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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

A Letter to Character Educators

In the tradition of scholarly dialogue, we must examine the claims of character educators in order to clarify our thinking on crucial matters in moral education.

Dear Character Educators, I'm writing to ask you to respond to some concerns I have about character education. Through our correspondence, I hope to learn more precisely what you mean and what you want people to do. Things are rather murky right now.
  1. “By our definition, `character' involves engaging in morally relevant conduct or words or refraining from certain conduct or words” (Wynne and Walberg 1985/86, p. 15).
  2. “Character consists of operative values, values in action” (Lickona 1991, p. 51).
  3. “Moral action is the bottom line” (Ryan 1989, p. 9).

My Understanding of Your Rationale

As I perceive it, the reason you want schooling to focus on producing good behavior is that there is so much bad behavior around. Wynne cites stunning increases in the rates of homicide, suicide, and illegitimate births among young people (1985/86, p. 6). The sharpest rise began in the early 1960s. “Of all the moral problems that have fueled this concern,” says Lickona, “none has been more disturbing than rising youth violence” (1991, p. 4).
I certainly agree that bad behavior is pandemic. Even the small midwestern city in which I live has seen growing instances of what used to be called big-city problems. The causes of bad behavior are, no doubt, many. While I am sure you acknowledge the multifarious etiology of good and bad behavior, you emphasize values as the key cause. Inadequate understanding of, commitment to, and appreciation of moral values is, for you, the wellspring of bad behavior.
Your emphasis on the role of values is clear. Wynne calls for “the deliberate transmission of moral values to students” (1985/86, p. 4). His assumption is that our failure to do this is largely responsible for the increases in destructive behavior that he reports. Speaking of irresponsible sexual behavior among young people, Lickona says flatly, “Sexual behavior is determined by values, not mere knowledge” (1993, p. 1). Kilpatrick also sees a close connection between a lack of moral values and ruinous behavior: “In addition to the fact that Johnny still can't read, we are now faced with the more serious problem that he can't tell right from wrong” (1992, p. 14).
In Can We Teach Children to Be Good?, philosopher Roger Straughan summarizes the “moralistic argument”: Modern society is becoming more lawless, violent, undisciplined, and permissive, and this trend is most apparent among the younger generation. Statistics show that vandalism, violent crime, drug-taking, and sexual activity have risen and are rising among teenagers. Less sensational but equally significant, it is claimed, is a general decline in such things as respect for authority, politeness, and good manners, resulting in children today being ruder, using more bad language, and caring less about their appearance and dress than ever before.... Teachers are not doing enough to impart the right values to children and to ensure that their behavior is socially acceptable (1982, pp. 1–2).
Your mission seems to be threefold: You want young people to understand proper moral values, to heartily endorse these values, and to take action based on them (Lickona 1991, p. 51). Of these three, the last is most important. In your opinion, school people must mount a systematic effort to get young people to do the right thing.
One of my concerns is that the untutored reader of your views, enthralled at the prospect of reducing violence, crime, and other irresponsible behavior, may conclude there is a direct relationship between values and behavior. This would be a most unfortunate conclusion. If the public enthusiastically endorses programs based on this fallacious assumption, the resulting disappointment may doom all efforts at moral education. The character education movement of the '90s may relive the fate of a similar movement in the 1920s. It failed.
I know of no research that shows a direct connection between values and behavior. Conversely, lots of research shows there is none. For example, although they were strong advocates of character education, Hartshorne and colleagues (1929) found no systematic relationship between values and behavior. After extensive and inventive empirical studies, they concluded, “The scores on our moral knowledge test, purporting to measure general level of comprehension of ideal conduct, proved to have little in common with either deceptive or altruistic behavior” (p. 64). Kohlberg reached similar conclusions: “Half a dozen studies show no positive correlation between high school or college students' verbal expression of the value of honesty or the badness of cheating, and actual honesty in experimental situations” (1969, p. 392).
Other studies have shown apparent situational variance in behavior. Milgram's (1965) controversial studies of obedience to authority had subjects administer increasingly severe doses of electric shock as part of a supposed learning experiment. Although no real shock was administered, the subjects did not know this. As the experiment progressed, the white-coated scientist in charge of the experiment ordered the subjects to increase the level of shock to a potentially lethal dose. Only 34 percent of the subjects disobeyed the orders even though the “victim,” in an adjoining room, would scream, beg for mercy, and eventually fall silent. The proportion of subjects who disobeyed their orders increased as the proximity to the “victim” was shortened. In one condition, the subject had to hold the hand of the “victim” onto a metal bar that delivered the shock. In that situation, 70 percent eventually disobeyed the scientist. “In certain circumstances,” Milgram concluded, “it is not so much the kind of person a man [sic] is, as the kind of situation in which he is placed that determines his actions” (p. 72).
Substantial situational variance in helping behavior has been found in other studies. For example, people are more likely to help others when alone than when in groups, and, oddly, people are more likely to help others in subways than in airline terminals (Macaulay and Berkowitz 1970).
These and other studies should not lead us to conclude there is no relationship between moral values and behavior. We should observe that the relationship is not a direct, one-on-one correspondence. Studies by Thoma and Rest indicate a low but relatively consistent relationship between some forms of moral judgment and behavior. On average, these forms of moral judgment account for .09 percent of the variance in behavior (1986, pp. 134–135). At minimum, some mix of psychological, situational, and sociological variables are involved in determining behavior. Moral values alone have low predictive power.
Massey describes your work as “built on a growing consensus in favor of teaching a set of traditional or `core' ethical values in a more direct way” (1993, p. 1). She then indicates there is a belief that such teaching will reduce irresponsible behavior. I hope you will clarify your views before the erroneous assumption that teaching moral values will produce significant reductions in irresponsible behavior spreads.

