Boston Washington, DC, teacher Lelac Almagor says that the formulaic progressivist approach schools use to “character education” is self-undermining. The idea is that schools need to teach poor kids, especially poor minority kids, how to navigate their way successfully through a system that is stacked against them, and “how to get people of power and privilege on their side.” More:

In principle this liberationist approach to character education is appealing. The trouble is that, in practice, it loses a little of its clarity. We start out wanting our kids to be heroes and revolutionaries, to beat the system from the inside and then challenge its premises. But while they are with us, our school represents the system; if they assert their independence, we are the authority they defy.

In pursuit of character education, our schools have convened research groups to identify the most important character strengths, taught special courses on character alongside electives such as music and art, and assembled “character report cards” with separate ratings from each teacher for each trait. The favored buzzwords are “dual-purpose instruction,” infusing ordinary lessons about fractions or paying attention with the language of character. “Make it the air we breathe,” one administrator told us. “Put it into everything.” When kids misbehave, we urge them to show more character; students who do well win character awards at special assemblies; we start giving points for integrity, and then integrity starts to mean following directions, and then we start taking integrity points away. Instead of teaching these strong and simple values, we muddy and diminish them until they are just another set of arbitrary rules, or new names for the same old rules we’ve always had. Character starts to look a little more like compliance. The lapse in integrity is our own.

Every time I see a “Question Authority” bumper sticker, I think that the person sporting it doesn’t really want others to question authority; he wants others to question the same authorities he questions, and to accept the authorities he accepts. But what happens when you have met the authority, and he is us?

Anyway, I think what the writer here is getting at is that “character” cannot really be taught instrumentally, as a strategy for negotiating one’s way through the world. For it to really take hold, it has to be accepted by students as an accommodation to metaphysical reality, a reality that is proclaimed and lived as the narrative in one’s culture. In less highfalutin language, what I mean is this: real character is not about learning how to manipulate power relations, but about having the capacity to do what one believes is morally right, even when it doesn’t pay off in conventional ways. If one believes in treating others fairly because it gets one what one wants, then one’s commitment to fairness is likely to exist only insofar as it gives one a negotiating advantage, so to speak.

An example of what I’m talking about is in the great Woody Allen film (probably the last great Woody Allen film) Crimes And Misdemeanors. The story revolves around the moral implications of the existence, or non-existence, of God. If God does not exist, then morality becomes simply a matter of what you can get away with and rationalize to yourself. This is the problem with character education as Almagor describes it. It has no referent beyond self-interest. Of course there really is an element of instrumentality, of self-interest, behind behaving in ways one’s culture sees as moral. But in the same way that no atheist or agnostic is long convinced to go to church on Sunday morning because it is thought to be good for one, it seems to me difficult to establish deep and consequential character in children by teaching them that behaving “morally” is good for them — even if it is. There has to be something more there. How do you get people to embed moral authority in their consciences without first giving them a conviction that Authority exists? How can you convincingly teach moral authority if neither the teachers nor the students are embedded in a culture that believes in Authority?

(Via Prufrock.)