Foundations of Character Education

Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority.down arrow icon

Arum, Richard (2003). Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority. Harvard University Press.

In the book, Judging School Discipline, the author Richard Arum set out to examine the erosion of moral authority in the public school system. He was motivated to look at this topic by a series of events that occurred when he taught in the Oakland School District. The first of several events was the death of a student on school grounds by homicide. The next, and the event that impacted his motivation most, was that a student close to him and also voted most likely to succeed in high school, went on to commit several robberies. One such robbery ended in a murder committed by his accomplice. Although he did not commit the murder, he participated willingly in the robbery leading to the murder. Arum was shocked and dismayed and felt that the school system had failed somehow because it did not educate him that he should not have been involved in this type of activity.

Arum's target audience is identified as a "larger public audience" but he states that the appendix will be of interest primarily to social scientists.

Summary of Content

The core content to this book surrounds challenge to authority and legitimacy. The author states two propositions and reflects on research on them. The first proposition is that the moral authority of public schools has been undermined by the institutional environment in which they are situated and the next is moral authority is central to a school's ability to promote academic achievement and socialize youth effectively. Arum talks about the student rights contestation period in which an increase in litigation led to degradation on school authority even though the volume of litigation declined after the initial surge in the 60's and 70's. Arum reviews the court decisions that led to this outcome then reviews the impact that these court decisions had on student discipline in the education system. Arum then takes a look at how these changes have effected academic achievement and socialization among students.

Looking at court decisions, Arum describes a situation that occurred in Columbus, Ohio in 1971in which 150 students were involved in unrest at Central High School. Several of the African-American students that were suspended as the result of this incident contacted the NAACP stating that the suspensions were discriminatory in nature. This case became know as Goss v. Lopez and was heard by the Supreme Court. The decision stated that, although primacy was indicated for schools, the state laws that made education compulsory and free to all students prevented the school from excluding these students from an education. The courts stated that "having chosen to extend the right to an education…Ohio may not withdraw that right on the grounds of misconduct". The decision by the Supreme Court was a six to three decision in favor of the students. The court felt that there were not enough procedural safeguards in place to prevent constitutional rights from being violated therefore finding for the students.

Arum refers to the next time period as the post contestation period, which lasted from 1976-1992. This time period was marked as a pro-school period. Ingraham v. Wright found that could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment that again allowed schools to incorporate corporal punishment as a method of discipline.

Other types of issues that found their way into the courts involved not only misbehavior but also, freedom of expression and speech cases and appearance cases in the late sixties. These were times when political demonstration and protest has at it greatest power and the behaviors involved impacted the behavior of students and of judges.

Arum describes a statement made by John Devine in which he refers to the high school system in New York schools as the "marshmallow" effect. The marshmallow effect is when students pushed a rule and, like a marshmallow, it would be changed. The challenges by school personnel with "zero-tolerance" policies have been ineffective and have failed to address the challenges in high schools. With this conclusion, Arum addresses the question of how to restore moral authority to the educational system. One proposal is to restore moral authority at the societal level since it appears that the behavior challenges cross over to other parts of life, not just into the educational system. Another proposal is to remove or limit some of the due process procedural safeguards that are currently in place to protect students and families. Arum addresses these questions with a final quote by Durkheim that states "has a moral character and moral value only if the penalty is regarded as just by those subjected to it, which implies that the authority which punishes is itself recognized as legitimate".


The information Arum presents in Judging School Discipline provides an overview of the challenges that schools face today, how they arrived at this situation and a brief charge to society as to how to correct the situation. Although the information is interesting and necessary for individuals that need a theoretical base of school law and judicial rulings, the answer to solving this problem is so brief that an individual is limited in their ability to effect change to the system.

Arum provides an entertaining overview of the pendulum-swing that has occurred since the late 1960's and those growing up in this era will have personal experiences that tie directly to the outcomes of these events. This book reaches out to a general audience and appropriate answers the question of how we have arrived at this place during this time but the same audience that wants this answer also wants to know what to do to correct it. The impression left is that the system eventually falls in the hands of the judicial system and will continue until such time that this is corrected.

