Character First! won’t improve staff morale

Our current political leaders have taken the art of say-one-thing-and-do-another to new heights.

Secretary Jerry Regier, of the Florida Department of Children & Families, recently called for applause for DCF staffers for their hard work and remarkable achievements.

Meanwhile, back at the department, he has discovered the source of the problems at the beleaguered agency: the workers are deficient in character. And better yet, the governor, the secretary and the Legislature, have the cure: mandated attendance in a program titled Character First!

Imagine that you are a 50-year-old case worker with 25 years’ experience with DCF in Orlando. You come to work on a Monday morning to face a number of new referrals to be investigated, phone calls to be returned, and a mountain of paperwork. But the order from above is for you to report to the auditorium for a lecture on dependability. (According to a story in Florida Today, the auditorium walls contained Character First! banners and cardboard cutouts of Sponge Bob Square Pants and Minnie Mouse.)

This will improve your morale? Character First! is a sanitized version of the work of evangelist Bill Gothard, with references to God and Christianity edited out to make it acceptable for government use. Regier used the program in Oklahoma and Gov. Jeb Bush used it in his Liberty City charter school.

By statute, Character First! must be considered as the study guide for character education in public schools beginning in 2004. The developers of this curriculum have identified 49 qualities that define character (the inward motivation to do what is right when no one is watching), correlating with Gothard’s 49 “Commands of Christ.” The training includes lectures, laminated pocket guides and handouts,.

Now, I readily affirm that all of us could stand a little character improvement. But this is not the way to do it, if indeed the government has any business in this business. The evidence tells us that how we act and who we are very much reflects the situation that we find ourselves in. The focus of Character First!, “fixing” the worker, ignores the real need, which is reform of the system.

A quick Google search on the Internet highlights the controversy that has dogged the program wherever it has gone, including Florida. I mention only two issues.

A major problem lies in the fact that there is not a shred of empirical evidence that Character First! has any impact other than making the promoters feel good. The development of character is a long-term, complex process, not likely to be affected by lectures (even with handouts and laminated pocket reminders). And in a time of increased governmental control and secrecy, do we want to encourage blind loyalty and deference to hierarchical authority, as this curriculum does?

Still, I recommend continued use of Character First! on an experimental basis, with two conditions: The enrollees would be Bush, Regier and members of the Legislature; and the seriatim study of the 49 qualities begin with meekness, sincerity, humility, deference and responsibility.

Kent S. Miller is professor emeritus of psychology at Florida State University. Contact him at ksmiller@mailer.fsu.edu.

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