When Value Conflicts Arise

Social scientists have had difficulty determining the antecedents of value-related behavior. Although this may be a result of inadequate theory and research methodology, conceptually, general moral values provide limited guidance for making moral decisions. This is because equally good values can come into conflict, and acting on a single moral value can be problematic (Lockwood 1985/86, 1991).
Value conflicts can arise in situations ranging from the mundane to the momentous, from the prosaic to the profound. For example, suppose my favorite aunt serves me a dish that I hate and asks me if I like it. Unfortunately, if I tell her I like it, I will be dishonest, and if I tell her I dislike it, I will be discourteous. How do I decide which value—honesty or courtesy—to honor?
At a more momentous level, consider John Dean. Presumably President Nixon wanted him to maintain the cover-up of the Watergate scandal. Assuming that Dean believed in honesty and obedience to authority, what should he do? These examples illustrate that the mere holding of values does not, in itself, provide an adequate guide for behavior when values come into conflict.
Even holding a single value does not necessarily guide action. Suppose a father asks his daughter to tend his fruit stand while he takes her sick mother to the hospital. Also suppose a number of police officers approach the stand and ask the girl to give them some apples. Her family can barely make ends meet, and yet she has been taught to obey legitimate authority. Again, holding a value is not enough to help us determine our behavior.
For me, the previous discussion leads to a clear conclusion: Any program that intends to promote good behavior by teaching values rests on a shaky foundation. Social scientific research indicates that moral values play a small role in predicting behavior. Philosophy shows the conceptual difficulty of making decisions based simply on the holding of particular moral values.
I do not pretend to have a definitive characterization of the key factors that influence moral behavior. I do know, however, that more than the issue of values is involved. Thoma and Rest, for example, have identified a factor they call the “utilizer” variable, which accounts for certain concepts of justice that we employ in our decision making (1986, p. 171). When this variable was combined with a measure of moral value judgment, the predictability of moral behavior doubled compared with the predictive power of moral value judgment alone. However, only a small portion of the variance in moral behavior was accounted for (p. 174; see also Rest 1986).

How to Approach Values Education

I have additional concerns about character education. For example, you often dismiss the values clarification and moral development approaches as ineffective (Wynne 1985/86, p. 8; Wynne and Ryan 1993, p. 44). These approaches, while different in significant ways, engage young people in serious deliberation about moral and other value issues. You, on the other hand, advocate that teachers should indoctrinate young people into accepting particular values—through modeling, reading inspirational literature, and so on.
What I find curious is that, at times, you also appear to want children to reason things through on their own. For example: We stress the duty of the older generation to indoctrinate the young with what they are convinced are the essential moral realities and ethical truths the young will need to live well.... It is essential for the school continually to engage the child in reflection about moral principle. In the same article, you say that students should think through various solutions to problems and “select the best (most ethical) solution, based on the solutions they came up with” (Wynne and Ryan 1993, p. 24).
Similarly, Lickona endorses both indoctrinative programs such as pro-abstinence sex education (1991, pp. 354–359) and non-indoctrinative programs such as Lockwood and Harris' (1985) Reasoning with Democratic Values (pp. 170–172). I find this most confusing. Are you saying that sometimes we must tell students what to think and do and other times help them make their own decisions? If so, when is each situation appropriate?