Reviewed by Tangee Pinheiro
Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at Fresno State (DPELFS)

Moral, Character and Civic Education in the Elementary Schooldown arrow icon

Benninga, Jacques S., Ed., (1991). Moral, Character and Civic Education in the Elementary School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Benninga's book presents both sides of the cognitive developmental and character education debate. After two introductory chapters outlining the two perspectives and setting them in context, the bulk of the book presents, from both conceptual and practical perspectives, the indirect and direct approaches to moral and character education. Each side is represented by a general overview and three chapters pertaining to school practices. Two of these describe practices in exemplary schools and are written, in most cases, by their building principals. The last part of this book presents overviews of curricular programs stressing democratic values and including chapters by representatives of the Center for Civic Education and the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

The Case for Character Education: The Role of the Schools in Teaching Values and Virtuesdown arrow icon

Brooks, David and Goble, Frank G. (1997). The Case for Character Education: The Role of the School in Teaching Values and Virtues. Northridge, CA: Studio 4 productions.

This book by Brooks and Goble is a revision of their original 1983 version. While there is much overlap between these books, the new edition has much to offer. This would be a good introductory book to make available to teachers (and parents) in a school serious about attempting to address character education in its curriculum. Many useful perspectives are presented, particularly in chapters 8 and 9 ("How to Teach Character" and "Character Education--Where are We Going") and in several of the appendices (particularly C, ""What Makes Character Education programs Work").

The first set of chapters present an overview of the domain of character education, citing data and history, much of it from the original 1983 version of the book and thus somewhat dated. A chapter on the separation of church and state is still significant and should calm fears of some parents about the intent of such programs. But the real value of this book for teachers is to be found in chapters 8 and 9. It is here that questions are posed that concern them: make character education a stand alone program or infuse it throughout the curriculum? what do the California reform documents (Caught in the Middle, It's Elementary , etc.) say about character education? what are some good examples of character education programs I can look at and use? how can I evaluate the effects of such programs? how can I get my school community to become involved and supportive?

Bringing in a New Era in Character Educationdown arrow icon

Damon, William (Ed.). (2002). Bringing in a New Era in Character Education

This book provides a unique perspective on what is needed to overcome the remaining impediments and make character education an effective, lasting part of our educational agenda. Each chapter points out the directions that character education must take today and offers strategies essential for making progress in the field. (Read more…)

Values on Which We Agreedown arrow icon

Frymier, Jack, et al (1995). Values on Which We Agree. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa.

This small booklet is Phi Delta Kappa's effort to summarize the findings of its study on core values. Data were collected from 10,000 individuals in 1994 in which educators, non-educators and high school students responded to exercises and questionnaires that dealt with values and the schools. Part One describes the values that educators think young people should learn in school, while Part Two describes student values and teachers' perceptions of students' values. Part Three describes educators' and non-educators' thoughts about who should be responsible for teaching values to the young. A major finding ofthis study was that "there are many, many areas in which there are high levels of agreement about values young people should learn." Those areas looked at include civility, freedom, separation of church and state, use of force, personal responsibility, basic skills. The authors conclude with an optimistic perspective: "Americans are clear in their own minds about what is good and what is bad, and they want to steer toward the good.... honesty, civility, equality, learning, freedom and responsibility. These are the core values on which most Americans agree." This little book would be an excellent introduction for parents in schools beginning the task of building a character education program. The questions provide good bases for discussions about what the community wants for its children.

The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Valuesdown arrow icon

Himmelfarb, Gertrude (1995). The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Demoralization of Society is not a book on education or psychology. It is not a diatribe on what has gone wrong with America. Rather, it is a well-researched documentation of 19th Century England, the Victorian Period, written by a distinguished historian. The values of the times, Victorian virtues, included the family, as well as hard work, thrift, cleanliness, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, and patriotism. It was these virtues, commonly shared by an entire population, that helped stimulate a variety of social and humanitarian reforms of the time. This book describes the pervasiveness of those traits in the behavior of the British population and its attitudes towards sexuality, marriage, poverty, and women's rights, and contrasts them, in a final chapter--'A Demoralized Society'--with today's Britain and America. Far from being a dry presentation, The Demoralization of Society is a wonderful read, full of insightful bits of information, lively and acerbic.

Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong: Moral Literacy and the Case for Character Educationdown arrow icon

Kilpatrick, William. (1992). Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong: Moral Literacy and the Case for Character Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

In the tradition of the 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read, William Kilpatrick indicts the educational establishment, and current society, for its failure to promote the character of its children. In this current and best-selling book Kilpatrick describes the currently-used, but inappropriate approach to moral education--the decision-making approach--and contrasts it to the historical character education approach. In various chapters describing drug and sex education, and a critique of much of today's culture, he argues a more focused approach based on traditional values and virtues. He states that teachers have been trained that "they simply don't have the right to tell students anything about right and wrong', and he gives them a solid rationale for doing otherwise. The final part of the book includes an annotated guide of over 100 books for children and young adults. This is an important book for teachers and parents.

