Character education is returning to favour as crime rates spiral, reports Jon Marcus. Forty teachers gathered at a New England college for a course in how to bring into their classrooms America's hottest topic: morality.
The group was studying new ways to implement a city policy requiring that values such as citizenship, honesty and fairness be taught in public-sector schools.
"People have a sense that there's been kind of a breakdown of morality, " said Mary Lou Anderson, a former English professor who organised the week-long seminar. "There appears to be more violence and more crime, and I think there's a fear that we have young people growing up in the United States who don't have a sense of right and wrong. People are turning to the schools again and saying, 'What are you going to do about it?'" The concept of "character education" is coming back into fashion nearly 30 years after schools were stripped of their responsibility for teaching civics. That topic was a victim of the 1960s backlash against allowing the government to define good citizenship.
"We threw the baby out with the bathwater," said Joyce Brubaker, of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in California, which took a poll of 9,000 American young people in 1992, and found a third admitted stealing something from a store during the previous year. "There's a hole in the moral ozone in the United States. Lying and cheating and stealing is almost a way of life. "
Supporters say teaching values and character has taken on a new urgency because of the decline of the traditional American family.
A full-scale campaign to restore character education to the classroom was launched in April by a coalition of nearly 100 educational, youth service and civic organisations called Character Counts!
They pushed for teaching children trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness and caring.
Maryland is developing character education programmes in five school districts, many in inner-city and low-income areas. In Virginia, the state's largest school board ordered that students be taught right from wrong and telling the truth.
Utah allocated Pounds 200,000 to teach honesty, integrity and love in public schools.
The Michigan Board of Education voted earlier this summer that the state's schools teach "the responsible exercise of freedom, personal honesty, self-responsibility, self-discipline, courage, love, seeking truth, doing what is good, a sense of self worth, good citizenship and a respect for others".
Character education programmes also are under way in Dallas, Albuquerque and Des Moines, Iowa, where students publish their own classroom rules and pledge to work hard, always tell the truth and respect each other.
And Republican Senator Pete Domenici, of New Mexico, has formed the Character Counts Coalition in Congress, and introduced legislation that would designate a week in October as a time to encourage character education.
Critics fret that character education programmes cannot account for cultural and political differences.
"I think we can all agree that as human beings on this planet, regardless of our religious or political background, we can agree on certain truths of moral behaviour," said Dr Anderson. "I think there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong, and we have to continually show through education that some things are wrong."