Character-building and Ethics in School: Why Not?

(also posted at LinkedIn Pulse—discussion brewing if you are signed up with LinkedIn)

I’m sitting in a high school classroom right now. On the wall is a large poster that reads ” Signs of Good Character: Responsibility, Citizenship, Trustworthiness, Caring, Respect, Fairness.” At one time these were all operationally defined in detail: what does each mean / what does it look like in action? The initiative went away some time ago—other pressing needs—but the poster remains to remind.

The “Character Counts” program by the Josephsen Institute at one time was much more prevalent in US schools, not so much any more. Ethics and norms have been blown into the ditch by standard test scores (NCLB), and obsession with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum. The rest of the developed and developing world is kicking our US butts in those areas and our ability to compete economically is dwindling. So off to work we go on doing stuff more efficiently. Principles and ethics be damned.

You see the same thing in organizations-“forget that values, ethics, purpose, sense of community stuff! Process improvement, doing stuff, producing and selling things is what keeps the doors open, sonny!” Little to no focus on those things that human beings need, things that will keep the doors open long-term.

If we are serious about developing stronger citizenry and strengthening society, focus on young people before they get jaded by the real world! It’s disturbing that the Bad Guys are so good at recruiting. What are we doing to recruit young people to the good? Surely our vision can be more compelling than theirs?

A LinkedIn pen pal and I have been discussing this on the side, here is a bit from him (thanks Elwood!).
“Ages 8 thru 13, are very strong character-deciding times for the developing mind. In years past there were several strong groups focused on just that. Girl & Boy Scouts started at grade school levels as Cubs & Brownies. Carried past high school, members often went on to participate in the community via ROTC or the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Many of these programs are still around, usually a ghost of their former self. Slowly fading into to the past due to lack of participation for various reasons…scandal, lack of enthusiasm, no promotion, peer pressure from ‘cool era’ kids…”

I was a Cub, Boy Scout, Explorer. “On my honor I will do my duty to God and my country …and always help little old ladies cross the street.” I stopped there because ROTC and active service was not cool in my time and my crowd. And the Junior Chamber was so….well, uncool. I’ve changed my perspective on that, now that I’m too old and they won’t take me.

Elwood is right. At one time the Scouts were an ethics-building dynamo that developed excellent young citizens first, outdoors survivalists second. It too has fallen by the wayside along with the influence of education, organized religion and even family. Kids are more likely to get their values system from Sponge Bob and a gang of homeys. How can we bring scouting back, along with the other institutions that at one time were much more focused on developing our youth for the future, not just in doing stuff and making things, but preparation for a real, sustainable future?

Respectfully submitted: we must get serious about going to war to win the hearts and minds of young people before the Bad Guys do, a counter-radicalization effort with legs. There’s nothing more critical to Big Picture long-term sustainability (survival).

We do need some serious band-aids (or a tourniquet…I got my First Aid merit badge and remember my field triage training!). We must address the pressing issues, must resolve or at least find a short-term fix or there won’t be a future for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. I’m a root cause kind of guy, but sometimes you just have to put a bucket under the leaky roof until you can make the real repair.

What have you seen for successful character-building / ethics-based courses in schools? Is there another course of action besides squeezing citizenry and ethics into the academic curriculum? “Parenting” is the logical resolution but let’s just pretend that’s not a viable option. What else?


One thought on “Character-building and Ethics in School: Why Not?

  1. Pingback: Lots to Learn–Ubuntu! | One Pond-Ripples

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