Character Psychology and Character Educationdown arrow icon

Lapsley, Daniel K., and F. Power, (Eds.). (2005). Character Psychology and Character Education

This distinguished collection of essays provides new perspective on the nature of character and moral education by utilizing insights from the disciplines of moral psychology, moral philosophy, and education. Among the topics explored in this volume are the constructs of moral selfhood, personality, and identity, as well as defensible models of character education. (Read more…)

Character Education: Lessons From the Past, Models for the Futuredown arrow icon

Leming, James S. (1993). Character Education: Lessons From the Past, Models for the Future. Camden, ME: The Institute for Global Ethics.

James Leming has become known as the chronicler of the research on moral and character education. In this short and readable monograph he reviews the existing research on both moral and character education in relation to improving either the moral thinking or behavior of students. Individual chapters deal with the history of the character education movement in the United States, the research base for the values clarification and moral dilemma approaches, the school's role in character formation, and directions for the future. Along the way, he gives readers some very useful insights. For example:

  • The moral dilemma/discussion approach results in small increases of growth in stages of moral reasoning, but no change in character related behaviors.
  • The values clarification approach "appears to not influence attitudes, values or behavior of students".
  • Moralizing by teachers has no influence on character development.
  • Cooperative-learning environments, standard oriented classroom and school climates, along with mutual respect and shared governance, and support for appropriate behaviors all result in selected positive changes in behavior.

In Chapter Four Leming presents the theoretical perspective of Emile Durkheim as an example of the best such perspective on character education. Durkheim argues for three elements essential to morality: discipline, attachment to the group, and self-determination. In a final chapter Leming presents a series of principles, based on the research, for school practitioners. This little book should be very helpful for school faculties and teachers initiating a character education program in their schools.

The Construction of Children's Character: The Ninety-sixth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Educationdown arrow icon

Molnar, Alex (Ed.) (1997). The Construction of Children's Character: The Ninety-sixth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This book presents in one volume a very current overview and critical assessment of the theory and practice of contemporary approaches to character education in the schools. The book is organized into five sections. Section One presents the philosophical/historical contexts for the movement with chapters by Nel Noddings and James Leming. Section Two presents chapters endorsing and describing the traditional views of character and character education (Thomas Lickona, Edward A. Wynne and Jacques Benninga). Other sections explore relationships between character education and multicultural education, caring, community (Geneva Gay, Beverly Cross and Eric Schapps et al); and, criticisms of character education from political and methodological perspectives (David Purpel, Alfie Kohn, Alex Molnar). The importance of this book is the currency of the chapters and the fact that various perspectives are covered in one volume.

Answering the "Virtuecrats": A Moral Conversation on Character Educationdown arrow icon

Nash, R. J. (1997). Answering the “Virtuecrats”: A Moral Conversation on Character Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

In the opening chapter of Answering the “Virtuecrats”, Nash provides a brief but inclusive overview of the history of moral and character education in the American school system, from the “Old Deluder Satan Act” of 1647 (which required that “students be taught how to avoid Satan’s snares”) (p. 6), to a look at the recent explosion of books, pre-packaged programs, and ‘ministers’ a variety of character education programs currently promoted for use in the public education system. Nash proposes that educators today are dealing with the “same perennial virtue questions” (p. 9) that have confounded educators for three centuries; questions such as what is virtue?; should schools teach virtue?; how do you teach virtue?; and others that he discusses in detail throughout the remainder of the book.

Nash puts forth logical, commonsense arguments supporting his view that current character education programs are “seriously flawed” (p. 10); Nash’s most incisive objections are that these programs are reactionary to the times and political concerns of the nation and it’s leaders, that they are based on strongly prescribed but poorly researched foundations, and that they lack effective theory/practice (praxis) relationships. Nash supports the commonly voiced opinions of many educators that current character education programs are ‘an inch deep and a mile wide’. Throughout the book, the author effectively uses examples of personal experiences from his own teaching career, as well as examples of student commentary relative to various points; these techniques support his view that each of the virtue ‘languages’ (neo-classical, communitarian, and liberationist) are “by themselves inadequate” (p. 10) to teach students to live within the discordant reality of an increasingly pluralistic, secular, and democratic society; Nash proposes instead that students need to develop skills that allow them to communicate with one another “without the need to impose moral certitudes” (p. 11). Simply put, Nash proposes that students need to be able to speak and listen to discussions about differences between people.

