How we are preparing our youth for life and responsibility in the 21st century, and what kind of civic culture we are preparing them for? In a provocative essay, Lapsley (this issue) calls for a developmental-systems-contextual approach to building the character of youth. Murray (this issue), in an equally compelling essay, looks backward to the past for a set of guiding values from our Founding Fathers, and forward at the impact of changes in the values of the working and upper socioeconomic strata. As we move ahead in changing contexts, can we restore our civic culture by grounding ourselves in the essential principles of honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religion, as Murray (this issue) suggests?
In an era of change, preparing our youth for an uncertain future is akin to building the airplane while it is in flight. But we have no choice; we do not have the luxury of putting development on hold until we figure out the destination and the kind of plane we need to build to get there, and we cannot substantially control the changing conditions in the skies. So build and fly, we must.
The role of character education, particularly in schools, is an important aspect of this conversation. The airplane analogy is useful because whatever part we would like to assign to school-based character education--pilot, navigator, wings, flaps, seating, material that makes up the fuselage--it is clear that character education is not the plane. It is part of the plane, and it can only function in the context of the rest of that plane. So, the larger question, within which the fate of school-based character education is contained, is: what can and should schools be doing to make positive contributions toward the future direction of our youth and society?
The fields of social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education (CE) converge to suggest the conditions under which schools optimally promote students' social-emotional and character development (SECD) (Dunkelblau, 2009). SEL has long maintained that success in life requires students to not only know the right ways to behave, but also to possess and use the skills to enact desired behaviors effectively (Elias et al., 1997; Zins & Elias, 2006). This is an understanding that the CE field captured in the distinction between moral and performance character (Lickona & Davidson, 2005). Recent advances in SEL implementation research has shown that promoting SECD requires a combination of explicit skill instruction, clearly communicated values, a positive, safe, civil, supportive, and engaging culture and climate, and a coordinated developmental trajectory in which all these take place over time (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009; Elias, 2009).
WHAT KIND OF AMERICA DO WE WANT? WHAT KIND OF SCHOOLS TO CONTRIBUTE TO THAT AMERICA?
This conclusion is implicit when reading both Murray's (this issue) and Lapsley's (this issue) work in tandem, though not inevitably drawn from either one. From this conclusion, several insights and challenges emerge. First, "programs" to build social-emotional and character development are at best likely to be necessary but not...
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