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ONCE MORE ON CHARACTER

8/19/02

    To those readers who missed the pleasure of grading the papers of students who took the June 2002 New York State Regents examination in English, what I have to say will seem dubious to say the least. Yet it is shockingly true and the latest reminder of the growing weakness of our schools in the area of character education. Here, of course, I= m not just speaking of the Plainview-Old Bethpage schools but of public education in our state if not our nation.

    The last essay question on the exam asked the high school student taking it to suggest two works of literature that they had read that illustrated the difficulties experienced by those who attempt to follow the dictates of their consciences. Forget for purposes of this discussion that the question, one of only two questions on the exam even remotely related to the study of the discipline we call English, could be answered by a student who had seen a few film versions of some classics. What shocked my colleagues and I as we read our students= essays was the appalling number of them who clearly did not know the meaning of the work conscience. Yes, numbers of them, from across the academic tracks, did not understand the meaning of conscience.

    Thus, we read papers that boldly suggested that Macbeth was a person who struggled to follow the dictates of his conscience because it was hard for him to kill Duncan, even though his conscience kept calling him to do so. Similarly, Othello was a worthy role model for his murder of Desdemona in a jealous rage. After all, he had to struggle with his conscience to do her in. Thankfully, although I kept bracing myself for the paper on Helter Skelter, it never came my way. I= m unsure of whether to draw hope from this, however, in that the most likely reason for its failure to appear is probably that none of our students had read the book.

    Grim humor aside, how can it be that seventeen year-olds in an upper middle-class community where family incomes are on average in excess of one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year and where their parents willingly support a per pupil expenditure of upwards of fifteen thousand dollars per student per year, how can substantial numbers of such children not know what conscience means? There is, it seems to me, only one unavoidable answer. No one, not their parents, not their teachers, is teaching them what I call the basic elements of civilization. I do not know why this abysmal emptiness of so many of our youth still astonishes me. After all, each year I teach, I find myself explaining the meaning of terms like morality, ethics, and empathy. I stump class after class by asking the meaning of the expression, A There but for the grace of God go I.@ But not knowing the meaning of the word conscience by the age of seventeen, that appears to take us down to a new level.

    I don't mean to state or imply that my colleagues and I are intentionally doing a poor job.  We are not the stereotypical teachers of George Bush's rhetoric "who refuse to teach."  I do think, however, that the educrats, those who run our public school systems and their pseudo-intellectual partners in our schools of education, have created a reward system for teachers that is counter productive to teaching our students to be competent, ethical human beings prepared to be active citizens of the world's greatest democracy.  More and more, the noble art of teaching is being reduced to what is called facilitation and learning an outcome or a product.   It is all very frightening.  

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