Billboards that Teach

In Tyler, Texas, the entire town has joined forces in a new educational experiment that's as old as the classics: They've decided to teach kids character. All across Tyler, schools choose a value of the month to promote. Local businesses join in, using billboards and signs in store windows. Police officers eat lunch at school and hand out baseball-style cards featuring their favorite value. Officers in squad cars who see children doing a good deed turn on their sirens and award the children a certificate that allows them to enter a special school raffle. Tyler is pioneering a trend called "character education." The new approach takes aim at the educational fads of the 1960s and 1970s, which went under labels like "values clarification" and "decision-making." These nondirective approaches taught students to question their parents and churches—to be "autonomous decision-makers." But they failed to teach any moral standards for making those decisions. They focused on the mechanics of moral decision-making but failed to teach the content of morality. The result can be summed up in the words of one student, who described an ethics course by saying, "I learned there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments." No wonder surveys show more kids than ever are cheating, lying, and sleeping around. Crime is rising faster among juveniles than among any other age group. Today we are finally witnessing a counter-movement with character education. This approach to teaching ethics is highly directive; it's based on the conviction that there are virtues that children ought to know and ought to practice. You might think that in a pluralistic society, no one could agree on which virtues to teach. But communities that adopt character education find they can agree on a basic list: things like honesty, courage, and respect for others. The results so far look promising. Since Tyler's program began four years ago, the number of kids fighting in school or being expelled has dropped significantly. There's no doubt that in our relativistic age character education will be a tough concept to sell. According to the Wall Street Journal, when some members of Congress suggested adding character education to the elementary and secondary education bill, several of their colleagues snickered. "Are you serious?" they asked. Liberals are afraid that character education will mean pushing religious values down their kids' throats. Conservatives worry that values could be redefined according to standards of political correctness. These are genuine concerns. But by accepting the premise of character education, at least we are engaging moral issues together. At least we're participating in a communal debate over what is right and wrong, instead of abandoning values to the fuzzy arena of subjective choice. Christians have a distinctive ethic, revealed in Scripture and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But we must also support a public standard of morality, justified by prudential arguments. The fact is that societies that encourage the classic virtues are better places to live. Which is just what the citizens of Tyler are finding out. Even if it means using baseball cards and billboards.


Chuck Colson


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