The Red Road

Different Perspective for Character Education

Don Trent Jacobs

Curriculum development in the postmodern era must also include attention to the wisdom embedded in Native American spirituality, for it is in the very sacred land of the native people that American education now finds its home. --Patrick Slattery (Curriculum Development in the Post Modern Era)


Traditional Native American child-rearing philosophies provide a powerful alternative in education. They challenge both the European cultural heritage of today's child pedagogy and the narrow perspectives of many current psychological theories. --Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg and Steven Van Bockern (Reclaiming Youth at Risk)



It is unlikely that the current "character education" movement will significantly contribute to developing more virtuous people until we challenge and replace some basic assumptions that are driving it. An alternative and more successful model for teaching virtues existed for thousands of years in the world's indigenous cultures. Although dormant amidst westernized reservation schools, its roots remain alive within the hearts and minds of our first nation's people. The author proposes this ancient worldview as a response to six of Alfie Kohn's criticisms of character education, from his article, "How Not to Teach Values." (Phi Delta Kappan, February 1997)



Last night my neighbor, a Lakota man in his early thirties, stopped by my house to use the phone. He wanted to call the jailhouse to find out how much bail was for his brother. "It's eighty-five dollars," he told me after hanging up. "They got him on a two-year old warrant for drunk driving. I think I can get the eighty-five in Gordon this weekend." I asked him what he planned on doing in Gordon, the Nebraska border town about forty miles south of our homes. "Oh, it is not what you might call ethical work. We find things like answering machines and old televisions that people on the rich side of town have thrown in the garbage dumpsters. Then we sell them at the pawnshop. Works pretty good though."


Such is life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located in Shannon County, South Dakota. The district's claim to fame is that it is the poorest one in the United States. It is also the home of the Oglala Lakota, better known to the "outside" world as the Sioux Indians, the tribe of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Black Elk, and others known for their courage, patience, honesty, fortitude and spiritual wisdom.

"It is not really what you might call ethical work," my neighbor had said. I wondered why not. I compared taking old thrown-away televisions and reselling them to other ways of making a living. Although digging through garbage dumps has its obvious shortcomings, is it unethical? I think what my neighbor meant was that it is not what people in the dominant culture would expect from someone of "good character."

It might help to know my neighbor to understand where I am going with this anecdote. He, like his famous ancestors, has a sense of generosity, honesty, bravery, patience, fortitude and humility rarely seen in the fast-paced economic world of the dominant culture. In spite of the harsh realities of reservation life, his spirituality generally sustains him. Like many who have learned that alcohol is not a good way to escape despair, he prizes his sobriety. His desire for money has not yet corrupted his spiritual convictions.

Still, my neighbor is beginning to define himself in terms of the white man's culture, where the measure of character seems to be more about external appearances than inner peace. "It is not really what you might call ethical work" reveal at attitude that believes the quiet compassion of a caring waitress deserves less respect than the dispassionate success of a famous celebrity.

There are many people on the reservation like my neighbor. In spite of the tragic consequences of poverty, disease and oppression that surround them, they still believe that children are sacred; that elders deserve respect; that air and water are meant to be clean; that all creatures should be honored; that there is joy in remembering the relatedness in life's diversity; and that a balanced life, referred to in Lakota as "The Red Road," is not likely unless it is guided by such core, universal virtues as courage and generosity.

My neighbor dropped out of school early and did not gain his good character from school learning. This is no surprise. Most formal educational institutions (both on and off the reservation) do little to encourage the authentic development of character. Many educators and politicians want this to change. They see a relationship between an absence of virtuous attitudes and actions and the rampant violence and apathy in society. So they are endorsing all sorts of programs that add character development to school curriculum. With few exceptions, however, the new character education programs miss the target. Too often they are merely add-ons to uninvestigated environments that continue to overemphasize competition, standardization, disconnected curriculum, individual gain and materialism. Ultimately, the programs are more about compliant behaviors, religious or social indoctrination and classroom management than about the deep, experiential awareness that leads to health and happiness for the common good of all.

In his article, for Phi Delta Kappan, "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education," (February, 1997) Alfie Kohn offers an excellent critique of the current character education phenomenon by identifying a variety of problematic issues. In the following paragraphs, I paraphrase his assertions (in italics) then briefly describe how the indigenous worldview may offer a remedy. (To better contextualize his arguments and understand his rationale for them, I recommend reading his entire article.)

1. What goes by the name of character education nowadays is, for the most part, a collection of exhortations and extrinsic inducements designed to make children work harder and do what they're told. (Kohn, p.2)

Intrinsic motivation is a hallmark of indigenous approaches to learning. Learning a new skill is seen as a way to help others and to honor the complex connections associated with the skill. Learning to paint well shows respect for the elements used in making the paints for the idea, creature or object depicted in the art. In the same way, scientific formulas would be important to learn for they might give the student sufficient wisdom with which to protect Mother Earth.

