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Character Education in America’s Public Schools

April 4, 2006

By Davis, Derek H

The need for instruction in ethics and morals in our nation’s schools is acknowledged by virtually everyone. Yet there is a great deal of confusion and disagreement about how to do this, especially in the public schools.

Many educators want to teach morals from a religious perspective, and are frustrated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that make advancing a particular religious worldview inappropriate in the public schools. The Court has made it clear, however, that religion can be taught, provided it is done in an objective and neutral way, such that the schools are not using their authority to shape and direct the course of students’ religious training. The specific elements of personal religious training, the Court has said, is to be left to parents, extended family, and the various religious and non-governmental institutions that shape people’s lives. Thus many secondary schools offer courses in world religions, comparative religions, the history of religion, religious themes in literature, and the like, but these courses are designed more to expose students to the important role of religion in human life than to train them in moral thinking.

Many schools have made the decision to teach courses in character formation. This is commendable. But in many cases the texts adopted contain material that is very sophisticated and over the students’ heads. A great many texts approach the topic philosophically, attempting to present to students the various ways in wnich morals can be grounded. Thus students study Essentialism (God commands a certain kind of behavior), or natural law (morals are imbedded in the universal order), or Utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number), or Kantian liberalism (grounded choices that respect others’ worldviews), or other forms of philosophical foundationalism. While these approaches are not without merit, most students are not particularly impressed or won over by such elaborate and arduous systems of thought. At the very least, these theoretical materials should be supplemented by texts that illustrate in practical ways how one can become a moral person.

No matter what one’s philosophical or theological basis is for moral behavior, most agree on what a moral person should look like. Everyone agrees that a moral person should be marked by honesty, self-control, friendliness, decency, selflessness, fairness, respect, responsibility, compassion, loyalty, empathy and a cooperative spirit. In short, students who are moral should oe good people. How to become a good person is, in my view, what public schools should focus on in character development curriculum. But even this statement is rather open ended, subject to criticism, and needs elaboration, since moral formation is complex and needs to be informed by history, legal strictures, the reality of religious pluralism in American society, current scholarship that addresses moral formation, and common sense.


In the history of the West, moral formation was usually thought wanting if not religion-based. Thus, the best education was thought to be one infused with religious instruction. This approach was certainly dominant in early America. Sectarian schools administered and controlled by churches and missionary societies were commonplace in colonial America. These schools existed alongside non-sectarian grammar schools, academies, neighborhood schools, apprentice schools, and a large number of private tutors hired by parents who could afford them. Many of these non-sectarian schools were supported by local governments as well as private donations; they formed the basis of what became known as common or free schools, then eventually, “public” schools. In virtually all of these schools, sectarian as well as non-sectarian, moral formation, to one degree or another, was deemed essential and was usually approached from a religion-based strategy. Consequently, in a thoroughly Christian culture, it was not unusual for the Bible to be used as a regular text.

After the American Revolution, the idea of public schools became increasingly popular. As the nation’s population grew, too many children received inadequate educations. Poverty spread rapidly and illiteracy increased rather than decreased as westward migration took hold. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a republican form of government to each state but says nothing about education. Consequently, state governments rather than the federal government took control of education early in the nation’s history. New York in 1812 was the first state to appoint a state superintendent over common schools. Most of the states followed suit in the next twenty- five years, thus the pre-Civil War years witnessed the birth of public education as we know it today. Leading Americans such as Thomas Jefferson actively supported the idea of public schools as the key to raising an informed, educated citizenry capable of sustaining a democracy. As James E. Wood, Jr. has noted, Jefferson and others did not conceive of the public schools as a replacement for sectarian schools, but as a means to provide a free education for all citizens.

At the same time that public schools took hold as a staple of American democracy, religious pluralism increasingly defined the social landscape. Since it was still assumed that the public schools would include a religious component in educating the nation’s youth, fiery debates emerged over the content of religious instruction to be offered. Prayer and Bible readings tended to favor Protestant traditions since the population was overwhelmingly Protestant. But Catholics and a growing population of Jews were concerned that the public schools were becoming too Protestant-oriented. Acrimonious debates over how much, if any, religion-based instruction should be offered became routine. In some cases, debate turned into violence. In 1844, as a result of a two-day series of school board meetings in Philadelphia over these issues, riots ensued and thirteen people were killed.

