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Pioneer Editorial: Is 'character' teachable in our schools?

It always takes time after a legislative session to parse exactly what happened when the smoke clears.

This week the attention is on a part of the supplemental spending bill approved last month by lawmakers which allocates $1.5 million to develop a "character education" curriculum which can be adapted by Minnesota public schools.

While it's certainly an excellent idea that our children learn and practice common values that will eventually frame their actions as contributing members of society. And our public schools is a good place to lay that foundation.

But we seriously question if character should be something that is "taught" in our schools.

The program has bipartisan support. A sponsor of the measure, Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, calls it it "golden rule education ... These are common values permeated through society. Things like showing up on time."

Or that's it's not right to lie. Don't cheat on tests. Be respectful of your elders. Don't be wasteful. Don't run in the halls. Think before you speak. Or the biggie: Treat others as you want to be treated.

The measure has the full support of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who told reporters last month in Bemidji that "there are certain values that are non-controversial but are very important, things like honesty, integrity, loyalty, respect, civility, and the like. There's good curriculum available for schools, if they want to offer that."

Surely, $1.5 million won't break the state budget. And the program will be voluntary -- except that there is a carrot of $30 per pupil unit to districts to help cover the costs of implementing the curriculum.

It seems, though, to be a sad commentary on society that such common values must be taught in our schools as a formal class. They are values that should come naturally from the home, the church, or through our interactions with others, including at school. But, given a society with broken homes or both parents working, it is yet another societal behavior problem which is being thrust at our educators who just want to teach and not be social workers.

Kids should be able to pick up the right signals from their schools now, knowing right from wrong, or the consequences of not showing up on time. It just seems that a formal curriculum to instill those values is overkill.

Unfortunately, those willing to take such a class and follow along with the lessons and tests probably don't need it in the first place. It's those who skip class and won't open the book for anything that we need to reach.

In other words, can one really "teach" character?