A brief history of character education in America

"Character education is as old as education itself. Down through history, education has had two great goals: to help people become smart and to help them become good." Thomas Lickona

In America, developing good character in young people was an essential part of the educational mission from the colonial period through the first part of the 20th Century. Colonial schools were originally established to teach children to read so they could read the Bible and better learn and understand religious principles and values. Through much of U.S. history character development of young people has been closely tied to the moral teachings of dominant religious groups in local communities. Such lessons were transmitted by schools as well as by families, communities, and religious institutions. This tradition was continued during the 19th Century when McGuffey's Readers became the most widely used school books throughout the United States. The Readers were full of Biblical stories and other moral lessons.

During most of the period since the mid-1950s, the identification of moral education goals and objectives was greatly reduced in curriculum guides and materials produced by state departments of education and many local schools. This change of focus was tied to a recognition that education in the moral domain is highly complex. Also at work was the ascendancy of the philosophy of logical positivism which led to the questioning of the school's role in imparting moral principles. Many educators doubted that moral education could produce results that could be measured objectively, as with mathematics and science, and therefore questioned whether it was appropriate in the curriculum.

Furthermore, as the U.S. population became more diverse through immigration, some parents began to object to religious teaching and practices in the public schools that were incompatible with their own beliefs. The Supreme Court began to uphold such complaints on the basis of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which provides in part "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." Uncertain of what they could and could not legally do, school officials began to shy away from moral education altogether as a way of avoiding controversy and potential litigation. It also became apparent to many teachers and young people that prominent national leaders in business, government, entertainment, and other fields were operating under moral systems very different from traditional American values. With the focus on moral education somewhat blurred, many schools turned to "values clarification" which advocated helping students to explore their own moral views, listen to the views of their classmates, and decide for themselves their own moral precepts and systems. This approach, which lacked a moral anchor, has been largely discredited although it still exists in some schools.

By the 60s, the moral climate in many U.S. schools had degenerated to the point where poor attitudes and disciplinary problems among significant numbers of students made constructive educational activities increasingly difficult. This situation resulted from a convergence of such factors as family breakdown, poverty, loss of community, negative peer pressures, glorification of sex, violence, and materialism in the entertainment media, continuing social injustice, the decline of moral values in society as a whole, and the weakening of positive character education in many families and most schools.

By the mid-1980s, a number of communities in various parts of the United States began a process which led to the reintroduction of character education in their local schools. In Baltimore County, Maryland teachers and school officials convened local community representatives to discuss what positive values were generally shared and important enough to be taught in public schools. In St. Louis, Missouri, business leaders became alarmed that high school graduates were deficient in academic education as well as in personal attitudes towards work that detracted from their ability to be good employees. Business and foundation executives took the lead in creating a School-Business-Community partnership to promote personal responsibility education in area schools. The idea of character education, while still controversial among some groups including some educators, began to take hold.

In March of 1992 The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Princeton Project 55, and the Johnson Foundation convened a Wingspread Conference in Racine, Wisconsin, around the question "How to Provide Effective K-12 Character Education." The goal of the conference was to encourage leaders of national education associations to give greater attention and priority to character education. Conference participants recommended formation of a new national coalition to support and facilitate efforts to disseminate information about the need for and the benefits of effective K-12 character education and to provide assistance to schools and communities across the country as they became interested in initiating character education activities.

In July 1992, The Josephson Institute of Ethics convened a group of educators, character education experts, and leaders of youth organizations in Aspen, Colorado, to draft a mutually acceptable statement on character education. After three days of deliberations, the group produced and issued the Aspen Declaration on Character Education (Appendix B) which provides in part:

"...The present and future well-being of our society requires an involved, caring citizenry with good moral character...People do not automatically develop good moral character; therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and conduct...Effective character education is based on core ethical values which form the foundation of democratic society, in particular, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship."
On February 5, 1993 a number of individuals and organizations, many of whom were active participants at the Wingspread and/or the Aspen meetings, formed the Character Education Partnership, Inc. (CEP). CEP is a national, non-profit, nonpartisan coalition dedicated to developing good character and civic virtue in young people as one way of promoting a more compassionate and responsible society. CEP and its programs and activities are described at greater length in Appendix A to this report.

Bron: U.S. News & World Report, Inc. 1996

Naar het Concept Thomas Lickona

Naar het Concept Child Development Project

Naar het Concept Character Education Partnership