The Death of Character

  Judging by this year's presidential and congressional campaigns, one might conclude that the most important domestic challenges facing Americans today are all economic -- insuring the future of Social Security, providing senior citizens with prescription drugs, and improving primary and secondary education. But is that really the case? Consider education. A new study of American high school students points to a challenge in another area: one that highlights the inadequacy of the current system. Last week the Josephson Institute For Ethics released the preliminary findings of its survey, entitled "Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth." The results of this survey point to what the institute calls "shocking levels of moral illiteracy" among American kids. They report that ninety-two percent of kids surveyed admitted to lying to their parents, and seventy-eight percent admitted lying to a teacher. Seventy percent said that they had cheated on a test, and half of them said that they had done so more than once. One quarter of those surveyed said that they would lie to get a job. And one in six said that they had gone to school while drunk-- not hung over, mind you, but drunk -- at least once in the previous year. An editorial in the Atlanta Constitution summarized the findings as follows: "America's next generation [believes that] it's perfectly acceptable to lie and cheat at home and in the world." This is true despite the fact that three quarters of all the states now mandate that students be taught about "values" like honesty, trustworthiness, respect for others, and the like. So why haven't these programs worked? Why are our kids increasingly willing to lie and cheat? Because, as professor James Davison Hunter writes in his new book The Death of Character, most character education is ignorant about why people behave morally. Hunter points out that while these programs tell students that, for instance, honesty is better than dishonesty, they don't provide a justification for these beliefs. They don't provide a justification because they can't -- not legally. As Hunter points out, character is intimately linked to tradition and communities. The first provides the justification for the moral teachings, and the second reinforces those teachings. Hunter is, of course, describing religious communities. But religion is the one issue schools can't mention. The courts have ruled -- wrongly, I believe -- that government must not only be neutral as between religions -- like Christianity and Judaism -- but also between religion and irreligion. What's more, this moral education emphasizes the role of the autonomous individual, operating independently of any group that might hold him accountable. This leaves appeals to personal gratification and fulfillment as the only justification for moral action -- with the predictable results the Josephson Institute documents. We need to make it clear to our neighbors that changing these results will require changing the way we teach our kids about right and wrong. This doesn't mean turning classrooms into Sunday schools. But if we want to give our kids reasons for acting morally that actually work, we have to get over our phobia about religion's role in public life. Or else the good news of the economy will continue to be overshadowed by the bad news about our children's behavior -- and more importantly, about their souls.   For further reading: Hunter, James Davidson. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, 2000. Lasch-Quinn, Elisabeth. "How the Truth Gets Lost and our Moral Bearings Blurred in the Culture Wars." Washington Times, 24 September 2000. "Troubling Signs for Future." Atlanta Constitution, 17 October 2000, final edition.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary