Why Character Education Should Be Taught
A Challenge for Educators
Here is a bold statement. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. For many years now societies have been morphing from basically ethical, where doing the right thing guides all decisions, to one where the pursuit of self-interest and lack of caring about others is front and center. From a philosophical point of view, decisions and actions are often based on the utilitarian concept of “the ends justify the means.” The problem is what if the means harms others along the way? How can that be justified as a good thing?
For example, what if the end is to amass as much wealth or power as possible regardless of who gets hurt along the way? Top managers have done this using fraudulent means, such as at Enron and WorldCom in the early 2000s. Many got hurt as a result including shareholders who lost millions, employees who lost their jobs and pensions, and average Americans who lost invested funds.
We can add the rash of school shootings like the recent attacks at the Uvalde School in south Texas and the Parkland School in Florida. Or the recent smash and grab actions that deny shop-owners a living and destroy property. Or violence against others just for the hell of it, such as attacks on innocent bystanders in the N.Y. subways. Or violence against others to satisfy a personal vendetta, as occurred to Nancy Pelosi’s husband last weekend.
The point of this blog is to argue for more character education, and it should start at the youngest age. It might be that sustained character education could reduce instances of wanton bad behavior. At a minimum, teaching character education early in life can better prepare students for success in college by reducing cheating and making them more responsible adults.
The decline of ethical behavior in society is, I believe, at least in part, due to our being a narcissistic society. Narcissism manifests itself through a pursuit of self-interests approach to decision making. Lost in the shuffle is compassion for others, basic kindness and civility, and making the world a better place.
Social Media is a Cause of the Problem
Here are some alarming statistics about the use of social media from Letter.ly.
- An average person spends 145 minutes every day on social media.
- The average amount of time spent on social media is highest in the Philippines — 4 hours and 15 minutes a day.
- Americans spend on average 2 hours and 27 minutes every day on social media.
- People spend an average of six years and eight months of their life on social media.
All too often people use social media, such as Tik Tok, to get noticed and build up a following. On Facebook that means to maximize "Likes." The problem is sometimes the behavior and words are offensive. Instagram defines sensitive content as "posts that don’t necessarily break our rules but could potentially be upsetting to some people—such as posts that may be sexually suggestive or violent.”
There are, of course, good aspects of social media including building relationships, developing communication skills, building a business and so on. The problem is the way in which users post material can be offensive, bullying, and even provoke violence. I would like to see social media focus on the good, not the bad. It can be used to show compassion for others, promote responsible behavior, and simply make for a better world.
I am concerned that the overuse of social media might take kids away from learning the basics—reading, math, and science for sure. Just look at the latest results from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card. Low-performing fourth-grade students saw larger declines in both math and reading scores compared to high-performing ones. Average math scores for eighth-graders in 2022 dropped to 274 out of a possible 500, falling eight points from 2019. Reading scores declined three points, to 260.
Our educational challenges are also apparent when we look at international scores. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It reports scores in nearly 80 nations of 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance on reading, mathematics, and science. The latest results for 2018 have the U.S. ranked well behind other countries: 24th in reading; 34th in math; and 28th in science.
I believe the focus on character education can improve these results. Youngsters should learn at an early age the benefits of hard work, trustworthiness, accountability for one’s actions, and so much more. Developing a work ethic means to incorporate due diligence and responsible behavior in everything you do. Aristotle wrote that the end goal of life is the pursuit of excellence and excellence means a life of happiness and meaning. Character education can certainly help build the latter.
Beyond the test results, a 2019 report from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that there is a compelling relationship between good behavior and high-test scores. STEM Learning (2020) further pointed out that a safe and orderly school environment can greatly contribute to the sharp performance of students in assessments. Just think about this in view of all the school violence we have witnessed for so many years.
As a college professor for almost 40 years, I've observed habits of some students that concern me greatly. I could start with cheating, and just about everyone knows this has increased especially during Covid. What concerns me the most is that students who cheat do not believe in themselves. How will they ever compete in an increasingly competitive global environment?
I’ve often heard you can’t teach ethics. This is flat out wrong. We can teach it. I’ve done so for almost 30 years. But that doesn’t mean students will learn the lesson anymore than they would with the STEM subjects.
Using the CURE Model as a Basis for Character Education
I’m on a mission to focus on four aspects of character education for which I developed the acronym CURE. You can read my blog about here. I briefly review it below.
The components of the acronym are as follows:
C = compassion
U = understanding
R = respect
E = empathy
Taken together, we can think of CURE as building a character-based ethic and the foundation for developing caring people who strive to do good in this world.
There are very prominent people who have called for character education such as Stephen Covey and Michael Josephson. Here is a sampling of their points of view.
Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen Covey who wrote the seminal book, 7Habits of Highly Effective People, claims that character needs to be cultivated to achieve success in dealing with others. He states: “What we are says far more than what we say or do.”
In one sense, "understanding" is the culmination of all elements of CURE. The fifth of Covey’s 7 Habits is: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”.
Covey believes that “if you want to improve your interpersonal relations…you must endeavor to understand a situation before attempting to make yourself understood.” The key is to be a good listener, a skill that can be learned with practice and over time. An understanding person listens to others without making them feel manipulated. According to Covey, “While most people listen with the intent of replying, the proficient listener will listen with the intent to understand. He refers to this as “empathetic listening.” In this way, you can communicate your ideas in accordance with your listener’s standards and concerns. He points out that by doing so, you can increase your credibility and build trust.
Covey claims that character needs to be cultivated to achieve success in dealing with others. A Character Ethic is based on a series of principles, such as to respect the rights of others, treat others fairly, do no harm and so on.
Josephson Institute of Ethics
The Josephson Institute of Ethics describes “Six Pillars of Character” including trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. According to Josephson, respect, one of the six pillars and an integral part of CURE, exists when the following behaviors are followed in dealing with others:
- Follow the Golden Rule
- Be accepting of differences
- Be courteous of others
- Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements
- Be considerate of others’ feelings, an essential element of compassion and empathy.
As you can see, the components of CURE are also the ones that others suggest should guide our behavior in making life choices. It should also guide decisions in the workplace. Workplace fraud is a persistent problem and focusing on character education and ethics rules might help to stem the tide of self-interested behavior that places the needs and interests of those in top management ahead of the public good.
Finally, I believe by using the CURE acronym, students and professionals can better recall the underlying tenets of ethical behavior on both an emotional and cognitive level and build “emotional intelligence.” Daniel Goleman emotional intelligence as “where we manage our own emotions as well as the ability to identify, understand, and influence the feelings of others.” Building emotional intelligence can contribute to the wellbeing of oneself and others and contribute to a better world.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on November 1, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.