The purpose of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition is to fortify the lives of America’s young people with consensus ethical values called the “Six Pillars of Character.” These values, which transcend divisions of race, creed, politics, gender and wealth, are: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
It just makes sense to teach young people right from wrong, in the classroom, living room and locker room. We want to be surrounded by good people, people we can trust to make decisions according to principle rather than expediency. After all, what are education, coaching and child-rearing supposed to be about? Developing good people who can live healthy, happy lives of purpose — or just clever people who can pass a ball or a test?
The commitment of adults to be models of good character and spend time with young people can make a difference. Young people yearn for consistent adult involvement, and when they get it, according to surveys and plain common sense, they are less inclined toward responsible sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, suicide attempts, vandalism and other problems. [Michigan State University poll of 13,000 adolescents in early 1995] Adults, in turn, need support from society’s institutions.
That kind of support network requires consensus and coordination among the men and women of various ages, races, politics and creeds who make up those institutions. They will need to agree on common values and teach them in word and deed.
The Coalition works to overcome the false but surprisingly powerful notion that no single value is intrinsically superior to another; that ethical values vary by race, class, gender and politics; that greed and fairness, cheating and honesty carry the same moral weight, simply depending on one’s perspective and immediate needs.
Effective character education does not dismiss the importance of self-esteem, but maintains that ethical values must be ranked above expedience and personal preference. Character education sets up objective criteria of virtue and encourages young people to adopt them as ground rules for life.
GENESIS OF THE COALITION
In 1992 the nonprofit and nonpartisan Josephson Institute of Ethics released a report based on a survey of almost 9,000 people, most of whom were in high school and college. The findings were disconcerting: cheating, lying, stealing, and driving were commonplace. (The Josephson Institute has conducted subsequent surveys; click here to see results from the “2004 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth.”)
That same year the Institute convened in Aspen, Colorado, a conference of educators, ethicists and nonprofit leaders. Their task: to share ideas about character development and to investigate ways of working together. Chief among these ways was developing consensus on the ethical values that could be taught at home, in the classroom and at the office without offending political, racial, religious, gender, or socioeconomic sensibilities. This is what they came up with in the Aspen Declaration on Character Education: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice & fairness, caring and civic virtue & citizenship. In a simplified form these came to be known as the "Six Pillars of Character."
To advance the goals of the Aspen Summit Conference on Character Education, the Institute organized the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition in 1993. Members of the Coalition, a national, diverse partnership of schools, communities, education and human-service organizations, are committed to using the Six Pillars of Character in their individual and joint programs. The hope is that by using a consistent language with kids, the lessons of good character will be reinforced and better understood.
WHOSE VALUES, WHAT VALUES?
The Coalition strives to build consensus that there are values that clearly define us at our best, however diverse our views and backgrounds. It follows that such values are worthy of promotion where they are evident and of repair where they have faltered. The Coalition both builds awareness of these consensus values and teaches them to the young in support of the paramount role of parents.
But why six values? Why not five or seven — or thirty-seven? An individual or group may have any number of values, of course, but the Six Pillars serve the need for a brief, yet comprehensive minimum that can be taught to all. There is wide consensus on this point: Some 40 states and hundreds of municipalities, school districts and business groups have joined political leaders (including the President and both houses of Congress) to endorse CHARACTER COUNTS! and the Six Pillars.
Yet why even bother with all this talk of words when action is so desperately needed? If character education is to be effective, diverse groups must work together, society-wide. A standard lexicon is critical because language is the currency of communication. And as with any instruction, effective character education benefits from consistency and repetition, from the family room to the school room to the locker room.
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