School Improvement in Maryland

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CIVIC EDUCATION AND CHARACTER EDUCATION?

Interest in and concern about character education and education for citizenship are not new in America. The two have always gone hand in hand. Indeed, the basic reason for establishing and expanding public schooling was to foster those traits of public and private character necessary for our great experiment in self-government to succeed.

In the early days of our republic, schools were expected to induce pupils to act virtuously. Acting virtuously meant more specifically that one should act with due restraint over his or her impulses, due regard for the rights and opinions of others, and reasonable concern for the probable and the long-term consequences of one's actions.

Virtue in individuals then was seen as an important public matter. "Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private..." said John Adams. Jefferson agreed with him saying "Public virtue is the only foundation of Republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest... established in the minds of the people, or there can be no Republican government, no any real Liberty." It is interesting to note that Adams' warning is echoed in the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, 1996) Position Statement "Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies." That bold and well-written position statement concludes with these words:

Social studies teachers have a responsibility and a duty to refocus their classrooms on the teaching of character and civic virtue. They should not be timid or hesitant about working toward these goals. The fate of the American experiment in self-government depends in no small part on the store of civic virtue that resides in the American people. The social studies profession of this nation has vital role to play in keeping this well-spring of civic virtue flowing.

Character, however, does not come pre-packaged. Character formation is a lengthy and complex process. And, as James Q. Wilson (Wilson, 1995), a life-long student of character, reminds us; "We do not know how character is formed in any scientifically rigorous sense." But there is an abundance of anecdotal data and research on which to draw. Those observations and that research tell us that the study of traditional school subjects such as government, civics, history and literature, when properly taught, provide the necessary conceptual framework for character education. Further, those traditional school subjects provide a context for considering the traits of public and private character which are important to the maintenance and improvement of a democratic way of life.

Research also tells us that the ethos or culture of the school and of the classroom exert powerful influences on what students learn about authority, responsibility, justice, civility and respect. Finally, we know that one dynamic by which individuals acquire desired traits of private and public character is through exposure to attractive models of behavior. Probably no one has explained that dynamic better than Robert Coles in The Moral Intelligence of Children, (Coles, 1997). Coles tells us that:

Character is ultimately who we are expressed in action, in how we live, in what we do - and so the children around us know, they absorb and take stock of what they observe, namely us-we adults living and doing things in a certain spirit, getting on with one another in our various ways. Our children add up, imitate, file away what they've observed and so very often later fall in line with the particular moral counsel we unwittingly or quite unself-consciously have offered them....

Because the United States is the world's oldest constitutional democracy, it sometimes is easy to forget that our American government is an experiment. It is an experiment that requires, as the authors of the Federalist Papers put it, a higher degree of virtue in its citizens than any other form of government. Traits of private character such as moral responsibility, self-discipline, and respect for individual worth and human dignity are essential to its well-being. American constitutional democracy cannot accomplish its purposes, however, unless its citizens also are inclined to participate thoughtfully in public affairs. Traits of public character such as public-spiritedness, civility, respect for law, critical-mindedness, and a willingness to negotiate and compromise are indispensable to the continued success of the great American experiment in self government.

How can civic education strengthen and complement the development of character? Primary responsibility for the cultivation of ethical behavior and the development of private character, including moral character, lies with families, religious institutions, work settings, and the other parts of civil society. Schools, however, can and should play a major role in the overall development of the character of students. Effective civic education programs should provide students with many opportunities for the development of desirable traits of public and private character. Learning activities such as the following tend to promote character traits needed to participate effectively. For example,

  • Civility, courage, self-discipline, persistence, concern for the common good, respect for others, and other traits relevant to citizenship can be promoted through cooperative learning activities and in class meetings, student councils, simulated public hearings, mock trials, mock elections, and student courts.
  • Self-discipline, respect for others, civility, punctuality, personal responsibility, and other character traits can be fostered in school and community service learning projects, such as tutoring younger students, caring for the school environment, and participating in voter registration drives.
  • Recognition of shared values and a sense of community can be encouraged through celebration of national and state holidays, and celebration of the achievements of classmates and local citizens.
  • Attentiveness to public affairs can be encouraged by regular discussions of significant current events.
  • Reflection on ethical considerations can occur when students are asked to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues that involve ethical considerations, that is, issues concerning good and bad, rights and wrong.
  • Civicmindedness can be increased if schools work with civic organizations,bring community leaders into the classroom to discuss issues with students, and provide opportunities for students to observe and/or participate in civic organizations.