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Yu, Tianlong. (2004). In the Name of Morality: Character Education and Political Control. New York: Peter Lang.

Pp. xiv + 168
$29.95 (Paper)     ISBN 0-204-6725-1

Reviewed by Aaron Cooley
Texas A&M University—Kingsville

May 12, 2005

All too often, scholarly debates (and additionally, the journalistic reporting on them) leave little room for finding a middle ground between two distinct and dichotomous positions. In educational policy, this generalization holds true. From school choice to bilingual education, the dividing lines on controversial issues are clearly demarcated. Surely, Tianlong Yu’s In the Name of Morality: Character Education and Political Control will elicit gasps of displeasure from some educators and “amens” from—others highlighting yet another fault line.

Yu’s work is a critical indictment of the most recent wave of educational reform efforts directed towards student morality. He states quite clearly in the introduction that:

Character education does not represent an encouraging direction for school reform. The overall reform agenda does not challenge the fundamental school structure and value system based on the larger capitalist political, economic, and social hierarchy; therefore it cannot bring significant and positive change to American education. Character education that promotes the cultural politics of conservative power elites only reinforces the status quo and steers school reform in the wrong direction. As transformative school reform is needed, alternative moral education is required. (p.4)

This opinion is one that is not particularly uncommon in the critical education literature and Yu quite quickly discusses why he is so negative on what seems at face value a positive for our young people. He says that “An alternate moral education approach, first, must reject the inculcation of virtues” (p.5). This is the key criticism of character education programs. The problem we will come to see is that no alternative public policy is offered. To Yu’s credit, he tries to articulate an alternative by quoting Henry Giroux’s Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education, but he retreats with the platitude of “We must focus on making the entire school structure, school culture, and educational process morally justifiable and defendable” (p.5). Unfortunately, Yu does not flesh out how we can get to this state in American public education. As we will come to realize, the reason why character education has become so successful is that there is no viable alternative moral education program. When policymakers get lobbied to improve the morality of students, they want a plan and without an articulated (and possibly data-driven) alternative, critical assessments—even excellent ones such as Yu’s—will only be of assistance in charting how the conservative forces played their hand and won.

Yu’s own cultural background makes the opening chapter, which compares character education in the United States and China, unique among other treatises against character education. The description of the similarities and differences is quite instructive; yet the tone remains critical, not supportive of another system. It is great reading and a well-researched section, but the pragmatic value clock keeps ticking.

Yu’s analysis is at its best in Chapter Three: “Moral Decline and the Politicization of Character Education.” This chapter proceeds methodically through the evidence and political tactics used to build support for character education. Yu states his thesis early in the chapter:

It is significant that character educators often justify the movement by pointing to a moral decline in society. They assert that the moral decay is severe and has largely resulted because schools are not doing a good job with the moral education of youth. . . In order to build a better society and produce moral people, character educators argue for the return of traditional virtue-centered character education to schools (p.55)

He then moves to discussing the decline rhetoric used by William Bennett in The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children. His critique of Bennett is well-founded and suggests that “the call by Bennett and others for schools to go back to old-fashioned teaching and learning is unjustified” (p.58).

Another front for this debate opens up in the discussion of poverty’s impact on students’ choices and moral behavior. Again the perspective of Yu differs sharply from Bennett, Lickona, and the character education movement. In fact, this could be the central point to Yu’s analysis: “Contrary to the claims of character education leaders. . . a structural lack of opportunities is the main cause of deviance and crime, not individual pathology” (p.90). This is a major crux in the educational and public policy dilemma that is at issue. Certain factions see much of young people’s unsocial behavior as a result of larger societal injustices and not necessarily their lack of moral training by parents or teachers. In essence, Yu’s faction is simply more sympathetic to the plight of under-served populations of youth and more willing to forgive the desperate actions of desperate children. I do not doubt that Bennett’s faction is any less genuine in their belief that children should be told to help shape themselves and relieve their desperation by their own actions. Obviously, it is at this critical juncture that common ideas could do well to affect social policy (and maybe even society), because what seems clear is that neither ideology works by itself.

In concluding the volume, Yu does his best to forge some novel ideas for an alternative to the virtue-inculcation model he critiques. Yu asserts “Moral education is more about creating a condition and a process in which the moral life can flourish” (p.154). It is hard to disagree with this statement, but again how we get there is an unanswered question.

The final paragraph pleads for attention to educational critique. Yu states:

I must emphasize that a social and political critique is important for the examination of any issues related to education in general and moral education in particular. Ideologies and politics underlie educational ideas and theories and shape educational policies and practices. They fundamentally affect our understanding of education as both a moral and political enterprise. It is our obligation to engage in such a dialectical critique. (p.156)

I appreciate Yu’s words and believe wholeheartedly in them, but I plead for a growth in ideas that goes beyond deconstruction and ventures into the territory of well-developed alternatives to unsatisfactory policies. In short, the battle over character education was not won because its proponents had better ideas—they simply had a plan. In the policy arena, we need legitimate policy alternatives in addition to critique to make schools and children more moral.

About The Reviewer
Aaron Cooley has a B.A. with Honors and a M.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has mentored, tutored, and taught students from pre-K to graduate school. Previously, he worked at the North Carolina General Assembly. His commentaries, reviews, and articles have appeared in EducationalStudies (Forthcoming), Educational Theory, Essays in Education, Journal of Popular Culture (Forthcoming), and the Teachers College Record. Aaron is dedicated to improving the educational and economic opportunities of all Americans through innovative ideas in public policy.

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