American Indian educators understand that when learning is motivated predominantly by rewards and punishments, a culture emerges that is dependent upon external authority figures and that focuses on the outer journey to the exclusion of the inner one.

Such a dependence on authoritarian mandates opposes the traditional primal view that only personal experience and intuitive insights can offer legitimate authority. Spirits may give guidance through a medicine person, but the individual is expected to make his or her own choices. The central purpose of indigenous teaching is to empower others, so authority over them is hypocritical.

2. Character education generally tends to ignore systems in which more and more of the nation's wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. (Kohn, p.4)

It would be difficult to imagine traditional Lakota or Aboriginal educators teaching virtues outside of the social and ecological context. The very reason for teaching courage, generosity, fortitude and humility is to assure respect for the many relationships that create a healthy community. Nor do typical indigenous economic and social systems condone significant discrepancies of wealth between people. For example, I know a Raramuri Indian whose talents and skills resulted in his owning many more oxen, horses and goats than did his neighbors. When he learned that a man's family who lived several hundred miles away had only two goats, he had a great give-a-way party for the community. By the end of the day, he still had ample stock, but the disparity between his wealth and his neighbors had narrowed considerably.

Many tribal customs help assure that excessive material wealth is shared and that no one suffers economic misfortunate when others are rich. Name-giving ceremonies, send-offs for young people going to school or into the military and many other occasions all involve giving away gifts. Wealth, in essence, is determined by how much is shared rather than by how much is accumulated.

It is also important to note that the same systems that create poverty are also destroying ecosystems. In the indigenous worldview, character education is as much about creatures, rivers, rocks and sky as it is about people. Considering the current administration's denial of such environmental calamities as global warming and the growing alarm of scientists about coral reefs, underground water and polar ice caps, this alone would make the indigenous worldview a vital contribution to character education.

3. The character education movement seems to be driven by a stunningly dark view of children-and of people in general. (Kohn, p.4)

The words for men, women, and children in American Indian languages include a syllable that means, "sacred." In traditional native worldviews, babies enter the world as spiritual beings and they are born into a sacred relationship with the universe and its creatures. With such an understanding, any character education that attempts to "control" inherently bad children or "fix" their problems is not relevant to true life. The teaching of virtues through stories is an effort to prevent life's unhealthy temptations from leading a growing child off the natural path through life and into the journey beyond.

4. The question, "Whose values?" should not be dismissed.

With very few exceptions, there is little to no historical evidence that any of the hundreds of tribes living in North American prior to European colonization, ever attempted to inculcate their particular tribe's values onto another, nor murdered others for having different values. Contemporary native peoples continue to respect all religious perspectives and tolerate a variety of values that do not violate or disrespect diversity. Considering the history of western civilizations, there is much to be said for such a worldview.

Contemporary character education generally distinguishes between "values" and "virtues." So do American Indians. They are very skeptical of what can happen when one person or culture's preferred values are forced on another's. On the other hand, they believe that there are core universal virtues that are beacons for walking the Red Road. In fact, most cultures have identified courage, generosity, fortitude, patience and humility as core universal virtues. When combined with a spiritual understanding that "We are all related," these virtues lead to people who all would see as having "good character."

5. Most character education programs resort to exhortation and directed recitation. (Kohn, p.8)

Scholars like Patrick Slattery and Larry Brendtro (See opening quotes.) point to American Indian pedagogy as exemplary for child development and curriculum of all sorts. This would be especially true as regards character education. Recalling the native approach to authority, it would be unnatural to expect that exhortation would be of much value in this worldview. In an unpublished survey I conducted for my doctoral research at Boise State University, I combined several lists of ways that American Indian students learn best and mixed them with lists of typical pedagogical approaches used in most schools. I asked graduate students, white-collar workers and blue-collar workers to choose the ones they though were best lead to meaningful learning.

More than 80 percent of the respondents selected more than 70 percent of the "Indian" learning strategies. In other words, the worldview that tends to define Indian learning also happens to be the best way for all people to learn, yet it contradicts the dominant culture's assumptions about teaching and learning. Another study at BSU was conducted by Karen Swisher and showed that contemporary American Indian learners are influenced significantly more than non-Indian learners by the degrees to which group harmony and holistic approaches to health and spirituality exist in the learning environment. This tendency reflecting a different worldview handed down by relatives. If embraced by all educators, such a holistic perspective would eventually become policy, preventing the kind of "top-down" pedagogy currently used in most character education strategies.

6. Most leading proponents of character education approach their subject from a highly religious foundation. William Bennett, for example, has flatly asserted that the difference between right and wrong cannot be taught without reference to religion and almost all of the leading proponents of character education are devout Catholics.