Moral Education at the Secondary Level

The success or failure of educational reforms ultimately depends on teachers' ability and willingness to enact them. Teachers, especially at the secondary level, are often reluctant to engage in any systematic efforts toward values education. This may partly explain why most successful interventions are at the elementary level (Lockwood, in press). This is especially troublesome because most serious acts of irresponsible behavior are committed by adolescents and adults. Even if we could overcome teachers' reluctance to engage in some form of values education, a potentially more serious problem remains. Evidence suggests that young people generally do not perceive the same social problems as do adults, and even if they do, they are unlikely to turn to teachers for advice.
In 1989 the Girl Scouts commissioned a study of the values and beliefs of American youth. More than 5,000 young people from grades 4–12 were surveyed and interviewed (Girl Scouts of the USA 1991). Two findings are particularly relevant. First, children ranked the “crisis” youth problems quite low as a major concern: teenage pregnancy (5 percent), suicide (3 percent), physical abuse to children (3 percent), violence in schools (2 percent), and alcohol abuse (1 percent) (1991, p. 6). Second, while one-third of the children said that teachers and coaches “really care for them,” only 7 percent “would go to them for advice” (p. 5). To be effective, it appears that we must not only persuade teachers to be moral educators but also persuade young people to pay attention to them.

In Closing

My points are not intended to hinder your efforts. I do, however, believe your work will be enhanced if you speak to the issues I've discussed here; namely, elaborate your psychology of moral behavior, address the problem of conflicting values, more fully explicate your views on indoctrinative versus non-indoctrinative approaches, and deal with issues of values education that concern secondary school teachers and adolescents.
I hope you find my comments worthwhile as you pursue your complex task. I look forward to hearing from you.

Girl Scouts of the USA. (1991). Girl Scouts Survey on the Beliefs and Moral Values of America's Children: Executive Summary. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA.

Hartshorne, H., M. May, and J. B. Maller. (1929). Studies in Service and Self-Control. New York: Macmillan.

Kilpatrick, W. K. (1992). Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Kohlberg, L. (1969). “Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Socialization.” In Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, edited by D. A. Goslin. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Lickona, T. (1991). Educating for Character. New York: Bantam Books.

Lickona, T. (1993). “Educating for Self-Control: A Moral Imperative for Character Education.” Character 1, 3: 1–5.

Lockwood, A. L. (December 1985/January 1986). “Keeping Them in the Courtyard: A Response to Wynne.” Educational Leadership 43, 4: 9–10.

Lockwood, A. L. (1991). “Character Education: The Ten Percent Solution.” Social Education 55, 4: 246–248.

Lockwood, A. L. (In press). “Being Overly `Aimfull.'” Theory and Research in Social Education.

Lockwood, A. L., and D. E. Harris. (1985). Reasoning with Democratic Values. New York: Teachers College Press.

Macaulay, J., and L. Berkowitz, eds. (1970). Altruism and Helping Behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Massey, M. (1993). “Interest in Character Education Seen Growing.” ASCD Update 35, 4: 1, 4–5.

Milgram, S. (1965). “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.“ Human Relations: 57–76.

Rest, J., with M. Bebeau and J. Volker. (1986). “An Overview of the Psychology of Morality.” In Moral Development, edited by J. R. Rest. New York: Praeger.

Ryan, K. (1989). “In Defense of Character Education.” In Moral Development and Character Education edited by L. P. Nucci. Berkeley: McCutchan.

Straughan, R. (1982). Can We Teach Children to be Good? London: George Allen and Unwin.

Thoma, S., and J. Rest, with R. Barnett. (1986). “Moral Judgment, Behavior, Decision Making, and Attitudes.” In Moral Development, edited by J. R. Rest. New York: Praeger.

Wynne, E. A. (December 1985/January 1986). “The Great Tradition in Education: Transmitting Moral Values.” Educational Leadership 43, 4: 4–9.

Wynne, E. A., and K. Ryan. (Spring 1993). “Curriculum as Moral Educator.” American Educator: 20–48.

Wynne, E. A., and H. W. Walberg. (December 1985/January 1986). “The Complementary Goals of Character Development and Academic Excellence.” Educational Leadership 43, 4: 15–18.

Alan L. Lockwood has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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