In part because of disagreements over the character and content of religious exercises to be adopted in the public schools, many leading educators sensed that the non-sectarian character of the public schools should be emphasized in keeping with a principle of church-state separation. As Sanford Cobb first noted in 1902, the separation of church and state is America’s great contribution to humankind, and it was to find its most essential expression in the nation’s emerging public school system. Religious exercises in the public schools began to disappear. One consequence of this development was an emphasis on a non-sectarian education for all citizens, thus leaving religious training in the hands of families, churches, and other voluntary organizations. Another consequence, however, was the creation of private sectarian schools to fill the gap in religious and moral education. Catholics especially, but some Protestants groups as well, created their own sectarian schools. Widespread resistance to government funding of these schools in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the commitment to keeping sectarian influences out of the public schools, led Donald Boles, in The Bible Religion, and the Public Schools, to write that “the high watermark of separation of church and state seems to have occurred in the waning days of the nineteenth century and the early days of the twentieth.”

The move away from sectarian religion in the public schools was led by men like John Dewey and Horace Mann. According to Edward B. McClellan in Moral Education in Amenca: Schools and the Shaping of Character from Colonial Times to the Present, Dewey’s progressive approach to education, which included applying reason ana science to ethics with an emphasis on problem solving and the democratic process, moved away from using moral codes and teaching particular virtues in character education. Mann advocated a non-sectarian approach in the public schools as consonant with religious liberty. Moreover, the developments of modernity, including a vocational emphasis in education, began to crowd moral education out of the curriculum.

As World War I ended, much of the American public seemed interested in restoring some form of religious exercises in the public schools. A religious revival had swept the county in the early years of the twentieth century and now with the war behind them, Americans were in the mood for a fresh start. At the time, only two states (Massachusetts since 1826 and Pennsylvania since 1913) required Bible reading in the public schools. Rather than try to convince states to reverse this trend, a strategy developed to install released time programs, which allowed clergy to provide religious instruction in the confines of the school during a specially designated time usually once per week. The idea caught on and by 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court first considered one of the statutes calling for released time education, all but two of the states had implemented released time programs. In the 1948 case of McCollum v. Board of Education, the ourt ruled that it is unconstitutional to bring clergy into the schools and instruct students in their chosen faith during “released time.” Four years later, however, in Zorach v. Clauson, the Court held that released time programs are acceptable if the inst\ruction takes place away from the school campus. The Zorach case is still good law and today at least 750 school districts around the country have active released time programs.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions on the role of religion in the public schools also affected the way that religion was treated in the public schools. Engel v. Vitale (1962), which declared state- sponsored prayer unconstitutional, and Abington v. Schempp (1963J, which held devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public school classrooms to be unconstitutional, were decisions that solidified the Court’s commitment to church-state separation as applied to the public school setting. These decisions, however, did not prohibit all teaching of religion in the public schools. It is important to remember that in the public school context, it is the precepts and practices of institutionalized religion that are prohibited from being embraced or prescribed. Courses that teach comparative religion, the historical or literary aspects of religion, or the anthropologized dimensions of religion are permitted, even encouraged. Justice Tom Clark wrote in Schempp: “One’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. . . . Study ofthe Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education [does not violate] the First Amendment.” Thus, teachers can teach about religion, but are prohibited from encouraging students to be religious or sliowing them now to be religious.

Engel and Schempp made it clear that religion in the public schools must be taught from an objective perspective; inculcating faith is the responsibility of the home and house of worship, not the public school. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that in 1980, in Stone v. Graham, the Court held that posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, when displayed for religious purposes, is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Decisions like Engel, Schempp, and Graham sought both to prevent students of minority faiths from forced participation in activities that violate their freedom of conscience and to minimize state interference into the domain of religion.

Immediately following these decisions, strong public opposition emerged. To a large extent, the formation and rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s was fueled by anger toward these decisions. Increasingly, religious conservatives across the land believed that America was becoming more secular and the youth of the nation were not being given the religion-based education they needed to make sense of the world.

The passage by the U.S. Congress of the Equal Access Act in 1984 was a welcome sign to religious conservatives that the public schools would not be “religion free zones.” The Act permitted secondary students to meet before or after school on school premises for Bible study or other religious activities. No school authorities were permitted to participate, thus removing any constitutional questions about government advocacy of religion. But this was not nearly enough for many Americans, and ongoing efforts, though largely unsuccessful, have continued unabated since then to install more religious activities in the public schools.

Looking at this brief history in retrospect, America has moved from the mandated inclusion of a Protestant, non-denominational teaching of religion in the public schools in the early nineteenth century, to a prohibition against such teaching in the latter half of the nineteenth century, to a twentieth-century phase of experimenting with various methods of bringing religion into the public school classroom. The present emphasis, given the Supreme Court’s holdings that maintain a Firm separation of religion ana state in the public schools, is to find ways to bring moral instruction to students in ways that are meaningful and useful. This is a positive development and one that should be taken seriously by today s public school educators.