This last observation of Kohn's may be the most significant problem for contemporary character education and may best provide an arena for discussing the contrast between indigenous and western paradigms as they relate to teaching virtues. Without doubt, this territory is full of mines and it will take courage for most readers to read what follows with a loving heart and an open mind. The sensitivity surrounding critical awareness about the distinctions between character education and religion is high. For example, consider the letter recently sent to me by the publisher of mainstream educational journal. It was an honest and respectful note in response to my having sent an article questioning mandatory postings of The Ten Commandments in public schools as a way to teach virtues.

It stated,

"Dear Don, Your article is logical, well-written and thought provoking, but it is too controversial for our audience."

This is a small example of how far critical pedagogy, an important aspect of authentic character education, has to go beyond the rhetoric about its importance. Yet only with a sincere, respectful search for the truth can people use context to reflect upon and practice the virtues. Parker Palmer describes truth as "an eternal conversation about things that matter conducted with passion and discipline." With this in mind, let us proceed to begin a dialogue about this "controversial" subject of religion and its role in character education.

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Part II

The American Indian worldview sees all religious beliefs as divine metaphors for a common truth that allows different people to concentrate on spiritual matters in different ways. The various tribes have their own creation stories and specific religious ceremonies. Their spirituality is less specific. It reflects a concern for the great questions about how best to live respectfully as a part of God's world. It honors the diverse ways to pray or to comprehend God and the universe. It is, in a way, more about the great mysteries than about man's ability to offer great answers. Sacredness and mystery are inseparable in this view.

Many, western religions, especially many Christian ones, appear to be more about answers, rules and consequences. When moved into arenas of education, power and politics, this has led to some of the greatest tragedies of our past. As a force behind character education, it tends to emphasize extrinsic motivation. Brain research show this is not the best way to learn and the behaviorist approach to character education is one reason the call for teaching virtues is not being answered effectively.9

Not counting many unconverted indigenous people the world over, many great educators, philosophers and political leaders have recognized the potential dangers of organized religion when it goes beyond the boundaries of personal faith. For example, Alfred North Whitehead wrote that "Christian theology is one of the greatest disasters of the human race." Thomas Paine said, " As an engine of power, it serves the purposes of despotism, and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests, but so far as respects the good of man it has no great benefit." Arthur Schlesinger said "Religion enshrined hierarchy, authority and inequality." Thomas Jefferson who said we have much to learn from the American Indians also said "I do not fine in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature." Bertrand Russell wrote, "The Christian religion, as organized, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world." (For these and many other similar quotes, see James Haught's book, 2000 Years of Disbelief.) 10

Of course, there are laws regarding issues relating to establishing religion as a foundation for public policy. But recent federal and state laws seem to have ignored this in the name of character education. In 1999, The U.S. House of Representatives voted 248 to 180 to allow states to post the Ten Commandments in public schools. This rider was attached to a juvenile justice crime bill. Its author convinced the legislators that only an improvement in the morality of youth can prevent the violent crimes they are perpetrating, and that biblical laws are the best source for such a task. It is interesting to note that in February of the year 2000, Pope John Paul II concurred, saying that "The Ten Commandments provide the only true basis for the lives of individuals, societies and nations."

To date, fourteen states have passed laws either allowing or mandating that schools post the ten biblical mandates in all classrooms. For example, the Colorado government passed Senate Bill 114, which states: "Each school district shall post in every public school classroom and in the main entryway in every public school a durable and permanent copy of the Ten Commandments as specified in paragraph (b) of this subsection." Similarly, Georgia's House Bill 1207 amends Georgia's Quality Basic Education Act to require local school systems to ensure that the Ten Commandments are displayed in every classroom within the school district, "as a condition for receiving state funds."

As character educators, we must consider carefully the possible repercussions of this growing public policy that endorses the Ten Commandments as "the only true basis" for our children's lives. A good place to start is with honest questions. Will the practice of posting (and presumably explaining) the Ten Commandments enhance or confuse moral development? If we are ordered to post them in our classroom, how can we best study them so as to help our students grow into people with good character? What do the Ten Commandments say about a worldview that relates to education and character?

The following questions that pertain specifically to some of the Commandments are from a chapter in my book, Teaching Virtues: Building Character Across the Curriculum. The first question after the commandment is intended to be critical. The second is meant to help look for the commandments possible positive contribution to moral development. After the questions, I offer a set of guidelines from an indigenous perspective to give the reader an opportunity to reflect on the different worldviews that are reflected in each.

The First Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

1. Does the first commandment, which demands that only the Hebrew God be worshipped, convey respect for diversity and multicultural perspectives?