In chapters two through seven, Nash discusses the history and philosophical foundations of the Neo-Classical, Communitarian, and Liberationist initiatives; after providing an overview of each of these theories, he then provides an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each as well as recommended instructional methods; he concludes with discussions of how each theory does or does not fit within our current school systems and within our society.

In chapters eight and nine, Nash discusses ‘the moral conversation’, which he describes as being an exceptionally successful teaching method for him. Of particular interest is a copy of a memo that he sends to students prior to the start of a new class; in this memo, Nash offers his definition of conversation (“a manner of living whereby people keep company with each other, and talk together, in good faith” [p. 151]); his perception of the ideal physical classroom arrangement (a circle, in which everyone can look at each other and speak as equals and as seekers of wisdom); and provides a list of ground rules as well as a ‘code of ethics’ which he calls ‘civility protocols’, designed to guide conversation “about moral education in a moral way” (p. 154). This memo provides an overall summation of Nash’s ‘morality of conversation’, which he states he finds to be a preferable alternative to the “more grandiose virtue initiatives advanced by the neo-classicals, the communitarians, and the liberationists” (p. 160).

In chapter nine, Nash makes the final link between moral conversation and the development of democratic virtues, including self-discipline, obligation, tolerance, fairness, and generosity; Nash proposes that the virtues (or ‘democratic dispositions’) allow people to work together in spite of their differences, to compromise when needed, and to realize that no single person or group of people can get everything they want. As a basis for his postmodernist approach to the development of democratic dispositions, Nash relies on the works of Richard Rorty, who Nash finds has much in common with John Dewey in that they both believe that virtue cannot be taught as rules and lists of positive character traits. Nash proposes that “the alternatives to moral conversation are undemocratic: verbal authoritarianism, political intimidation, imposition, indoctrination, and violence” (p. 182); he goes on to summarize that the task of philosophers and educators is to clarify the perceptions of the individual regarding social and moral issues of the day, and that such clarification requires self-reflection, informed awareness, and public dialogue – all of which can be cultivated in the classroom through the practice of moral conversation.

The strengths of this book are found in Nash’s straightforward approach to the subject matter, his honest and thorough presentation of the positive and negative aspects of the major character education initiatives in today’s educational playing field, and in his interpretation of the current state of character education based on his personal experience as an educator. Nash’s intermittent insertions of vignettes from his own experience, as well as responses from students, provide valuable insights into both the theory and practical application of his postmodern initiative and the use of moral conversation in the development of the ‘democratic disposition’. From a critical perspective, one might wonder if Nash’s approach is too simplistic an answer for the complexities of today’s society, if it is unrealistic to expect that teaching students to be open-minded, responsive listeners is enough to translate into real changes in a secular, pluralistic society. At the very least, Nash’s postmodern initiative suffers from the same limitations as the neoclassical, communitarian, and libertarian initiatives: he is presenting new ideas, terminology, and theory based on personal experience and conviction, but with little or no research-based data and no visible plan to evaluate the proposed program. Regardless of those weaknesses, however, Answering the “Virtuecrats” provides a good knowledge base of what has come before, and a stimulating conversation of what might be “down the road” for character education programs and their advocates – a new way of looking at an old subject.

Reviewed by: Keitha Mountcastle
Joint Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership CSU-Fresno/UC Davis (2002)

The Discourse of Character Education: Culture Wars in the Classroomsdown arrow icon

Smagorinsky, Peter and Taxel, Joel. (2005). The Discourse of Character Education: Culture Wars in the Classroom

In this book Peter Smagorinsky and Joel Taxel analyze the ways in which the perennial issue of character education has been articulated in the United States, both historically and in the current character education movement that began in earnest in the 1990s. (Read more…)

The Ten Commandments of Characterdown arrow icon

Telushkin, Joseph (2003). The Ten Commandments of Character. New York: Bell Tower.

Telushkin’s text offers a fresh and inspiring ethical coda fully supported by real-life scenarios and examples. He demonstrates how his “Ten Commandments of Character” is applied to the following areas:

  • Family
  • Children
  • Friends
  • Work
  • Money
  • Medical ethics
  • Everyday dilemmas
  • Community

For each of these areas, Telushkin provides the reader with actual question-and-answer forums in which the “Ten Commandments” have been diligently applied. He covers a broad panoply of issues that provide ideas and advice for many important social issues of today’s society, ranging from euthanasia, criminal activity, infidelity, abortion, drugs, respect for elders; the list goes on and on. The text can be compared to a “How-To” manual, as the solutions and explanations given in each issue provide the reader with a firm sense of how to react or respond if they found themselves in a similar situation.