While teachers cannot teach students to be religious, they can still teach them to have values and character. Without relying explicitly on a program of biblical morality, several other methods of moral education are possible, including values clarification, cognitive developmentalism, a feminist ethic of caring, and character education. All four of these methods, to one degree or another, have been attempted in the public schools, and each method is discussed briefly below.

Values Clarification

Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sydney Simon’s 1966 work, Values and Teaching, introduced the values clarification method, which was situational and individualistic, focusing on individual choices and on the decision-making process. Howard Kirschenbaum, another leader in the development of values clarification, describes the method as involving four aspects: a moral issue, a values clarification “strategy” (a question or activity to help the class think about that issue), an environment of respect, and value-processing skills that the students use to help them think about the issue. Kirschenbaum suggests that values clarification was flawed in its insistence that it alone was needed to teach morals, when indeed specific morals also need to be taught. The contribution of the values clarification method to today’s considerations of moral education, he argues, is that it opened up schools and students from all backgrounds to the discussion of morals in the schools and allowed for independent thought on these issues; he admits, however, that the values clarification method was too extreme in its focus on independent thought. Indeed, aspects of values education, such as the need for students to engage in discussion and take an active part in their own moral development, have been integrated into character education today.

Cognitive Developmentalism

Building off of the thought of psychologist Jean Piaget and John Dewey, Lawrence Kohlberg developed the theory of cognitive developmentalism. His study of morality identified six stages of moral development, which he classified according to three levels: I. Premoral (Stage 1-Obedience and punishment, Stage 2-Individualism, instrumentalism, and exchange); II. Conventional role conformity (Stage 3-Personal concordance, Stage 4-Law and duty to the social order); and III. Post-conventional morality (Stage 5-Societal consensus, Stage 6-Universal ethical principles).

Kohlberg asserted that one moves through these six stages, not solely through maturation or socializing agents, but through stimulated mental development, for which role-playing and a democratic environment can be beneficial. He understands morality by “right” as opposed to by virtue or character, and he finds virtue and justice to be synonymous, maintaining that justice is a sufficient basis for moral decisions. Kohlberg-influenced programs often seek to establish “just communities” in which participants establish community rules through a democratic process. These programs operate by consensus rather than by mere majority rule and aim to train participants, not only in community skills, but also in moral thinking. Additionally, according to W.C. Crain, another method inspired by Kohlberg, the Kohlberg-Blatt method, advocates inciting moral development by introducing cognitive conflict. There is much that character-based education advocates would disagree with in Kohlberg’s thought: he emphasizes justice rather than character as the basis for advanced moral decisions, he sees the correct role of teachers as facilitators of moral development rather than as instructing students in absolute virtues, and he deals with moral thinking and not with moral behavior. Kohlberg’s understanding of moral development is useful, however, as are the practical implications of his theories, including his “just communities” and cognitive conflict, which offer some principles that may be incorporated into character education programs.

Feminist Ethic of Caring

Carol Gilligan critiqued Kohlberg’s cognitive developmentalism on the grounds that it did not take women’s approach to ethics adequately into account, maintaining that women’s ethical development, unlike men’s, centers on relationships and responsibilities. Her work emphasized the feminist ethic of caring in moral development. Caring is a quality that many character education programs address, particularly literature-based character education, where caring seems to be a focal point of the curriculum.

Character Education

A final approach and the one currently most in vogue, character education, focuses on the development of particular virtues within the individual person. Although the moral education of children has been a concern of some public educators for decades, it only lately has drawn the attention of many politicians, educators, and intellectual elites. Until recently, most educators did not seriously prioritize the moral education of students, preferring instead to leave this difficult, values-laden area to the care of parents and religious leaders. Recently this laissez-fare attitude has changed dramatically. This is evidenced by at least six White House-congressional conferences on character education during the 90s. Furthermore, in the first three years of his presidency, George W. Bush requested that Congress triple funding to character education to $24 billion.

Schools have been relatively slow to move from an emotionaltherapy approach to a character-development approach, but this shift is now apparent, notes Kevin Ryan, president of the Character Education partnership. Character education, he says, varies depending on the program, but is generally committed to “help young people understand, care about, and act upon core ethical values.” There is a heavy focus on certain core virtues, rather than on decision-ma\king or process. Decision-making and a focus on the process, says Ryan, are too interested in moral feeling and not interested enough in moral knowing (which implies the existence of absolutes) and moral action, both of which are necessary in order to have good character.

