Teaching civility in schools will re-instill an attitude of respect | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

August 28, 2023 6:00 am

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Again it is that wonderful time of the year: back to school. While parents applaud and students complain, both contingents know the ten-month term is essential to a well educated citizenry. The three Rs—Reading, ’Riting, and ’Rithmetic—are as vital now as they were in 1852 when Massachusetts enacted the first compulsory education law in the U.S. Without mastering these basic educational skills, commerce is impossible, communication is unclear, and control of governmental powers is endangered.

Given the current spate of noxious behavior of certain stripes of the political spectrum, I suggest it is time to add another R to our schools’ curricula: Respect. From unruly mobs’ uncivil conduct at local school board meetings to the pernicious deportment of political candidates and their acolytes, civility and courtesy—marks of respect for others—have been flushed from our interactions with each other. 

One strategy to re-instill an attitude of respect for others is to incorporate character education into our schools’ programs of study. Such a move is nothing new. William H. Jeynes, Professor, Department of Teacher Education, California State University at Long Beach reports, “For centuries, character education played a central role in the Western K-12 curriculum.” 

As one expects, though, in these contentious times, efforts to incorporate character education have been lambasted by far right groups who seem destined to lead our democracy into an autocracy led by disingenuous demagogues. Their ovine exponents have left behind any sense of decency and courtesy in the anger filled tirades against any attempt to reestablish graciousness and gentility in today’s school children.

Attacks against teachers and other educators as well as local school boards are well known and well documented. Here in our local area a group of parents has sued a school district using the character building curriculum “Character Strong” designed “to teach children social skills that develop ‘thoughtful, healthy, and kind human beings.’” One of the parents’ objections—“ . . . not everyone deserves respect, empathy, honesty, kindness etc. from my children”—testifies to the attributes of these adversaries of character education.

In my own school district, Carlisle Area, the same “Character Strong” curriculum was challenged. Despite efforts by a slate of hidebound school board candidates, the board voted to proceed with the pilot project. Clearly these board members recognize the benefits of and need for such character education in our community. Independent researchers have substantiated the value of such programs. “The results [of such studies] indicated that character education is associated with higher levels of educational outcomes, no matter what type of standardized or non-standardized measure was employed. Character education was also related to higher levels of expressions of love, integrity, compassion, and self-discipline,” notes Jeynes.

In another study similar positive outcomes were published. “Reports from schools that teach character indicate that the academic performance of students is higher, attendance is improved, and there are fewer disciplinary issues. Also reported are reductions in substance abuse and fewer incidents of school vandalism. Students indicate that they feel safer in these schools, knowing that they and their peers practice respect and compassion in a learning community that is founded in character content.”

Honesty and compassion are good; deceit and cruelty are bad. These are not the values our children observe today in too many of our leaders and our neighbors; this incongruity provides all the more reason to support character education in our public school system.

“The formation of one’s character ought to be everyone’s chief aim,” wrote poet, scientist, and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In the 6th century BCE Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”

We must implement effective character education programs in our public schools to fulfill both of these great thinkers’ dictums.

If we do not, our social contracts with each other will continue to swirl down into the sewer of incivility, injury, and inescapable anarchy.

That is no place to raise our children.

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Lloyd E. Sheaffer
Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].