The Public Interest

The return of character education?

Kay S. Hymowitz

Spring 2003

MY daughter’s high school wears its old-fashioned values with pride.  The student handbook insists on “respect, courtesy, safety and care of surroundings.” Every student is required to put in 50 hours of community service over four years to “contribute to society.” Administrators are unafraid to use terms like “good citizenship,” and adults are on the alert for bullying, cliquishness, and peer pressure, which they earnestly discuss with students in “community building” meetings and exercises. So a recent meeting for ninth- and tenth-grade parents, whose ostensible purpose was “a discussion about parties,” came as a bit of a surprise. The head of the high school began the event by announcing matter of factly that, like it or not, many, perhaps even most students were taking drugs and drinking. A school psychologist informed the parents that their kids were “under stress” and that “kids under stress are more likely to drink and take drugs.” Then parents volunteered their own ways of managing the situation: One mother related telling her daughter, “I don’t think you should do this, but if you do please be careful”; a number shared memories about “experimenting” in their own youth. Some parents expressed concern that their kids were being lured into rough neighborhoods to buy drugs, and a few fretted that their children were a little young for all this. Yet one could easily have left the meeting with the conclusion that drinking and smoking pot were entirely normal for 14-year-olds and an understandable reaction to the pressures of trying to get into Yale.

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