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Character Development

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Concern for the values and morals of the young is an enduring adult preoccupation. Down through recorded history, this worry about the character of the younger generation is evident. Concern, however, has never been enough to ensure that the young possess the type of character that can sustain the individual and society. Some societies have failed to transmit their values to the young, and this has often meant their swift decline. The rubble of history is mute testimony to this failure.

Societies, of course, must do more than merely survive. They must also grow--in their understanding of what it means to be a human community, in the range of opportunities they offer each member for full human development, and in their capacity to handle the new ethical problems wrought by technology and other social changes. In addition, they must learn to function as part of an increasingly complex world community, where global peace and justice demand ever increasing levels of cooperation. But whether the task is survival or development, any society ultimately depends for its success on the character of its citizens--on the extent to which a critical mass of its people hold, find their identity in, and act upon a shared moral vision.

Democratic societies have a special dependence on the virtue of their citizens. In the United States, for example, the Founding Fathers believed that universal schooling was needed, at least partly, because moral education was needed. Government by the people, where the people themselves ensured a free and just society, required that the people be good--possessed of at least a minimal understanding of and commitment to the moral foundations of democracy. Those foundations included respect for law and for the rights of others, voluntary participation in public life, and concern for the common good. Loyalty to these democratic values, Thomas Jefferson argued, must be instilled at an early age.

Two centuries later, there are visible cracks in the moral foundations of democracy. Ed Wynne and Mary Hess, in Chapter 2 of this book, presents quantitative evidence that the conduct of United States youth, during the last 20 to 30 years, is marked by two disturbing trends: (1) a rise in self-destructive behavior (e.g., suicide, teen-age pregnancy, and drug abuse), and (2) a rise in destructive behavior involving others (e.g., juvenile crime and disorder in schools). To these two trends, we would add two others, equally troubling. The first is an attitude of "We're not doing anything wrong." In a 1981 survey by the National Organization to Prevent Shoplifting, for example, 50 percent of the one hundred thousand youths aged 9-21 surveyed said they had shoplifted, and most of those said they would do it again. When a ninth-grade teacher of our acquaintance asked her students how many had ever shoplifted, most raised their hands. "Don't you think it's wrong to shoplift?" she asked. They answered, "We have a right to the material things in life."

That answer points to a fourth disturbing change in the moral values of the young, namely, a growing materialism. In 1970, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, 39 percent of U.S. college freshmen said that "being very well off financially" was an important objective in going to college (Astin, The American Freshman, 1989). By 1989, that figure had risen sharply, to 78 percent. Meanwhile, less materialistic values had lost ground. By 1989 only 41 percent of freshmen felt that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" was an important reason for attending college, compared with 83 percent who thought so in 1970.

Finally, behind this materialism may lie something deeper still: a spreading privatism, a detachment from community and commitment. That attitude, as Henry Johnson argues in Chapter 3, strikes at the very heart of morality's recognition of our interrelatedness and the claims we have on each other. Privatism makes a virtue of selfishness.


There is evidence, moreover, that no country has a monopoly on these moral problems: they cut across national borders. Here is a Canadian magazine (Donahue, 1984) arguing the case for values education in the schools: 70 percent of Ontario's children, grades 7 through 13, use alcohol; 33 percent of tenth-grade boys and 25 percent of girls have had sexual intercourse, accompanied by rising rates of teen-age pregnancy and abortion; suicide is the second leading cause of death among teen-agers. Two summers ago we joined philosophers, psychologists, and educators in South America to share concerns and approaches to moral education. Here is what one woman, head of a university department of education, had to say about the state of moral affairs in her country:

Moral values in my country are declining. It is a serious problem. First of all, more and more young people are living together without getting married so they can break up if they want to. Their children grow up without a secure situation, and it has an effect. There is more crime among young people, and more dishonesty everywhere--in government, in business, among ordinary people. Part of the problem is people are spending more than they earn and need money to pay their debts. There is more materialism--people are following a new life style. They think it will make them happy, but it only makes them unhappy. And there is more divorce, which never used to be a problem.


How did we come to the present state of affairs? In the United States, three social institutions have traditionally been responsible for shaping the character of the young: the family, the church, and the school. However, post-war United States, like many other nations, has seen significant changes in all three of these institutions, changes which in turn have had a major impact on their teaching functions.

The Family

At a 1985 symposium on character development sponsored by the American Educational Research Association, the well-known sociologist James Coleman began his comments with this statement: "I believe the causes of the downward trends in youth character lie primarily outside the school--in the changes that have taken place in the American family."

Other observers echo that theme. John Agresto (1982), a project director at the National Humanities



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