Over one hundred years ago in her book, Education, Ellen White wrote: "Character building is the most important work ever entrusted to human beings; and never before was its diligent study so important as now. Never was any previous generation called to meet issues so momentous; never before were young men and young women confronted by perils so great as confront them today" (1903, p. 225).
If character building was important at the turn of the 20th Century, it is a hundredfold more important now.
Character education programs have come and gone, and many, though well received, seem to have little impact. After researching some Atlanta area schools, Bulach (2002) made this recommendation: "An effective character education program involves the entire faculty, staff, parents, and community. Cooks, custodians, and bus drivers, as well as the teachers, parents, and community must be involved if student behaviors are to be positively affected. The current practice of designating a character trait of the week or the month is not working because a word such as 'respect' has a different meaning for each person. The student receives mixed messages about the trait. The second problem is that many school systems teach all of the mandated character traits each year. If a system has twenty-five traits to cover and they are repeated each year, students will say, “We did that last year.” They become bored with it and do not take it seriously. Consequently, there is very little change in the behavior of students, and most character education programs, although they may be meeting state mandates, are ineffective and take time away from the regular instructional program" (p. 82).
Bulach adds that another part of the reason for failure is that the character curriculum is time limited and not infused throughout the day. In addition to that, it is administratively mandated and the teachers are the only ones accountable to teach it. Bulach says these three things (not including the whole staff, time limited, and only teachers accountable) ensures that character education fails.
However, Bulach points out a program that has been and still is working quite well. It is not only cognitively taught, but also is behaviorally based and infused throughout the curriculum. Everyone in the program is accountable to each other, so if there is any misbehavior, even the youngest can report it. It is the JROTC program. Bulach was not promoting the JROTC, and I am not either. What Bulach was pointing out was that a behavior based program that includes everybody in the school, will most likely work. I concur.
Recently, I read a book by Nel Noddings. She is essentially saying the same thing as Bulach: Character Education has to be infused throughout the system to have real and lasting impact on the students. The fundamental character trait she advocates is caring. “I want to suggest,” she says, “that caring is the very bedrock of all successful education” (2005, p. 27). Again, I concur.
For the good of our students, schools, community, and society as a whole, let us dedicate ourselves to that most important work: character building.
Bulach, C. (2002). Implementing a character education curriculum and assessing its impact on student behavior. Clearing House, 76(2), 79-83.
Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
White, E. (1903). Education. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press.