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A Shameful Lesson in Character Education

Washington-capitol-buildingCharacter education is a concept that has been widely embraced in this country by educators, parents– even the federal government, which for years has promoted character education programs in our nation’s schools. The idea that a child’s education should involve not just learning academics, but also learning certain core virtues that are the basis of good character seems like a no-brainer. Children who possess character traits such as honesty, integrity, perseverance, respect, caring and fairness tend to be happier, do better in school, and be more successful as adults.

Recently, schools have turned to character education and related programs such as social emotional learning (SEL) in order to combat the problem of bullying in schools (and cyberbullying from home–or anyplace). It’s only logical: helping kids develop empathy, respect and an appreciation for the “golden rule” (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) should naturally lead to a decrease in bullying behaviors. And so educators spend time and effort developing and implementing character education or social emotional learning programs in schools to explicitly teach students character virtues and help them develop good character.

But everyone knows that children learn just as much, if not more, from what they see/hear/experience outside of school as from what they are taught in school. Perhaps more than anything, children learn from example. So, it’s worthwhile to consider the example we, as a society, are setting for kids. Are we demonstrating the character virtues we seek to impart through character education?

Look at Washington– and how can you not these days? The airwaves are currently saturated with blow-by-blow coverage of the budget showdown and resultant government shutdown. Congressmen and senators, vying for the media spotlight, seek to outdo one another with hostile and inflammatory rhetoric– not just about the other party, but about individuals, as well. What we see from Washington these days are not reasoned policy debates or principled disagreements; rather, we see our elected officials almost gleefully tearing into one another, exhibiting the utmost disrespect for one another, for the citizens they represent, and for the stature of their office.

On television, partisan “pundits” echo and often amp up the rhetoric coming out of Washington. TV “news” anchors relentlessly bait the most outrageous guests they can book, eager to elicit a headline-making put-down. Though it’s hard for any put-down to make headlines at a time when it has become routine for politicians refer to the opposing party as Nazi’s, terrorists, traitors, hostage takers, wife beaters, lunatics, frauds (and the list, of course, goes on).

Even more troubling than the rhetoric coming out of Washington is the unparalleled dysfunction of the government– a consequence of the fact that our leaders cannot work together to carry out the most basic responsibilities of government: to pay our nation’s bills and set a budget.

By all accounts, this time is different. It’s not just rhetoric. The animosity and bitterness between two parties and individuals within them is making cooperation and compromise impossible. In a recent article in the Washington Post, entitled “Some say bitter rift between McConnell and Reid could endanger deal,” it was reported of the two Senate leaders: “On the Senate floor, their rhetoric has grown so heated that their colleagues recently held the equivalent of an intervention. Off the floor, their relationship has been marked by personal slight.” And, “Reid and McConnell’s relationship has been so poor in recent months that they have used intermediaries to negotiate.”

Here we have two of the most powerful individuals in the nation who literally cannot sit down with one another to do business– and apparently are not even trusted to be in the same room together. There is no trust, no respect, no basis for cooperation, and a shameful lack of integrity all around. The Senate chaplain has recently prayed to deliver members of Congress from hypocrisy and ‘stubborn pride.’ Until his prayers are answered, what kind of lesson in character education do we–through our elected officials in Washington– offer to our children?


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