The term “character education” is a contentious one. Specifically, it refers to the idea that virtues can be taught like parts of speech and practiced like times tables. Detractors point out that morality cannot be simplified into a four-point grading scale, which I think is totally legitimate. In my opinion, though, this argument overlooks the central point of character education: a confirmation of the value of morality. Morals are what’s really being debated here: whether good and bad exist and whether children should be taught that they do. I think morality should be vital to the education of American children — that it should receive just as much attention as college admissions does — so that going to school can be about more than getting into an Ivy League institution.
My elementary school pretended to teach morals by drilling a little motto into us: “Respect, Responsibility and Resourcefulness.” It’s a cute mantra, but in reality it’s just perfect for priming productive and obedient members of the workforce who do what they’re told when they’re told to. It’s true that teaching morality is tricky because morality itself is tricky. How do you end the sentence, “you should not tell lies because ... ”? “Because you’ll get a detention” is easy, but philosophically shallow. “Because it’s wrong” is better, but why is it wrong? Because Mommy said so or because God did? Or because it just is?
I vote for the latter, and I think a heightened conversation about morals would benefit more than just students in the American education system. If the recent cheating scandal at Harvard shows anything, it’s that you need to be more than smart and dutiful to succeed. There are consequences for immoral behavior — whether enacted by an educational institution, the judicial system or simply your own guilt complex.
My school’s strategy had succeeded in one respect: I never lied to my parents or teachers. I knew lying to authority figures was a major no-no. I didn’t understand dishonesty as morally wrong, but I did understand it meant punishment, disappointment and disapproval. If the grown-ups didn’t like me, I would get in trouble, and then I would be a bad kid. Bad kids didn’t get into good colleges. The name of the game was succeeding, and I was smart enough to understand the unspoken rule: Don’t piss off the people in charge.
So I grew up respectful, responsible and resourceful. I learned a lot, but I’m not sure it’s what I should have learned. I don’t lie now, but that’s because I realized it was wrong and not because I fear consequences. My one code for how I live my life now is telling the truth as often as I can. I do distinguish between conversational honesty and other kinds — if I hate someone I won’t tell them, for example, or I’ll tell half-truths so as not to ruin the vibes of a room, but whenever I can, I say what’s true.
It sounds a little silly to say, but when I tell the truth, the world is good. I feel better, and I treat people better and consequentially am treated better. If I had never realized that, I don’t know how I would have turned out. It’s entirely probable I’d be just like the students who cheated at Harvard — just like the students who cheat here — raised in a society that only rewarded them for being intelligent and never for being honest and who found out there were consequences for immorality much too late.
Susannah Sharpless is a sophomore from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/17/31118/