Character education vs. Responsible citizenship

Hey John, One hot button issue that’s come up in recent weeks is the idea of character education. Last night, I ranted on the beast that the term “character education” has become. At some point in this country, character education meant giving a healthy deference to assuring that children develop their socio-emotional as well as […]

Hey John,

One hot button issue that’s come up in recent weeks is the idea of character education. Last night, I ranted on the beast that the term “character education” has become. At some point in this country, character education meant giving a healthy deference to assuring that children develop their socio-emotional as well as academic components. In my upbringing, that meant camping trips, but it also meant community service, morning homerooms, and integrating values into every class possible. Developing a school culture on altruism and positivity does good for young men and women still forming their identity in their adolescence.

What it’s become, however, unnerves me.

I propose that, those of us who’ve seen what’s happened with character education instead use the term “responsible citizenship.” I recently Googled the term “responsible citizenship” and found a plethora of definitions, but they all coalesce around the idea that we must teach children to actively participate in their environments and contribute positively to them. Some might take this term and highlight just the “responsible” portion, limiting the discussion to solely taking blame for one’s own actions. I submit to you that we must also emphasize citizenship, meaning we think critically about our roles in society and inform ourselves of what surrounds us to make better decisions about how our communities run.

Naturally, the breeding grounds for this responsible citizenship model should be schools. Many of them don’t.

Character education (at this point) means children have to go through metal detectors to make sure they don’t have any weapons; responsible citizenship means adults have already set an expectation in the building that such weapons aren’t allowed and the children respect it. Character education (at this point) means they’re good, contributing students if the dean doesn’t actually know them because they comply with almost all the rules; responsible citizenship means everyone in the building knows everyone on some level, flaws and all. Character education means children rarely make a sound and fold their hands at their desks unless called upon; responsible citizenship means they learn how to contribute and have dialogue with fellow classmates and adults, even if their notions challenge the adult in the room.

Character education assumes a stark delineation between the adults and the children in the room; responsible citizenship assumes adults have relinquished some of their authority in favor of a clear exchange of values, understandings, and vision for all of our children.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.