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A Call for Character Education in 21st Century Schooling (5/10/14)

Without question, the role of the public school system in the United States is to prepare students for entry into adult society. In preparing students for early adulthood, the current emphasis on the type of schooling that students should receive is articulated as “college and career readiness.” Defined, this means that our PK – 12 schools should equip students with the knowledge and skills to successfully participate in our current knowledge and information economy.

A 5/5/14 Education Week article titled The Goal of Education is Becoming reminds us that in all of our college and career readiness preparations, we should not forget about one of the sometimes marginalized areas of PK – 12 schooling in the United States, moral/character education. In The Goal of Education is Becoming, Marc Prensky argues very directly that the goal of education is “becoming—becoming a good person and becoming a more capable person than when you started.” This is provocative, not because public schools do not provide character education in some form or another at greater and lesser degrees, but it is provocative because school communities often struggle with the magnitude of character education in public school curricula and what methods should be used to teach it.

If we look to history for lessons on character education and how to implement it, Plato’s Republic offers a sound template. While the Republic is certainly one of the greatest political and philosophical theses ever written, it also designates the purpose of education. This purpose is to develop citizens who can establish a just society. In defining the education that is needed, the Republic clearly indicates that a just society cannot stand without citizens who are intellectually/philosophically and morally educated enough to uphold it. The text suggests that methods for moral education be established through Socratic teaching/questioning so that students think critically about their choices and the implications of their individual actions. This fits nicely with a reemphasis on character education; after all isn’t this what being a functional adult is about, thinking critically and making the best choices that not only meet individual needs but serve the good of society as a whole as well?

So, where does this leave us in regard to character education? All school communities are local, and as a result have local standards for character education. Understanding this fact, we can use Socratic methods to get students to think critically and to make judgments about courses of action in various scenarios. These methods could be used in academic courses as well as in character education trainings. To experience success in this vein, schools must make a commitment to promoting character education because of the impact that it can have on the whole community. In this way, we build a society of conscientious adults who focus on the greater good. This meets Prensky’s call to action as well as our social and civic responsibility to develop the whole child.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO