Character Education in Junior and Senior High Schools

Introduction and Commentary

The 1937 Programme of Studies for Character Education was part of the curriculum guide put out by the Department of Education in British Columbia. It was intended to set the standards for character education in junior high and senior high schools throughout the province. Teachers were responsible for reading and implementing the guidelines put forth in this particular document. The following is a commentary of the 1937 Programme.

According to the 1937 Programme, the development of good character in students was the 'ultimate goal' of educators. The progress of the student's moral composition was to be a collective effort, with the student developing under the guidance and encouragement of both their home and school, involving their teachers, principal, family, and classmates. Yet ultimately the responsibility lay in the student's own abilities to make the right decisions, to give service willingly, and to acquire and practice "habits of right conduct."

Character was to be considered in all aspects of the curriculum with the clear objective of improving the student's morals. This included the subjects of health and physical education, mathematics, music, art, home economics, science, and even the relatively new sex education, to name a just a few. Character was also to be a proactive element of the student's education. Considering the problems we are facing today, in an effort to prevent 'environmental genocide,' the 1937 curriculum was rather avant-garde in its promotion of conservation of natural resources. Tackling problems with an unprejudiced mind was another feature of the new ideals in character education.

While appreciating sacrifices made by their forebearers, students were also supposed to be conscious of the contributions of other nationalities and ethnic groups in their world. This was in contrast to earlier teaching that viewed non-Europeans as inferior to a dominant white imperialistic culture. Indeed, the 1937 character-based curriculum promoted and encouraged the acceptance and understanding of others in the world at large. The subject of social studies was to incorporate character by giving students a "world point of view," and an "appreciation of other peoples" in hopes that racism might be reduced. The authors of the programme also believed that by studying foreign languages British Columbia secondary school students could come to appreciated the cultures of different ethnic groups. It was hoped that the programme might result in the eventual elemination of anti-foreign prejudices held by students.

English studies courses were also seen as forums for encouraging moral character. English literature was a vehicle in which a student could experience not only the aesthetic pleasure in reading, but could also utilise literature for examples of strong character. Charles C. Watson, a teacher at Point Grey Junior High School, wrote in 1935 that "no study in the whole curriculum offers a wider opportunity for the development of character than literature´┐Ż."

Having a good moral character also implied that the student knew how to use the current standard of appropriate social behaviour in a multitude of situations. Whether on the playing field, where good sportsmanship was the rule, or in informal social situations -- as when greeting guests to the school, conversing on the telephone, meeting people on the street or in a streetcar -- students were expected to conduct themselves according to approved standards of character.

The 1937 programme encouraged the teaching of character education in various aspects of the curriculum and offered, for the most part, very clear advice. However, in the section on sex education this document takes a rather less direct approach. While seeing a great need for the teaching of sex education, this document saw the education system itself limited by public opinion, parents, and the lack of qualifications in teachers. The teaching of this subject was also divided along the lines of gender. Separate classes for males and females, both teachers and students, were to be held whenever sex- related topics were discussed. [Additionally, for girls, lessons associated with sex and character education were conveyed through a new (1937) Home Economics curriculum.] Above all, when discussing sex education, teachers were supposed to focus on good moral character traits, such as "comradeship, love, and family life," and not engage in frank discussion about the possible effects of engaging in 'unprotected sex.'

Not only did the 1937 Programme of Studies for Character Education look at ways to incorporate character into all aspects of the curriculum, it also looked at ways in which the teacher could directly affect the moral education of the child. Twelve principles were set down to guide the teacher in developing education for character. Within these principles two main ideas emerge. First, communication between students and teachers should always remain open regardless of the situation. Second, teachers should encourage students to strive for success by supporting personal interests and by recognizing their own abilities. In addition, teachers were instructed on the way in which to deal with lapses of moral character. Rather than focusing on what not to do, it was more important to derive from the experience the lesson that should be learned, the Programme said.

The Programme of Studies for Character Education was a comprehensive document that outlined how the junior and senior high school curriculum could be modified to emphasize elements associated with character, and how teachers could develop classroom strategems in order to achieve this objective.

Commentary by Denise Charleston, Phyl Babichuk-Mowatt, and Alison Lane, History 349, Malaspina University-College, April 2001