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Parents, Schools, and Values
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Parents, Schools, and Values

William J. Bennett is one of our nation’s most tenacious advocates of bold education reform. He served as secretary of education and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. Since leaving government in 1990, he has continued his efforts to improve America’s public and private education system, thematically driven by what he calls the “Three C’s”—choice, content, and character.

In this issue of News for a Change, we’re continuing the examination of American organizations’ efforts to instill appropriate ethics and values to guide their operations. As we look at how to build common ethics and values, we thought Bennett’s testimony to the Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities of the U.S. House of Representatives might stimulate your thinking…and possibly some feedback for our next issue of News for a Change.

It is a pleasure to address this committee on a subject of enormous importance—the transmission of values to children and the role that parents and schools must play.

Teaching character begins where it must—in the home, with parents. But while inculcating values should begin at home, schools must help. As President Eliot of Harvard once reminded us, “in the campaign for character no auxiliaries are to be refused.” And the school can be a mighty auxiliary.

The Historical Role of Schools in Moral Education

The belief that moral values should be taught to young Americans in the schools is at least as old as the nation itself. Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge argued for an educational system that would fortify citizens with moral probity to resist the schemes of the enemies of liberty. In his Proposals Relating to the Education of the Young, Benjamin Franklin prescribed the study of ethics in an instructional program that would seek to instill “benignity of mind.” Perhaps the most explicit embodiment of this drive to inculcate the young with moral lessons is to be found in the McGuffey’s Readers. On another level, John Dewey’s forceful and highly influential writings concerning the interdependence of democracy, education, and moral character are a modern reformulation of the old belief that “virtue” can and should be taught in the schools.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, a diverse, widespread group of crusaders began to work for public support of what was then called the “common school,” the forerunner of the public school. The common schools were to be free, funded by local and state governments, and controlled by local lay boards. And—this is important—they were to be charged with the mission of moral and civic training, training that found its roots in shared values. The advocates of the common school felt that the nation could fulfill its destiny only if every new generation was taught these values in a common institution.

Even with the coming of progressive education at the turn of the century, the understanding of the role of public schools in forming character and fostering citizenship was not lost. But over the years it began to take a new form, and so did educational leadership. Like so many other groups in America, education leaders began to view themselves as a confederation of experts, sanctioned by training, tied together by professional associations, and aided by elaborate research techniques.

Value Neutrality in Public Education

In the past quarter-century, some of the so-called experts became proponents of “value neutrality,” and moral education seemed increasingly to have been left in their hands. The commonsense view of parents and the public, that schools should reinforce rather than undermine the values of home, family, and country, was increasingly rejected. Irving Kristol wrote in the fall 1995 issue of The Public Interest that, “One day, so to speak, millions of American Christians...came to the realization that they were institutionally isolated and impotent. They quite naturally wanted their children to be raised as well-behaved Christians but discovered that their authority over their own children had been subverted and usurped by an aggressive, secular liberalism that now dominated our public education system and our popular culture. They looked at our high schools and saw that gay and lesbian organizations were free to distribute their literature to the students but that religious organizations were not. They saw condoms being distributed to adolescent teenagers while the Supreme Court forbade the posting of the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall.”

Parents are not the only ones who disagree with the sea of change that has taken place in our public schools. Students—teenagers—also believe that moral education has a rightful place alongside intellectual instruction. George Gallup, in his book Scared: Growing Up in America, writes that according to a recent Gallup youth survey, “Ninety-six percent of teens believe lessons in honesty should be part of their regular curriculum. Another 92% feel that the curriculum should include lessons in caring for family members and friends. Some 88% support instruction in moral courage; 85% support instruction in patriotism; 84% support instruction in the meaning of democracy, and 77% support instruction in the golden rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).

What Needs to be Done

If we want our children to possess the traits of character that we most admire, we need to teach them what those traits are. They must learn to identify the forms and contents of those traits. They must achieve at least a minimal level of moral literacy that will enable them to make sense of what they see in life and, we may hope, will help them live it well.

We should teach values the same way we teach other things: one step at a time. You have to walk before you can run, and you ought to be able to run straight before you are asked to run an obstacle course. So the moral basics should be taught in school, in the early years.

Our public schools once placed the building of character and moral discernment on a par with developing the intellect. And they can once again. We can get the values Americans share back into our classrooms. And we will work to do this. Those who claim we are now too diverse a nation, that we consist of too many competing convictions and interests to instill common values, are wrong. Yes, we are a diverse people. We have always been a diverse people. And as James Madison wrote in The Federalist, the competing balancing interests of a diverse people can help ensure the survival of liberty. But there are values that all American citizens share and that we should want all American students to know and embody: honesty, fairness, self-discipline, fidelity, love of country, and belief in the principles of liberty, equality, and the freedom to practice one’s faith. The explicit teaching of these values is the legacy of the common school, and it is a legacy to which we must return.

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