In the introduction to the text, Telushkin has provided a salient and substantive rationale for his list of The Ten Commandments of Character. It is suggested that most people, when questioned as to what they desire the most from others, answer with “good character”; meaning that they want others to be kind and honorable towards themselves. But when asked what they want most for themselves, they answer “To be happy and successful.” These answers are viewed as two sides of the same coin, because, according to Telushkin, achieving things in life like happiness and success depends on our developing in ourselves what we want most from others—good character.

The idea of good character has been embodied by a quote from an anonymous priest many years back, which states “If a man leads a life of righteousness and acts with compassion for others, he is a saint.” What qualities does a saint embody? First, they are grateful, and, in being grateful, can feel the love and care that others have shown which they are grateful for. And when you cultivate a sense of being loved, you are also cultivating a sense of self-esteem; I am loved, therefore I must be a good person. Second, they have self-control, which has long been known as a requisite condition for leading a moral life. This means that they have learned to control one’s temper, impulses, or bad inclinations. Third, they have good character traits, predominant among them being truthfulness and trustworthiness.

Telushkin has also addressed these same three traits, and acknowledged that success and happiness naturally follow when one possesses these qualities. As he ardently points out, can you think of any ungrateful person that is happy? And that self-control is absolutely necessary for leading a successful life. Also, lack of good character traits makes it nigh impossible to have enduring friendships or be loved, as no one is willing to rely on or commit to a person who isn’t honest or trustworthy. With no enduring relationships or gratefulness, an individual is not only a un-saint, but also has very little self-esteem. And self-esteem levels correspond to happiness levels, logically.

So we come full circle, where good character defines not only what we want in others, but also controls what we want most for ourselves. Using one of Telushkin’s real-life examples serves to clarify this issue. He compares two fathers: one who has spent a lifetime working hard to support his family, and one who abandoned his family, evading child-support payments, and instead chose to lead an exciting social life. While the second man may have enjoyed more sensual pleasures and experiences, which of the two would we expect to feel a greater sense of self-esteem? The answer serves to demonstrate that enduring self-esteem, which causes inner happiness and peace, comes from leading a good life. As Telushkin points out, doing the right thing is easy if you have good character, but knowing the right thing to do is never easy to discern.

Thus, the genesis of “The Ten Commandments of Character”. Telushkin has striven to develop a list that will help in the creation of good character, so that the ability to discern the right thing to do can become a predominant focus in one’s life. This is what Telushkin created for us in his attempt at presenting himself as a “modern day Solomon”:

  • Know your weaknesses.
  • When ethics and other values conflict, choose ethics.
  • Treat all people with kindness.
  • Be fair.
  • Be courageous.
  • Be honest
  • Be grateful.
  • Practice self-control.
  • Exercise common sense.
  • Admit when you have done wrong, seek forgiveness,and don’t rationalize bad behavior.

Telushkin’s list gives a set of concrete referents for which to apply to the myriad moral dilemmas common in today’s society. Backed by his plethora of real-time examples supporting these tenets of good character, his text could be viewed as a source of wisdom and solace in dealing with and answering to the dilemmas many of us find ourselves confronted with today. The “Ten Commandments of Character” has offered a companion source for many character and ethic development seminars and courses, as well as having provided a set of ethical guidelines for those who didn’t know where to start. Reading the text, all individuals will walk away with a stronger sense of the right thing to do.

Reviewed by: Dr. Kathryn J. Biacindo
Professor, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, California State University Fresno

On Character: Essays by James Q. Wilsondown arrow icon

Wilson, James Q. (1995). On Character : Essays by James Q. Wilson. Washington, DC: The AEI Press.

Wilson is the former President of the American Political Science Association and adviser to four presidents on issues related to crime, drug abuse, education and other crises of American cutlure. In this book he has produced a provocative series of essays related to character development and character policy that sets this important area in perspective. He brings his argument into clear focus by negating that public discussion of character is a conservative pasttime. Rather, the development of character is our collective responsibility. The public interest depends on private virtue.

Wilson argues throughout these essays that to have good character one needs to have at least developed a sense of empathy and self control. In various chapters he writes about crime, families, communities and schooling with those two traits--empathy and self-control--as a basis. He presents the current crises of our community in clear perspective: how much can society tolerate? what is the role of the police? the family? what is a moral virtue? Wilson concludes with an argument that all humans have an inborn "moral sense". We are, after all, social beings, dependent on each other and we have an obligation to each other to develop that moral sense if we care about each other. This is a well written, reasoned book by a wise and experienced expert.