Q: What prompted you to write A Call for Character Education and Prayer in the Schools? What "message" do you want to communicate?
A: I was raised as an atheist, in an environment in which I was taught that people of faith were responsible for many of the problems of the world. I am old enough to remember when Bible readings, voluntary prayer, and character education were still a part of the public school curriculum. I am also young enough to remember when these practices were taken out of the public schools. Even though I was an avid, and admittedly bigoted, anti-Christian atheist at the time, I could clearly see the striking difference in the school atmosphere after these practices were removed. Before 1963, if there was a major student conflict, teachers would instruct students regarding the wrongs of bullying, bring them through the steps of love and forgiveness, and attempt to bring about a peaceful resolution. There was also the use of terms like “delayed gratification,” “the work ethic,” “loving one another” and “sacrificing for others” that quickly declined in their use after 1963. All these trends caused even me, a staunch atheist, to question my beliefs and my insistence that I had no desire to interact with a person of faith.
In the years of schooling that followed I saw the atmosphere of the schools radically change, as the students gradually jettisoned most convictions of right and wrong. A culture of drugs, gangs, and violence pervaded the schools I attended. I grieved over a student movement that said it favored peace, but was bombing school buildings and attacking faculty and firefighters supposedly in the name of peace. Something was terribly wrong with the worldview of many in my generation. There was a moral vacuum in which we were simply encouraged to “do our own thing,” rather than “sacrifice for others.”
The fear proclaimed by many adults of the time was that these morally confused youth would one day be our leaders. And indeed, gradually they became our leaders. I realized I had to confront my belief system that had largely been based on stereotypes of people I had never met. I consumed hundreds and thousands of books and realized that character instruction previously had a central place in the schools for a good reason. I also realized that our society had paid a large price for its removal from the schools. Even our current recession is largely due to government and corporate corruption, by the same leaders who had little or no character instruction in their schools. I realized that a large degree of character was necessary for a society to thrive. Society cannot thrive unless people trust each other and when character is reduced substantially, so is trust.
Q: What was the highlight of your research? In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most? What surprises readers/others the most about your research?
A: I was most surprised by the extent to which the character of a people is so closely connected to crime rates, academic achievement, economic health, and so forth. Of course, whether character instruction occurs in the school is not the only, nor even the most important, source of personal integrity. However, if one concurrently examines the decline of the family and societal morality, it is amazing the extent to which other indices reflect health or problems. For example, is it merely coincidence that after falling between 1948 and 1962, divorce rates surged 17 consecutive years between 1963 and 1980 and the nation’s average SAT dropped 17 consecutive years during precisely the same period? Is it coincidence that in nations that remove character instruction from the schools, juvenile crime starts to skyrocket in the following year and drops when this instruction is reintroduced?
When I shared these data with other academics, government leaders, and people all across the globe, probably 98% of them acknowledge that there is a strong relationship between the character issue and crime, corruption, achievement, and other variables. Even though these individuals had generally given little thought to the matter previously, they realize there is a relationship. It has surprised me how quickly experts have agreed that the data speak so “loudly” that to use their words, the relationship is “undeniable.” I think it is largely because of this fact that I have been humbled with the opportunity to speak on these findings for the White House and for several government departments. These ideas have been embraced by both the Obama and G.W. Bush administrations, as well as by the government leaders of Great Britain, China, and South Korea.
Q: How did your research change your outlook on character education and faith?
A: As I shared, my research really began years ago, when I was in high school. Confronted with the realities of what the dearth of character education and any notion of freedom of religion in the schools had produced, I gained a great appreciation for both character education and America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. I do believe that character education can be taught in the public schools in a way that is not religious, but rather teaches children values that are embraced by people all around the world. All people, unless they are criminals or sociopaths, want their children to be taught to love, to be honest and sincere, responsible, and so forth. These are the values that should be taught in the schools. Nevertheless, I also think that public educators should show greater tolerance toward people of faith and as President Bill Clinton and others have shared, this is clearly missing. School teachers should teach about people of faith respectfully.
It is no doubt ironic that the man who wrote the foreword for this book is Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s son, Bill Murray. Madalyn Murray O’Hair worked harder than any other individual to remove all vestiges of faith and character instruction from the public schools. Bill and I were both raised as atheists and knew nothing better than to agree with our moms growing up. But then we each got older, researched the matter, and concluded that the faith heritage of the United States had primarily been a force for good. Love of God, love of neighbor, humility, peace, and joy that are practiced by Christians, Jewish people, and others are values to be respected and not dishonored. Even if a teacher is not a person of faith, religious people should not be demeaned. I believe a moment of silence is an appropriate way for people of all religious and non-religious persuasions to reflect and that this should be allowed in the schools.
Q: How have people reacted to your book and/or the ideas you set forth? Is it what you hoped for, or is there more work to be done?
A: I have been amazed and humbled at the extent to which government leaders, in particular, around the world have embraced these ideas. These ideas played a large role in my development of a 4-point plan to stimulate the South Korean economy in 1998, in the midst of Asia’s 1997-1998 economic crisis, the greatest such Asian crisis of the post-World War II period. This plan passed the South Korean parliament and helped the economy recover faster than in any other nation in Asia, growing by over 10% each of the next 2 years. I have had opportunities to speak on these ideas for the Obama and G.W. Bush administrations. I have also spoken on these themes at some of the top 20 American and world universities. I surely do not deserve these opportunities, but I am convinced it is by virtue of the truth of these principles rather than based on any talent in me that people in the government, the social sciences, and elsewhere have responded so enthusiastically.
Nevertheless, one only has to look at the morning news to realize that there is much work that needs to be done. Most classrooms do not value character education and dozens of nations have greater religious freedom in the public square than Americans do. The United States has a long way to go, as does the rest of the world, but hopefully this book can be a beginning.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I am anticipating writing a book on School Choice. I first wrote on this topic in 2000 for the Cambridge Journal of Education, in an article entitled, “School Choice: A Balanced Perspective.” I received a very positive response from this article, because of its emphasis on balance. The people of the United States in recent years have become more polarized in their views and I think there is a real need to examine the data and look at certain controversial issues in a balanced way. I also continue to work with both academic and political leaders in the United States to develop ways of teaching character education that nearly everyone can support.