Arati Singh

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Since colonial times, character education has played a kaleidoscopic role in American schools. Seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritan curriculum was synonymous with an exceedingly rigid and religious moral code. Nineteenth century policy makers adopted a Pan-Protestant, and then a generalized Christian philosophy of character education, as they pursued a common school system. As twentieth century American society grew increasingly pluralistic, the religious basis of character education succumbed to a more secular framework. Predictably, this century has seen character education be demoted to just one of many competing items on the national education agenda. Paradoxically, today's violence-filled headlines evince a more desperate need than ever for character education in public schools. At the same time, America is more pluralistic than it has ever been. Consequently, the task of deciding whose values to teach, and how to best teach them, is most treacherous.

A starting place for this task may be an examination of the three domains of character education: moral, political, and intellectual. This paper will explore the "essential tensions" that have historically defined these three domains. A discussion of these domains in light of current policy and practice will follow. Finally, the author will analyze constructivist service-learning, which, in the author's experience, is the character education model that best maximizes each domain and thoroughly acknowledges the desperation and pluralism of current American society.