Without Character, Freedom Fails

charles-c-haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

While Gen. Colin Powell was making political news last Sunday (Oct. 19), his wife, Alma, was sounding the alarm about an issue that transcends partisan differences — and will define America’s future as much as any election.

Speaking to the annual forum of the Character Education Partnership (CEP), Alma Powell delivered a simple but profound message: Unless we act now to strengthen the character of our nation’s youth — and give them the resources to succeed — the United States will not be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Millions tuned in to hear Gen. Powell, while only about 600 educators (and no news media) heard Mrs. Powell. Nevertheless, they were a committed, motivated 600: teachers, administrators and counselors from around the country who put character first.

Alma Powell, it should be said, wasn’t speaking as “wife of.” She’s a dynamic public servant in her own right, serving as board chair of America’s Promise Alliance, a broad coalition of businesses, education associations, faith groups and others whose current priority is to keep kids in school.

“Every 26 seconds,” Mrs. Powell told the audience, “a high school student in the United States drops out.” That’s more than a million dropouts a year — a crisis that disproportionately affects our most disadvantaged communities, perpetuates poverty, increases crime and seriously threatens America’s future prosperity and security.

At the CEP meeting, she was preaching to the choir: Schools that implement effective character education, research shows, have lower dropout rates, higher academic achievement and fewer discipline problems because they are caring, safe learning environments.

Character education, of course, is about more than keeping at-risk kids in school. It’s about making sure that every student learns what it means to be an ethical, engaged citizen in a democracy.

What does this have to do with the First Amendment? In a word, everything. The Constitution guarantees fundamental rights, but it can do nothing to ensure that people exercise those rights with responsibility.

James Madison, who drafted the First Amendment, said it best: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Fortunately, growing numbers of schools are making the connection between inculcating civic virtue and sustaining basic freedoms. After Alma Powell spoke, teachers, administrators and students from more than 100 schools came forward to be recognized for exemplary practices in character education as part of CEP’s National Schools of Character initiative.

As someone worried about the health of the First Amendment, I found it encouraging to hear how many award-winning schools emphasize giving students a meaningful voice in their education. For example, at Valley Park Middle School in Missouri, one of 10 schools honored at the conference as a 2008 “national school of character,” every class creates its own set of rules, and every student has the opportunity to speak at class meetings. Students resolve conflicts through peer mediation and discuss ethical issues in classes across the curriculum.

Valley Park has discovered what really works in schools. Five years ago, the school had many of the same academic and discipline challenges most schools face, and students lacked a sense of belonging and autonomy. Today, character education has transformed the entire school culture: Suspensions are way down, grades are up, and all members of the school community — students, staff, and parents — now feel part of a caring family. (For a full description of this and the other 2008 winners, visit www.character.org.)

Math and reading are important. But even more important is what kinds of human beings are doing the math and reading the books.

No matter who wins on Nov. 4, the extraordinary challenges we face — wars, recession, climate change, poverty — will test our nation’s character in ways unprecedented in our history. That’s why we must move creating “schools of character” to the top of the education reform agenda.

Madison was right. The character of a nation is determined by the character of its people.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].