“Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

BY RON BRINSON

Consider these sobering conclusions from the “2012 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth”: 51 percent of 23,000 high school students surveyed nationwide admitted they had cheated on an exam in the past year; 55 percent admitted they had lied to a teacher about something important; 76 percent said they had lied to a parent; 20 percent said they had stolen from a store in the past year; and 14 percent admitted stealing from a friend.

We’re describing the future of America’s citizenship here. Hard to believe, huh?

But those stats actually offer some “good news.” The biennial survey of 2012 concludes that these findings, bad as they are, show improvements over 2010. In fact, Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, sees the 2012 Report Card as “a small ray of sunshine ... there is still far too much cheating, lying and stealing, but I think we have turned the corner.” Mr. Josephson is promoting his Institute’s “Character Counts!” programs which key on students embracing the values of honesty, high ethics and personal integrity, and getting parents involved with schools in the teaching of “character.”

The idea of teaching “character” in a classroom might register as a mere social fad to us older folks who generally learned “character” at the feet of our parents and grandparents and mentors — and at times at the end of a switch or a paddle. But classroom character instruction is trending just now for American schools. That’s got to be a good thing, given that character instruction at home can slip through the cracks with pervasive social changes such as two-parents working, latch-key kids or children raising children.

Across America, there are some innovative and promising new programs, none more so than the ”Medal of Honor Character Development Program” which is rooted right here in Charleston.

Back in 2009, Jennifer Lennon, vice president of the Medal of Honor Foundation’s education operations in Mount Pleasant, began outlining a project that would link Medal of Honor heroes to students in instructional sessions about virtues that define good character. The Foundation has video interviews and oral histories with all living MOH recipients. Mrs. Lennon’s concept was to use these personal commentaries to prime classroom discussions about courage and the sense of selflessly protecting and helping others.

“We have these remarkable oral histories and we realized these could be perfect for classroom,” Mrs. Lennon said.

In 2009, a teachers group in Erie, Pa., was given an MOH grant and began to flesh out Mrs. Lennon’s ideas. Real heroes telling their real-life stories would open students’ eyes — and their hearts. Teachers would lead discussions that would highlight the traits that permeate the heroes’ personal stories and commentaries — courage, commitment, sacrifice, integrity, citizenship, and patriotism.

Thus, “character” in its broadest sense would be the context of classroom discussions that would equate to values-training. Students also would apply and sharpen their academic skills — writing, research and critical thinking.

The Erie teachers worked closely with Mrs. Lennon for more than a year, and by 2010 this team had polished and produced a comprehensive program of 59 lesson plans. It’s a teaching and learning program formulated by teachers for teachers — and funded by the MOH Foundation.

And it has been immediately successful. In three years, the foundation has directly trained nearly 1,500 teachers. More than 2,500 teachers have participated in online video tutorials and there are now more than 4,000 registered website users. The program is in place at schools in 43 states, and, most importantly, the foundation estimates more than 500,000 students have participated.

Interestingly, no Charleston area school has yet embraced the program, which the foundation provides free of charge. But that might be about to change. Charleston County schools curriculum administrators reportedly are now working to integrate the MOH lesson plans into social studies curricula. Mrs. Lennon and her colleagues have given the program an interesting new dimension. The “Citizen Service Before Self Honors” features nominations by the Medal of Honor recipients of citizens who serve their community and help their neighbors. The Character Development Program now also includes lessons about “local” heroes and highlights the “character” traits that inspire community service and actions of humanity.

Jennifer Lennon’s creative approach to using the Medal of Honor heroes to “teach” values is remarkable in its simplicity. Even the most cynical high school student will listen up when a war hero speaks. And once they are listening, good teachers can guide the discussion directly to where it should go — to Medal of Honor recipient Teddy Roosevelt’s conclusion that character really is a basket of virtuous traits that guides and serves a country filled with freedom-loving citizens — or one good life.

Ron Brinson is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.