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How do we teach values?

Early this year, the Chicago police department decided to find out everything it could about its officers who went bad _ cops who had seemed honest and diligent enough in training and as rookies but who ended up, sometimes years later, being fired in disgrace for such offenses as bribery, brutality or dealing drugs.

What the department learned was pretty interesting, if not entirely unexpected. Nearly all the cops who got fired had something in common: a history of very small problems in their work record that stretched back years but usually hadn't been serious enough to merit discipline.

They had missed court dates and shown up late to work, taken lots of sick leave, misplaced their badges and other official identification, gotten into a disproportionate number of traffic accidents, or engaged in more than their share of petty quarrels with other officers in the precinct.

As a result of this study, the department has begun paying formal attention to all the little transgressions that seem to be predictive of big ones. The absences, the fights, the missing equipment _ all of them go into a master computer file, and if the file gets long enough, the officer is called in for "counseling."

The department portrays it as a way to salvage threatened careers while they are still salvageable. The police union suspects that the real purpose is to harass the dissident and the unpopular and eventually drive them from the force.

But wherever you come down on that question, there is something undeniably interesting about this experiment, something that comes into focus if you stand back a few steps and examine it.

The Chicago police department has concluded _ without saying so directly _ that there is such a thing in its officers as character, and that it reveals itself in small ways as well as large ones. When people who are routinely unreliable or duplicitous turn out later to be catastrophically abusive or corrupt, that is not a coincidence. It is a failure of character.

Some will object that it shouldn't take a sophisticated computer program to find the troublemakers on a police force or in any other bureaucracy; judging character is nothing more than a matter of plain observation and common sense.

Forty years ago in America, we were pretty good at doing this. People who told lies or alibied their way out of responsibility quickly acquired a reputation for bad character that put a brake on their careers. When you applied for a job, you had to get references to testify that your character was above reproach. Everybody knew what that meant, and everybody agreed that it was relevant.

Somewhere in the past generation, however, we not only lost our belief in the validity of judging character, we all but forgot the word itself. By the 1980s, describing someone as "having character" _ or lacking it, for that matter _ somehow sounded pompous and archaic.

The 1986 edition of Webster's Third International Dictionary placed the definition of character as "moral excellence" third from the bottom in a page-long list of meanings for the word, just above "the crimp of wool fiber" and the deportment of a dog.

I am not so reckless as to argue that the character of individual Americans has turned around and headed upward in the first half of the 1990s. But the word and the idea behind it are making a comeback, not just in the Chicago police department but on a broad range of societal fronts all at the same time.

The most conspicuous place is in the schools. The past couple of years have seen a sprouting of character education experiments aimed not only at reminding young people that there is such a thing as character but at cultivating it within them. In nearly every case, the method is to identify a set of broadly accepted community values and then to begin campaigning for them in the classroom.

The number of core values varies quite a bit. In Locust Valley, N.Y., there are nine of them; in one school district in Pittsburgh, there are more than 40, which sounds a little ominous: I have the feeling a community that promulgates 40 essential values isn't as close to the core as it may think. There were good reasons why God gave Moses a short list; it wasn't just the need to carry it down the mountain.

Still, the whole series of experiments is worth applauding. The real difficulty of the fledgling character education movement is not coming up with virtues that sound attractive. It is the problem that the sociologist Edward Banfield identified years ago: A society that possesses a genuine moral consensus doesn't have to teach character in school; a society that lacks such a consensus probably can't teach it in school.

The elusiveness of any real agreement on some of the most fundamental questions was clear at the most ambitious event staged by the character education movement so far _ the White House Conference on Character Building for a Democratic, Civil Society. The two-day conference in late July involved more than 200 participants from education, religion, business, journalism and politics.

What everybody at the conference seemed to share was the idea that character matters, and that somehow a way to instill it must be found. Beyond that, the troops scattered in all directions.

Svi Shapiro, chairman of the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, declared that character training to him means teaching young people to be dissidents and rebels against racism and injustice.

A few public school teachers, some of them with recent experience in inner-city elementary schools, suggested that while waiting for injustice to end, they would like to discuss ways to bring the level of classroom disorder down to where they could begin imparting information. So it went, for the better part of a day.

Just as revealing as the disagreements at this conference, I thought, were the subjects that hardly came up at all, or were handled with extreme delicacy.

Scarcely anybody used the word "authority," or discussed when and where it might be legitimate to employ discipline to instill character in those unable to acquire it through such friendly methods as seminars or role playing. Curiously absent, too, during many hours of debate about character, virtue and goodness was much discussion of their opposites: weakness, irresponsibility and wrongdoing, or whatever antonyms you prefer.

I don't think anybody used the word "evil" at the Conference on Character Building; I didn't hear the word "sin" either.

Not that I expected to hear it. If "character" is only now escaping the confines of incorrectness, "sin" remains so far out of bounds as to stamp anyone who uses it as mentally unbalanced.

But one doesn't have to be an Old Testament prophet or a modern fundamentalist Christian to notice that there is something missing in a conference of 200 intelligent and well-meaning people who can spend hours talking about ways to promote right but would rather not venture into the messy territory of wrong. Something tells me the two concepts are supposed to go together.

Something also tells me that the character education movement will reach a new level of maturity when its vocabulary expands just a bit, so that it can talk not only about how to ask people to behave but how to make them behave when they don't want to, and when it can accept the fact that not only is there such a thing as character but that there are some people who don't have it, for reasons that relate more to their inner makeup than to their immediate circumstances.

The Chicago police department seems to understand that, whether it says so directly or not, and thus its new computerized monitoring program is a tiny step forward in the return of "character" to the language and to policy debate in the 1990s.

When it comes to moral improvement, tiny steps are nearly always worth cheering for.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a writer for Congressional Quarterly, where this article first appeared.

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