A decade ago the community of San Marcos, California, was shocked to discover that one out of every five girls in its high school was pregnant—and more than half of those girls were only ninth graders.
The revelation spurred the school district into action. The San Marcos Junior High started one of the first abstinence-based sex education programs in the nation. At the same time, it began a comprehensive program called “character education” for teaching ethical values. Students learned the meaning of honesty, respect, self-control, and responsibility.
Since then the number of pregnancies has dropped dramatically. The largely minority school has improved academically as well: It’s won the California Distinguished School award several times.
Schools like San Marcos are bucking the tide in moral education. Since the 1960s dominant approach has been “values clarification”—a misguided attempt to teach ethics without moral absolutes. Instead, values clarification insists that there is no right or wrong answer.
TEACHERS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO
In one typical scenario, students are asked to choose who to throw out of an overcrowded lifeboat so the others will survive. Teachers are not allowed to teach that any specific behavior, such as killing, is absolutely wrong. Students are left to make ethical decisions by themselves.
But the results of this approach are disappointing at best. Studies show that youngsters who are taught individual decision making as the basis for ethics end up with higher rates of drug use and sexual promiscuity. And as a result educational achievement also declines.
Values clarification programs ignore one basic fact: that all cultures throughout history have recognized the validity of certain standards for human conduct—what philosophers and theologians call “virtues.”
At the dawn of Western culture, the ancient Greeks and Romans reached a consensus not only on what the virtues are but even on a system for ranking them. Four of the virtues—prudence, justice, courage, and temperance—they ranked as the cardinal virtues, meaning that they are foundational to all the others. For example, courage is a cardinal virtue because doing the right thing—practicing any of the virtues under pressure—takes moral courage.
Christian society adopted the cardinal virtues but taught that they must be sanctified by the biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love. These seven virtues—the four cardinal virtues crowned by the three Christian virtues—became central to all Western teaching on this subject.
In his book Back to Virtue, Christian professor Peter Kreeft explains the importance of the virtues by comparing our souls to our physical bodies. Just as there are laws we must follow for physical health, so too there are laws we must follow for the health of the soul. That’s what virtues are: laws for a healthy soul. And healthy souls are a prerequisite for a healthy civilization.
That’s why programs like character education are so vital. They hold up virtuous behavior as the standard for students to imitate. And when kids begin to model that standard in their own lives, as the kids in San Marcos did, the results can be dramatic—both in terms of better moral behavior and better academic achievement.
You and I ought to encourage our own school systems to consider character education programs. They can help turn the tide of social, moral, and educational disintegration.