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Thursday, March 1, 1984

A Reviewers Notebook: Character Education


Leonard Read once made the prescient remark that, now that we had succeeded in separating church and state, the next big battle would be to separate state and school.

With the hold that compulsory public education has on this country, the struggle suggested by Leonard Read has hardly begun. Even the most independent private schools have to go to government for accreditation. Sometimes they can’t even get that: ministers in Nebraska are jailed for starting church schools in competition with the public school system. The Amish, who persist in their attempts to teach their own children, are persecuted and hauled into court. But, with the big decline in the so-called SAT scores in the past few years, public dissatisfaction with our government-run school system is undeniably mounting.

Since, after a century and more of indoctrination by the followers of Horace Mann, the public schools are not going to be abandoned within foreseeable time, there will be efforts within the system to do something about those bad SAT scores. Frank Goble, who runs the Thomas Jeffer son Research Center, thinks the answer to the problem is to restore the teaching of ethics. In a book written in collaboration with B. David Brooks, The Case for Character Education (Green Hill Publishers, Ottawa, Illinois, 168 pp., $7.95), Mr. Goble makes an eloquent pitch for his contention that if the schools will only add the fourth “R” of responsibility to the basic “Rs” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, the SAT scores will dramatically improve and classroom vandalism will tend to disappear.

The Goble-Brooks book definitely shows there is a correlation between student behavior and academic achievement. With the growth of ethical relativism in the Seventies, both the verbal and mathematical test scores began to tumble. Where the average verbal test score was 478 in 1963, it plunged to 427 in 1979 and 424 in 1980. The 1963 average score in mathematics had been 502; in 1979 it was 467, and in 1980 it fell off another point to 466.

While it is possible that the teaching might have become more negligent in the decade of the Seventies, or that the SAT tests themselves had become subtly more difficult, Mr. Goble does not have to go very far to assemble a whole host of negative behavior statistics, beginning with drug use and ending with suicide and homicide, to prove his correlation. He quotes Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Califano’s statement to Congress that “schools that should be centers of teaching and learning . . . have become centers of danger and violence for teachers and students.” Teen-agers spend only a fourth of their waking hours in school—but forty per cent of the robberies they perpetrate or suffer and thirty-six per cent of the assaults on teen-agers occur in the classrooms or school hallways and grounds. The streets themselves are much safer places for kids.

The Teaching of Ethics

The teaching of ethics has tended to fade out because ethics is connected with religion, and the separation of church and state has been interpreted by the courts to preclude anything in the classroom that smacks of religious indoctrination. Kids can’t even pray silently to themselves for divine guidance. But Mr. Goble defies the American Civil Liberties Union to tell him that the First Amendment means the schools can’t teach things like responsibility, citizenship and generally approved codes of behavior.

“Character,” says Goble, “refers to those aspects of personality—mental habits, attitudes, values, personal goals—that influence personal behavior.” A person of good character will have persistence, tact, self-reliance, generosity and loyalty. Character building can be stressed without relation to any specific religion or system of government, which means that any school can go in for it without running into constitutional roadblocks.

Mr. Goble would have a hard time proving that character in itself can make a person more nimble at mathematical calculation or the writing of good prose. Crooks can be intelligent, and good souls can be dumb. But it still remains true that it is easier to learn to parse sentences and to do long division in classrooms where order predominates and ambition is encouraged. It takes a genius to concentrate in a boiler factory.

The Goble-Brooks book relies on case histories to make the correlation between behavior and academic excellence come clear. The story of what happened in the schools of Modesto, California, is typical. Stressing the “fourth R” of responsibility, Modesto decided in 1976 to go back to the basics in everything. It cut out the old habit of automatic promotions. Competency tests had to be passed year by year or no diploma would be awarded. Written student conduct codes setting forth student rights and responsibilities were distributed to parents. The conduct codes, with specified punishments for infractions included, had to be signed by the parents and returned to the school.

The results of the Modesto program have been most impressive. It did not wipe out vandalism, but the work of the graffiti artists and window smashers was held to a 6.9 three-year increase where other California schools were reporting a twenty to twenty-five per cent increase in destructive practices each year. Meanwhile, the Modesto reading, writing and arithmetic scores gained markedly in comparison to what the other state schools were showing.

Teaching at Home

In New Hampshire two parents, Bob and Nancy Wallace, decided not to wait upon the improvement of the public schools. It was not so much the ethical standards of the schools that bothered them; their two children, Ishmael and Vita, happened to have special self-starting characteristics, and they would have suffered if bound down to the ordinary classroom pace. In an appealing book called Better Than School (Larson Publications, Burdett, New York, 256 pp., $11.95 paperback), Nancy Wallace recounts the adventures of a happy and dedicated mother and father in educating their children at home. They had the devil’s own time in wresting permission for a “home school” from their local Board of Education in New Hampshire. (Ithaca, New York, did better by them after they had moved to be near Cornell University, with its needed library and cultural facilities). But, save for the once-a-year administration of state tests, the Wallaces kept the government out of their hair. The result, apparently, has been two superbly educated kids—and a couple of educated parents, too. []



John Chamberlain’s book reviews have been a regular feature of The Freeman since 1950. We are doubly grateful to John and to Henry Regnery for now making available John’s autobiography, A Life with the Printed Word. Copies of this remarkable account of a man and his times—our times—are available at $12.95 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.