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The values lessons not soon forgot Add to ...

As another school year opens in Ontario, there's a certain amount of panic in the air. One Toronto school trustee has warned of gang wars. Extra teachers have been installed in troubled schools to patrol the corridors and keep out visitors with guns. Police are warning students to leave their cellphones and iPods at home, so they won't get stolen.

Meantime, our beleaguered teachers are being commanded to implement the latest pedagogical fad: character education. This fad is sweeping Canada and the U.S. and, given all of the above, you could be forgiven for thinking it's about time. In Ontario, the directive comes straight from Dalton McGuinty, who wants to be remembered as the Education Premier. "Education has to be about more than just creating good workers," he said. "At its heart, it is about developing well-rounded citizens who will help build a strong, caring and compassionate society."

What values should we develop in our youth? The answers may be obvious to you, but they aren't so obvious to Ontario's Ministry of Education, which has directed every school board to engage in extensive community consultations to find out. All this consultation produces pretty much the same list every time: respect, responsibility, empathy, fairness, honesty, courage, caring, integrity. Teachers are urged to make this list a part of every subject and to model them in every action. Students are encouraged to internalize them by making posters and reading uplifting quotations over the PA system.

By now, character education has blossomed into a mini-industry, complete with its own consultants, symposiums and profit-making businesses that peddle inspirational videos and canned programs. In Ontario, school representatives are sent to "heart and soul" days, where native kids are sometimes invited to perform traditional drumming. There, they learn that the heart and soul of character development is building good relationships.

Funny how times change. In the '90s, when values education was being pushed by the socially conservative right, the progressive education establishment wanted nothing to do with it. Any talk of "values" and "virtues" in education was a right-wing plot to induce obedience and conformity. Today, as reinvented by progressives, values education is seen as a corrective to the new emphasis on tests and standards. "Standardized tests can't measure the really hard learning outcomes like teamwork, initiative, courage, integrity, and responsibility," writes one character-development expert.

Yet, no matter who's promoting it, the promised payoff for this virtue building is essentially the same: better academic performance, better behaviour and, of course, better citizens. In Ontario, where 27 per cent of students are immigrants, the mission has a special urgency. Mr. McGuinty believes it will foster social cohesion and help avert strife over religious and cultural differences. "Deep down, people are all the same. We all share the same values," he says.

Well, maybe. The real question is: Does it work? No one really knows - measurable results are hard to come by. As for character, a great deal of it has somehow been built over the years without the Education Ministry's guidance.

My guess is, character education is no panacea for unsafe schools and mediocre reading scores. But the real trouble is, the schools preach one thing and do another. They tolerate bad behaviour. They don't back up their teachers. They bounce problem kids from school to school but never out. Teachers are told to give a pass to students who are caught plagiarizing or don't do their work on time, because the schools have been instructed to boost graduation rates, and modern pedagogy says no one is allowed to fail.

Kids aren't dumb. When they see the thugs, slackers and cheaters getting away with it, they're getting a values lesson they'll never forget. It's just not the one the schools are trying to impart.


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