Our local junior high school displays huge hallway banners reading, "Respect and Responsibility—We Can Do It Together." Respect, this year's theme, is meant to pervade the multiethnic school. (Last year compassion and caring took the lead.)

At the annual back-to-school night, our principal took a few minutes to explain the theme to us parents, then turned the program over to the cheerleaders. They illustrated respect by lip-synching a bump-and-grind rendition of Aretha Franklin's song of the same name. At the final beat, they turned around, bent over, flipped up their cheerleader skirts, and displayed the word RESPECT, spelled out on pieces of paper pinned to their bottoms.

I nudged my wife: "I don't think they've completely grasped the concept."

Which is roughly what I thought when I learned of the existence of a movement in the public schools to teach children virtuous character. Are educators, I wondered, really ready for this?

Still, the very existence of the character-education movement catches your attention. For some time, public schools have been saying that values are not part of their curriculum. It is news when a substantial group in public education says, "Yes, they are."

I have on my desk a brochure from the Character Development Foundation in Manchester, New Hampshire. Intended to attract teachers to a one-day seminar, it proclaims boldly, "You can teach kids to be smart & Good!" Good is defined (in language typical of the character-education movement) by the traits of self-control, respect, responsibility, honesty, courage, caring, courtesy, and friendship. Character education claims to teach old-fashioned values to kids who are not getting them at home.

It would be hard to be against such an undertaking. ...

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