in schools implies a breakdown not in the spirituality and morality of the student, but a breakdown in the moral activity and spirituality of the school itself, and of the people in control of the school. Those in control of the schools cover their own complicity in the domination system by urging the teaching of moral and spiritual values. They do not urge that the moral and spiritual climate of the schools, which they control, be changed. That teachers do not feel the freedom to be critical and creative is a sign of their enslavement to other principalities and powers. The need is not to see moral and spiritual values as something outside the normal curriculum and school activity, but to probe deeper into the educational landscape to reveal how the spiritual and moral is being denied in everything. The problem in schools is not that kids are not being taught moral and spiritual values, the problem is—the schools are not places where the moral and spiritual life is lived with any kind of intentionality. (pp. 414-415)

Quite naturally, students would be cynical about programs that attempted to transform the students’ character but not the character of the school itself. Of course, the moral activity and spirituality of communities is important, too. For character education to be successful, we need to return not simply to ideals but to the intentional living out of ideals by schools and communities. And the foremost ideal is that of love.

The requirement of love for a “sane society” was emphasized by Erich Fromm (1955). With love come attitudes, such as “care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1955, p. 33). Likewise, Bertrand Russell (1961) considered love and knowledge essential for character and progress: “There is only one road to progress, in education as in other human affairs, and that is: Science wielded by love. Without science, love is powerless; without love, science is destructive” (p. 158).

Without love, any attempt to inculcate character values is driven by goals of material success, such as providing “skilled workers” and avoiding discipline problems. Such goals are not necessarily detrimental to education. However, when love is not the guiding principle, these attempts to instill values are no more than indoctrination designed to produce obedience rather than character (Kohlberg, 1999; Kohn, 1999), attempts that do not work but instead promote cynicism, skepticism, or hostility.

For the ideal of love to live in schools, there must be a shift away from the school as a factory in which teachers view students as objectives rather than human beings, a factory in which knowledge is produced and tested rather than character constructed (cf. Huebner, 1999). Instead, there must be a move toward schools and educators who not only have a mastery of their subjects but also embody character and love.