School house
James V. Shuls

Spend enough time in public schools today and you will undoubtedly hear someone mention “grit,” the “growth mindset,” or some other phrase now characterized as “social and emotional learning” (SEL). In a recent white paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Professor Jay Greene argues that these are new terms, but not new concepts. Rather, they are simply a renaming and a secularizing of what we have long called character education, the roots of which come directly from our moral and religious heritage.

In their 1982 book, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820 – 1980, authors David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot explain how public, common schools spread across the nation. For the most part, the development of our nation’s public education system was driven by Protestant reformers who saw public education as a missionary crusade. Public education, in their eyes, was never just about teaching students to read or write. It was about creating a virtuous and moral society.

Greene suggests a number of reasons for this shift, including school consolidation and centralized management. Ultimately, the problem is that schools have become more disconnected from the communities in which they reside. As a result, school leaders are re-branding morals and values as SEL to make character education more palatable. In doing so, Greene argues, they remove the reason for why students should even develop positive character in the first place.

According to Greene, schools will do a better job of teaching values, morals, character, or SEL (whatever you want to call it) when those values are rooted in the values or faith traditions of the community. For this to happen, parents must have more agency in their child's education. This can happen through increased local control of public schools or through school choice.  

We all want our children to be moral; we are just not so sure we want some distant bureaucrat to determine what that means.

To dig deeper, check out Greene’s full paper here.  


About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.