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In 1955, Rudolph Flesh wrote a critique of reading education, which he entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Read. The phrase “why Johnny can’t” found traction in American culture; thus, in 1974, when Morris Cline wrote an indictment on the changes in math education, he borrowed heavily from Flesch when he called his book Why Johnny Can’t Add. Fast forward another two decades to 1992. William Kilpatrick challenged the nation’s drift away from morality and virtues in Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. Kilpatrick saw the same type of failure demonstrated in in reading and math education replicated in character education.
According to Kilpatrick, the moral education framework in our country was failing children and American culture. The system did not communicate the common core of accepted virtues which serve as the norm for constructive participation in society. One might expect such a book like Kilpatrick’s to tend toward moralism or preachiness in tone, but the author avoids these temptations. The end product is one of my personal “bucket books,” an essential influence in my life.
The Boston College professor makes four salient point in his thesis. First, various forms of a failed moral education relied primarily on information to influence students toward safe and healthy conduct. He uses as his examples the approaches to drug and sex education which were common to the era of his writing. The contemporary wisdom was to teach youth facts about these subjects in the hope that they would make good decisions about them. Kilpatrick believed the deficiency of this approach centered on the fact that it did not provide a character component.
On the need for common virtues to ground society, Kilpatrick says:
According to Aristotle, a culture that neglects to cultivate good habits will soon find itself the prisoner of bad habits. p. 98
Communities and cultures depend for their existence on shared knowledge. Without such specific knowledge and a shared ethos, it becomes difficult for members of a community to communicate and cooperate. Those without this knowledge will always be condemned to the margins of society. If the knowledge deficit becomes widespread, the culture will collapse. p. 117
With regard to morally neutral sex education, he asks:
How safe is any sex without character? p. 63
Kilpatrick’s second point focused on a common practice of moral education from the 1970’s and 1980’s: Values Clarification. VC most often presented moral dilemmas to children or youth and asked them to resolve the dilemma based on their feelings or prejudices. The dilemmas might present a hypothetical group of thirteen people occupying a fallout shelter designed for twelve. In an unfortunate foreshadowing of the popular Survivor TV show, classes (and church youth groups) were asked to determine which individual to exclude from the shelter: the pregnant teen, the selfish business owner, the local drug dealer, etc. Kilpatrick correctly pointed out that such exercises were popular with teachers because they created engaged discussion, but they failed youth because they provided no basis for making the decision beyond the opinions of the participants.
Kilpatrick’s solution was not to teach the morally correct answers to such dilemmas. Nor was it to preach certain values vis a vis all other values. Instead, Kilpatrick’s thesis was to ground children and youth in virtues. The difference between values and virtues is a key distinction in all character education and represents Kilpatrick’s third point. Values are always debatable. Who’s values trump all other values? Virtues, on the other hand, are qualities of character that pass the test of time and cross all cultures.
[My review on How Children Succeed highlights the importance of functional virtues like grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity for a fulfilling life.]
The solution offered by Kilpatrick, and the fourth point I take form the book, is to capture the imagination of youth with classic stories of virtue. Examples of virtue inspire virtue in others. Kilpatrick offers a significant portion of the book to an annotated list of age-appropriate classics that encourage time tested qualities of character. The list includes such works as Diary of a Young Girl and Gulliver’s Travels. Kilpatrick also suggests music and singing as a way to inspire virtues.
Kilpatrick’s book introduced me to the concept of character education, along with the role of stories and songs as a part of that process. These approaches to teaching character evolved into an approach of “teaching” faith, which we have called “faith development” here at First Baptist Church of Rome. Faith Development, as we practice it, stems from the belief that children need exposure to a core of Bible stories and scripture verses that serve as a foundation to a more mature faith later. Too often we’ve asked children “what does this (Bible) story mean to you?” as if children come with a built in understanding of all faith matters.
This error reflects the same type of mistake made in Values Clarification. Instead, we’ve taken the approach that, at the earliest ages, children need to be taught specifics stories, led to memorize specific scripture passages, and to sing particular songs of faith – all of which provide a foundation of knowledge about matters of faith. Later in life, as they grow and mature, the basics serve as the foundation for the faith they appropriate as their own.
Kilpatrick’s book in on my list of life -important books because it served as the catalyst for one of the most distinctive part of our our congregation’s ministry to children and youth. Here are a few more quotes:
The first incident happened five or six years ago during an exam. One of the questions concerned sex education and contained the word “abstinence.” It was a poor choice of words. In a few minutes a student came up to my desk. “What’s abstinence?” she asked. I thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, just substitute the word ‘chastity.’” There was a brief pause, then . . . “What’s chastity?” she asked. I mentioned the incident the next semester to another class, thinking that it might amuse them, but I was wrong again. Half of them had never heard of “chastity” either. I was reminded of Orwell’s observation about the difficulty of practicing a virtue or principle when one lacks the very words for expressing it. p. 118
Referring to Bruno Bettelheim: “The question for a child,” says Bettelheim, “is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’” p. 167
It is a myth that parents don’t have the right to instill their values in their children. Once again, the standard dogma here is that children must create their own values. But, of course, children have precious little chance to do that, since that the rest of the culture has no qualms about imposing values. Does it make sense for parents to remain neutral bystanders when everyone else—from scriptwriters, to entertainers, to advertisers, to sex educators—insists on selling their values to children? p. 249
I read because my father read to me. And because he’d read to me, when my time came I knew intuitively there is a torch that is supposed to be passed from one generation to the next. And through countless nights of reading I began to realize that when enough of the torchbearers—parents and teachers—stop passing the torches, a culture begins to die. p. 267