Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

#SELChat: Out of Darkness, a Return to the Basics – Part 1

Since the unthinkable events of January 6, 2021, I have struggled with what to write. Like you, I have been in shock that our fellow citizens stormed the hallowed halls of the Capitol during the certification of the Presidential election.  Politics aside, this tragic occurrence speaks of a deeper need in our current age: to define right and wrong.  

During my lifetime, there has been an erosion of basic human decency. Some argue that it is because of removing prayer from school or increased divorce rates or political correctness. My job is not to debate but, instead, to call us to attention. We have come to a day of reckoning. Let us accept our collective responsibility for what has occurred, not just in recent days but in the decades leading up to this time of shadows, and move forward into the light.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” Each generation has an obligation to teach the younger generations knowledge and character in order to equip them to function within civil society, to prepare them for the challenges of life, and to instruct them how to live with purpose. This means that the older generation has authority over the younger generations. Such authority is not to be wielded tyrannically. It is an authority that is earned by age and experience and exercised by service.  

According to character education forefathers Kevin Ryan, William Kilpatrick and Thomas Lickona, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the older generation neglected their duty to teach both knowledge and character. They saw character outside of their realm because of their own anti-establishment sentiments. The Romantic view promoted by Rousseau took hold, and the older generation believed that the individual could determine right and wrong on his own because of his innate goodness. Such thinking left children adrift in a sea of relativism, resulting in a rise of anti-social and violent behaviors. The individual became the determinant for right and wrong, not community or tradition.

During the early 1990’s, there was a shift, the beginning of a return to the age-old belief that the older generation is obligated to teach knowledge and character. As if waking up from a stupor, educators began to voice their concerns for the younger generation and for society. The Character Education Movement began, but it did not truly take hold.

Today’s Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Movement evolved from the Character Education Movement which was based largely on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of duty and on Lawrence Kohlberg’s research of moral development. In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Kant states:

No matter how insignificant these laws of refined humanity may seem, especially in comparison with pure moral laws, anything that promotes sociability, even if it consists only in pleasing maxims or manners, is a garment that dresses virtue to advantage, a garment to be recommended to virtue in more serious respects too (Damon 104).  

Kohlberg identified six stages of moral development, which Lickona summarized into the following five:  

Stage 1: Avoidance of Punishment; “Will I Get in Trouble?”

Stage 2: Tit-for-Tat Fairness; “What’s In It for Me?”

Stage 3: Interpersonal Loyalty; “What Will People Think of Me?”

Stage 4: Concern for Social Consequences; “What If Everybody Did It?”

Stage 5: “Respect the Right of Every Person” (Lickona 243).

The goal of Character Education is to lead children through these stages of moral development while upholding the highest level of moral reasoning, Stage 5: “Respect the Right of Every Person”.  

Involving the cognitive (the head), affective (the heart) and behavioral (the hands) domains as defined by Benjamin Bloom, Character Education is the systematic approach to teaching children to know the good, love the good and do the good. It encompasses drug and alcohol prevention, conflict resolution, self-esteem building, violence prevention, drop-out prevention. It deals with the root of these problems by helping kids get in touch with what is going on inside of them and teaching them how to make wise choices about what they do and say in response to what is going on inside of them and in their world.

In order to teach children to know the good, love the good and do the good, the good must be defined. What is the good? According to C.S. Lewis, the good consists of the fundamental and objective values upon which civil society is based, such as justice, honesty and respect. In Abolition of Man, he refers to the collected values of societies from the early Babylonians through modern times as the Tao.  

Virtues are derived from these fundamental values. According to Kevin Ryan, a virtue is an ideal upon which to base one’s life. “It is both the disposition to think, feel and act in morally excellent ways, and the exercise of this disposition. It is a means and an end of human happiness” (45).  

Aristotle said that “A man becomes virtuous by doing virtuous acts” (Ryan 48). However, a person cannot do virtuous acts unless he is taught what virtue is. Likewise, a person cannot choose to love her neighbor as herself unless she knows what love is.

Therefore, love must be identified, defined and transmitted to the younger generation by the older generation.  

Damon, William, Editor.  Bringing in a New Era in Character Education.  Stanford, CA:  Hoover Institution Press, 2002.

Kilpatrick, William K.  Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Lewis, C.S.  The Abolition of Man.  1943.

Lickona, Thomas.  Educating for Character:  How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1991.

Ryan, Kevin and Karen E. Bohlin.  Building Character in Schools:  Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.

About Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is an educator and social entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator and author of Love In A Big World, which provides mental health, SEL, and wellness curriculum and content. During quarantine, Tamara created MusiCity Kids, an online educational show for kids ages 6-12 that addresses health, movement, character development, STEAM, and more.

Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @Tamara_Fyke

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