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Jeynes’ Book Focuses on America’s Moral Shortcomings

Published: January 15, 2010

Teacher Education’s William Jeynes sees more deficits than just the economic kind facing 21st century America. To Jeynes, the debt is as much moral as monetary and he has written a book to explain why.

A Call for Character Education and Prayer in the Schools from Praeger, a part of the Greenwood Publishing Group, is a 328-page text with a foreword by William J. Murray, son of the late atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hare, that argues the lack of both school prayer and consistent moral instruction in U.S. schools has had devastating consequences both for the American education system and for the nation. Jeynes argues for restoring moral instruction and nonspecific religious moments to the classroom as a way of restoring moral grounding in American society.

“What I argue in my book is that we don’t have to get religious about character education,” said Jeynes, who joined the university in 2001. “Yes, moral education used to be primarily based on Judeo-Christian principles. Yes, our country is different now but does that mean we can no longer offer character education? I would say no.”

The book traces the history of character education in the public schools, including coverage of leading advocates of character education from Thomas Jefferson to DeWitt Clinton to Horace Mann. Jeynes then offers a broad survey of the country since the Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 that removed prayer and Bible reading from the public schools, asserting that most of America’s greatest problems are moral in nature, and could be addressed by making moral instruction and a focus on the spiritual a part of student lives.

Jeynes asserts that in the aftermath of these court rulings, the nation endured one of the worst and longest sustained increases in juvenile crime in history. He notes, “Schools have undergone a substantial transformation in the last 40 or 45 years. There are challenges and problems that schools face today that would have been unfathomable four or five decades ago. A seemingly interminable number of statistics testify to the fact that American school children are in trouble.”

Jeynes argues that it is possible, desirable and imperative that the U.S. re-introduce character education and acceptance of people of faith. “It is implausible to argue against character education simply because one does not like religion, especially when those who advocate character instruction desire that the curriculum be nonreligious in nature,” he said. He cites President Bill Clinton’s 1995 speech that asserted schools need to broaden what is often an insular attitude toward people of faith. Jeynes adds, “It is crucial that schools not send an antireligious message that would neutralize any positive effects that moral instruction would have.”

Jeynes is a well-known author, researcher and public speaker. He has spoken in 47 states and in every inhabited continent. He has spoken for the White House, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Harvard University, and the Harvard Family Research Project. He spoke at the White House Summit on the Education of Inner City Children in Washington, D.C., in 2008 on “The Academic Contributions of Faith-Based Schools” in which he shared results from meta-analyses and the analysis of nationwide data sets that faith-based schools reduce the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. He has spoken for both the Obama and G. W. Bush administrations and interacted with each of these presidents. He has served as a consultant for both the U.S. and South Korean government on educational and economic issues. During the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s that started in South Korea, he proposed a four-point plan to the Acting President of Korea that eventually became the core of South Korea’s economic stimulus package. He received his master’s from Harvard and his Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Chicago.

Jeynes feels many of the problems we face today as a society, and especially in our schools, are moral in nature.

“In this school year alone, 25 Chicago public schools children were murdered and according to the Chicago Sun-Times, more than 500 Chicago school kids were shot from September 2007 through December 2008,” he said. “You could make a good argument that some reasons for our current economic crisis are moral. For Wall Street to do what it did and think only of itself and not give a hoot for anyone else suggests that if Wall Street movers and shakers had been raised with higher moral input, they might have done differently. One can say the same thing about many of our current government leaders who pressured Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lend to people who could not afford to purchase homes. Now these government officials disingenuously plead innocence, when they are the very ones who contributed to the problem. I believe it would be naïve to think that school does not have a moral impact next to that of parents.”

William Jeynes
Photo by Victoria Sanchez
William Jeynes

When Jeynes proposed his four-point economic stimulus plan to the Acting President of Korea, he asserted that to the extent that the Korea government recognized the relationship between morality and economic prosperity, the economy would thrive. Consequently, Jeynes’ economic plan had certain moral components, including investing in the poorer areas of Korea and making a public example of the business people who were responsible for the corrupt activities that caused the nation’s economic crisis.

Jeynes also argues that every nation has certain common belief systems that can be taught in schools without controversy. “Honesty needs to be taught in the schools. Love needs to be taught and so should responsibility,” he said. “It is my proposition that schools address the commonalities that all cultures believe and teach them.”

Jeynes disagrees with the idea that character education taught in the public schools needs to be faith based. “That’s not appropriate in our society as it exists today,” he said. “But I think that, in order for character education to thrive, we need to respect religions and philosophies that have a clear moral component. If we teach character education and then say we don’t want to hear anything from Christianity or Buddhism, we send a message to students that only a certain kind of character education is acceptable.”

Jeynes recently addressed the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C. as part of a series on parenting where he examined how various factors help reduce the achievement gap. One of his fundamental positions was that a greater multidisciplinary approach would help narrow that gap. One discipline he pointed to was faith.

“I think a good argument can be made that those who are most hurt by the non-recognition of faith are those ethnic groups who are more likely to describe themselves as religious, which surveys have identified as African Americans and Latinos. If anything, I believe, the non-recognition of faith exacerbates the achievement gap,” he said. “By diminishing the importance of faith in our schools, we have deprived people of a source of strength in their lives. I do not think it is proselytizing to allow people to have a source of strength in their lives. We want to encourage individuals to draw from these sources.”

Jeynes encourages those interested in the today’s changing classroom to read A Call for Character Education and Prayer in the Schools.

“Look at the issues confronting education including violence and the economy,” he said. “Let us admit many of these problems have their roots in character. We need to step back and ask ourselves objectively, what mistakes have we made that created these messes? That’s why people need to read this book.”