"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Public Schools Are To Teach....Morals? Whose Morals?

At a recent Professional Development Day in a suburban St. Louis school district, a PhD in Life-Span Developmental Psychology told his captive audience of educators that “it's our responsibility to teach morals to the students.” He described a “teaching tool” that would help children explore their feelings and solve problems. This “tool“ involved the children sitting in a circle, rating themselves on how they are feeling, and then being asked to share, with the entire group, what their problems were. Their peers would then be called upon to help solve said problems. This equates to group psychotherapy. Normally psychotherapy is done by people who have trained for several years in psychotherapy and is conducted under the strict doctor/patient confidentiality code. The speaker at this Professional Development Seminar believes it can be done by anyone trained in a simple short course. He also believes that “children make better decisions than adults“ and thus are fully equipped to help their peers solve problems.

This same speaker may soon be invited to another St. Louis suburban school district so more teachers can learn how to turn authority over to their students! District counselors, curriculum heads, and administrators from this district raved to their teachers about how wonderful he was after hearing him at a recent University of Missouri St. Louis Workshop. Administrators were so thrilled about his presentation they couldn’t wait to begin implementing “class meetings” where students will relay their feelings, not only to their peers, but also other school staff like custodians and cafeteria workers who may attend his one day seminar.

The speaker’s contention that children have the physical and emotional wherewithal to solve their own or others’ problems flies in the face of work by Dr. Jay Giedd Chief Of Brain Imagery In Child Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health. His brain imaging of 1,800 children, beginning at age two, showed that remodeling of the brain continues into the third decade of life, with the prefrontal cortex being the last to fully develop. The PFC is responsible for the executive functions of the brain: judging, reasoning, decision making, self evaluation, planning, suppression of impulses and weighing consequences of one’s decisions. Yet this PhD maintains that children as young as elementary school are perfectly capable of managing these functions, even while under the pressure of intense scrutiny by their peers.

The presenter also encouraged staff to turn their students into public relations agents. If they are counseled correctly, students can be used to accomplish goals, such as passing a bond issue, by presenting bureaucratic wishes as their own to their parents. So your taxpayer dollars would be used to train your children to manipulate you into agreeing to what the administration wants.

Who is this speaker, you may ask? His name is Dr. Marvin Berkowitz. He has a degree in psychology from Wayne State University. Most recently he is at the University of Missouri St. Louis where he is the Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character Education. UMSL has spear headed the development of character education programs that many have seen implemented in local school districts.

In Rockwood, for example, character assignments were sent home from the elementary school that left many parents scratching their heads as to why they were being asked to do these remedial character exercises with their children. In some instances, they promoted values that many families did not ascribe to, e.g. “Talk with your family about ways that all of you can stop hurting the planet.” “Try shutting off the television at dinner just one night this week and write about what your family talks about.” (What if we don’t habitually watch tv at dinner? What business is it of anyone else’s what our family talks about?) While these assignments were optional and not graded, if a character curriculum were instituted in common core standards, the answers required for a good grade might be in opposition to the values taught at home causing an ethical dilemma, or at least confusion, for the student.

What is Dr. Berkowitz's motivation in wanting children to learn values and morals in school? He seems to hold the belief that the family is not teaching morals, or at least the right morals, and that is why the school must pick up the banner and lead the charge. This seems part of a growing trend toward schools circumventing parental authority in the name of producing uniformly educated citizens. While it is desirable for children to learn values and ethics, such values must come from the community, not one man’s or even one committee’s perspective.

Tomorrow, we'll explore how character education began and its purpose in public schools.


  1. I was struck by your comments regarding Dr. Giedd's work on brain imagery. Common sense tells us children are a work in progress. Adolescents are impulsive and do not make good decisions at times. Are they bad people? No. They are in different development stages and the PARENTAL responsibility is paramount; it is NOT the responsibility of the state to provide character, or dare I say it, religious and spiritual direction.
    Dr. Berkowitz may have his theories, but they DO NOT BELONG in public education. I would suggest readers write their school boards and inquire if district tax dollars have been used for any Berkowitz's workshops.

  2. While I do not agree with taking character education to the degree explained in this post, I do think it is important that we have some degree of character education in our schools. For example, instead of having rules in my clasroom, we develop "character expectations." I do keep these character traits in line with what all would agree with (responsibility, trustworthy, respect, etc.) I explain to my class that as long as they abide by these character expectations, there won't be any issues and our school will be a more safe and functional place to learn. I say safe because if we have students being disrespectful to one another, then that disrupts their learning environment. For example, if I have one student bully another student (disrespect), the student who is being bullied, will not likely be able to learn as well because they are worried about being bullied. Another example is the trait of trustworthiness: I explain to my students that if they cannot be trusthworthy with me and others, it will create an environment where we question one another and that does not lead to a healthy relationship. An example is when there is a disagreement between students, I have to be able to trust that they tell me the truth about what happened.

    While I agree parents should be the one teaching these traits, students do not always have these traits (ie not all parents teach their kids responsibility, but rather to make excuses and blame others). These are common traits that bind us together as a society that we should all expect of each other. The more the students hear this message (ie at home, school, Boy Scouts, soccer practice, etc) the more likely the message will sink in.

    Again I would not take our character education to the degree stated in the post above (it's absurd to think that children can help one another solve life's problems as a psychologist would). However, I am a big advocate of character education. It keeps my classrom functioning, safe and productive.


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