2. Could we interpret this to mean that we should believe in one divine creator and not worship such false gods as money or fame?

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not serve them for I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

1. Might a mandate against any object of worship create confusion or unnecessary guilt in children who themselves or whose parents create or otherwise use sacred symbols (like the American Indian pipe)? And what can we say about jealousy and threats of punishment in light of moral development, including punishment of future generations?

2. Could this mean that worship should only be for the great mysterious Spirit and we should never be so arrogant as to think we can reduce this Spirit into an image? Could the authors have read in their own human emotions about jealousy and punishment?

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

1. The original interpretation of this related to breaking contracts w\that were sworn on God's name. More recently people have come to think this means not cursing with God's name ("gosh darn" probably would not count). In either case, might this ultimate law somehow detract from an emphasis on the great universal virtues that emphasize generosity, humility, courage, etc.?

2. Could this just be telling us to be very truthful always, but especially if we invoke God's name?

The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work, But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.

1. Since the Sabbath originally referred to Saturday, is a mandate not to work on Saturday going to contribute to the moral development of young people?

2. Do you think that in our modern world we could use this as a reminder to slow down and spend more time in spiritual pursuits and less in material ones?

The Fifth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.

1. From a critical thinking standpoint, is it a violation of the mandate to honor one's father and mother if a child's father has abused, molested and violated the child and continues to do so? If a young person has such good reason not to honor a parent, is it healthy to expect that this person's life may be cut short by God? If we generally respect all people, is it wise to be more selective in which ones we honor?

2. Is it not a good idea to remember all the good things our parents do and show respect for their good work and love?

The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

1. What is the difference between killing as in hunting and murder? Is it inconsistent if the same state that mandates the teaching or posting (Can you do one without the other?) of this law also mandates capital punishment?

2. What are some ways we can discuss the various meanings of the word "kill" and the possibilities in our world for killing. The

Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

1.Can anyone name a situation where stealing to survive may not be one of the top ten violations of good character? Since the original meaning of this commandment referred to stealing a person's slaves, how does it fit today's context?

2. Which of our core universal virtues would be violated if someone stole from another?

The Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

1. What can we say about the character of the forty percent of U.S. adults who have caused this infraction? Is is possible that there are any times when adultery might be committed by someone with good character or when it might not rank as one of the top ten morality issues in the world?

2.With diseases like AIDS, would not this mandate now have life and death repercussions if not followed?

The Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

1.Is this reference to honesty complete enough? For example, is it just as bad to be dishonest against oneself or about events as it is to "bear false witness" against neighbors? In other words, are the other ways to be dishonest as well that might be included in this law?

2. Could this be telling us that the worse form of dishonesty occurs when we hurt another?

The Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet..

1. Are we breaking a serious code of moral conduct and good character if we wish for or desire (covet) someone else's possessions but take no actions in support of such feelings?

2. Since how and what we think is too often reflected in how we act, could not this commandment motivate us to try and control our desires as much as our actions?

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Part III.

By contemplating such questions about a code we blindly accept and that may be increasing its hold on educational policies, we might better understand the worldview that is the basis for our choices. By using both types of questions, one questioning and one supporting the efficacy of the Ten Commandments, a healthy dialogue between teachers, parents, administrators and students can occur regardless of religious persuasion. Whatever personal conclusions people make, a better understanding of the truth might result.

After the above exercise, contrast and compare the Ten Commandments with Vlesti's representation that follows of the guidelines that reflect indigenous perspectives. Ask similar pro and con questions of them. Do this, not as a way to see which "religion" or "culture" is better, but which set better identifies and articulates a worldview that supports diversity and a more ideal foundation for moral development.

The Ten Indian Commandments

(Joe Vlesti Associates 1993)


1.Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.

2. Remain close to the Great Spirit.

3. Show great respect for your fellow beings.

4. Work together for the benefit of all mankind.

5. Give assistance and kindness wherever needed.

6. Do what you know in your heart and mind to be right.

7. Look after the well being of mind and body.

8. Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.

9. Be truthful and honest at all times.

10. Take responsibility for your actions.

Another way to reflect on the different cultural assumptions between the dominant worldview and the indigenous ones is to note what the latter does not do:

Alfie Kohn concludes his critical evaluation of character education by saying there is a "need to reevaluate the practices and premises of contemporary character education. To realize a humane and progressive vision for children's development, we may need to look elsewhere." (Kohn, p.14)

I suggest that the "elsewhere" is in the traditional understand of the first Americans that are our neighbors throughout this land. Perhaps by embracing this understanding, we cannot only provide a more logical support for character education, but in so acknowledging the great value of this perspective, we might also renew hope for American Indians. In walking The Red Road together, we may exercise the great virtues enough to make our world a better place for all, before it is too late.

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