There are several reasons for the increased interest in character education, including concern about teen crime and sexual promiscuity and a realization of the need for basic human values, which other methods of moral education such as values clarification and cognitive developmentalism do not address because they are not focused on particular virtues and character qualities. A concern about the ongoing problem of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and school shootings and other forms of violence among teens has also awakened many to the benefits of character education. The decline of the family as a force for moral education is tied to this troubling youth behavior. Citizens are realizing that a society cannot operate unless its citizens follow certain moral principles, and schools are realizing that without character education, which can help establish a good learning environment, education itselt may not be effective.

Another concern that has fueled the drive to develop effective character education programs is that students are not sufficiently prepared to be participating members in the American political system. A variety of organizations produce programs designed to develop democratic skills and a working knowledge of the Constitution. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, for example, is developing material and a network to support “First Amendment Schools” that trains students in the use of the First Amendment rights. As Thomas Jefferson said almost two hundred years ago, civic education is essential in a government of the people, for the people must be informed about the way that government operates and about their role in it.

Some approaches to character education in the public schools focus on curriculum-based character education. This can be literature-based or a curriculum that emphasizes certain virtues in each lesson. Another approach to character education emphasizes holistically incorporating character education throughout the school and in each class. Additionally, educators are making efforts to integrate character education outside of the curriculum through service projects, extracurricular activities, and conflict resolution programs.

Character-based education is not without its critics. Sociologist James Davison Hunter maintains that the very things that make moral education possible (presumably cohesive families, respect for authority, a culture of caring, and the like) are not even present in today’s society. Others worry that schools are usurping the role of parents and churches in inculcating virtues and some maintain that teaching virtues is not possible apart from teaching religion. But these concerns do not override the need to make character education a key component of a student’s education.


Despite Supreme Court rulings limiting the role of religion in the classroom, it is still possible to deal with religion inside the classroom. A careful consideration of the most efficacious and constitutional manner is needed. According to former President Clinton, public schools need not be “religion-free zones.” Thus, teachers can teach about religion, but are prohibited from encouraging students to be religious or showing them how to be religious. Furthermore, government should not be hostile toward religion nor exclude the study of it, for such an approach might constitute, as Warren Nord has said, a sort of “passive hostility” toward religion. Teachers, then, must expose students to religion but must not inculcate or denigrate religion.

How, then, should public school classrooms be organized in order to offer moral education without crossing those boundaries established by the courts? Clearly, moral education must be incorporated differently in different classes. Including the teaching of religion in history classes can be a helpful way for religion to be taught, but it is a very narrow conception of moral education. Some characteristics of moral education can be applied to a variety of school subjects through a framework of teaching about rights, responsibilities, respect, and being part of a caring human community. By teaching religion through literature, actual morals can be taught, and practical ways to become a good person can be presented since literature is another way to experience reality.

Teaching morals through literature is a way to present character education in a way that is not over the students’ heads, practically illustrating ways to become a moral person in a way that at least supplements more theoretical or philosophical methods. By focusing on the particular characteristics of a good person (such as honesty, selfcontrol, friendliness, etc.), morals education in literature offers insight into the good life. Character education books that present models of good behavior, whether fiction or nonfiction, should be required reading in character education courses.

There is almost no end to the number of books with ideas or instructions on how to incorporate morals education into a public school curriculum. Among them are: Stephen Bigger and Erica Brown, eds., Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education: Exploring Values in the Curriculum (1999); Henry A. Huffman, Developing a Character Education Program: One School District’s Experience (1994); Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Hayues, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (1998); Kevin Ryan and Karen E. Bohlin, Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life (1999); E.A. Wynne and K. Ryan, Reclaiming Our Schools: A Handbook on Teaching Character, Academics, and Discipline (1993); Marvin W. Berkowitz and Melinda C. Bier, “What Works in Character Education” (2005 study commissioned by Character Education Partnership); Madonna Murphy, Character Education in America’s Blue Ribbon Schools: Best Practices for Meeting the Challenge (1997); Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson, Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work, and Beyond, (2005); Philip Vincent and Ginny Turner, Promising Practices in Character Education, Volume 1 (1996) and Volume 2 (1999); Thomas Hunt and Monalisa McCurry Mullins, Moral Education in America’s Schools: The Continuing Challenge (2005); and Derek H. Davis, Life and Times at Crystal Creek High: Moral Lessons for Today’s Youth (2005).

There are many more excellent written resources, of course. Moreover, there are a large number of organizations across America that offer expertise, even assistance, in developing character education programs. Anyone wanting a list of such organizations, along with an extensive bibliography of written materials can contact this author at Derek_Davis@Baylor.edu. I will be pleased to pass along such information. The important thing is that teachers in the public schools take seriously the responsibility to teach moral behavior to their students. With this basic commitment in place, working out a successful program will follow.

Copyright J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies Winter 2006