Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 19-20.
Imagine an enormous royal blue tick. If that seems too repulsive, imagine a large royal blue beachball. Let a little of the air out to soften the shape. Add six scrawny appendages—two arms with three-fingered hands, and four short legs, each one ending in a brown shoe. Put a large yellow star (five-pointed) on the stomach. Set a bright blue head about the size of a cantaloupe on top of a tiny neck, and let two stubby antennae sprout from the top. Finish the face with two large, pleading eyes, a yellow clown nose, and a hesitant, crooked grin.
This is Mr. Starbuck. This is our mascot for teaching character education in our public school.
Character education is fashionable these days. It comes, not at the request of parents, but in response to upper-level teachers and members of the business community tired of dealing with irresponsible young adults who arrive late or not at all, who are lazy, careless, and rude, and who expect grades or pay for doing almost nothing.
Mr. Starbuck is supposed to help remedy this. He promotes thirteen "responsibility skills"—be prepared, be on time, be here, be responsible, be a worker, be a listener, be a goal-setter, be a risk-taker, be polite, be friendly, be confident, be a doer, be healthy.
These skills are printed on large shiny posters in the school colors, black on gold. Every elementary and middle school classroom has a poster, along with the office, the library, the cafeteria, the gym, the restroom, the stores downtown, and the churches. (In the Catholic church, the list was in the back of the sanctuary, next to the picture of the Sacred Heart.)
Large drawings of Mr. Starbuck adorn the elementary school bulletin boards, and smaller portraits decorate clock faces and note pads. His picture, taken with each student of the month, lines the halls. Large blue dolls in his image sit on chairs in the classrooms. In music class, children sing the Mr. Starbuck song.
November 14th is his birthday. The elementary school has an assembly so that teachers and children can perform songs and skits in his honor. As soon as a suitable flagpole is installed, the Mr. Starbuck flag (blue creature on a white background) will fly over our school.
So what’s the harm in Mr. Starbuck? Children do need to be responsible, just as they need to brush their teeth and drink milk. If a wistful blue blob can help, why not? After all, we’ve been using folk heroes (real and imaginary) to encourage children for quite some time, from Santa and fairy-tale heroes to George Washington and the cherry tree.
But Mr. Starbuck is different. Santa is generous, Jack the Giant Killer brings down the bullies, George Washington could not tell a lie, and heroes of folklore are variously brave, generous, loyal, truthful, just, and charitable. But none of these qualities are on Mr. Starbuck’s list. As a creation of professional educators, Mr. Starbuck has nothing to do with virtue. In the naked public classroom, his "responsibility skills" must be neutral.
This would not be a problem, except that the mascot and the program are marketed as Character Education, and most of us, when we hear the word "character," still think of virtue. We do not consider Adolf Eichmann as a man of character, although his "responsibility skills" were excellent. In fact, the "banality of evil" described by Hanna Arendt was caused in part by Eichmann’s inability to see beyond "responsibility skills" to virtue. He continued to think of himself as a good man, bewildered that the world considered him a monster.
Of course, the imitation of Mr. Starbuck will not turn our children into Nazis, but strong "responsibility skills" without any deeper virtue to guide them can be dangerous, and calling this program Character Education is misleading. It is also rather beside the point to say, as its proponents do, that we must teach these skills at school because most children no longer go to Sunday School, and the parents don’t teach responsibility at home. Mr. Starbuck has nothing to do with Sunday School, which is about right and wrong, good and evil, the Bible, God, and Jesus. Parents certainly need all the help they can get teaching responsibility to their children, but the idea that the school can cure the parents’ neglect is one of the biggest lies believed by public educators, who refuse to recognize the truth of Chesterton’s statement that the state is "too large and too loose" to be a family to a child.
A while back, while standing in a grocery checkout line, I saw a five-year-old climb up inside a frozen food case to reach a treat on the top shelf, near the ceiling. The mother, a well-dressed, obviously well- educated woman, had tried to coax the girl gently back to the checkout line, but when the child climbed up inside the case, the mother said nothing, and paid for the treat without comment. A child who can ignore requests or commands without consequences, who takes what she likes and does what she pleases, is not going to adapt very well to school, and Mr. Starbuck is not attractive enough to offset the unpleasantness of submitting to authority all day long.
But the real problem with Mr. Starbuck lies in his reason for being. Although he exists to build "responsibility skills," he is a symbol of the way we adults shun our responsibility to teach our children, and his white flag is the flag of surrender. He exists because we are afraid to tell very small children that we know what is best for them. We refuse to tap into the natural respect children have for big people who act like adults. We hide behind a blue blob, manipulating small children by using their ability to endow their toys with life, encouraging the children to be responsible in order to please Mr. Starbuck. A local Sunday School teacher asked her very young students, "Who sees everything that you do?" "Mr. Starbuck," the children replied.
The well-meaning teachers who promote this program in our school have stepped, however gently, over a line. They have become, in a very small way, the conditioners described by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, attempting to bypass both the mind and the will of the child in order to make him responsible. And, of course, it will not work. Behind the "responsibility skills" lies the need for self-discipline, and learning to discipline the self is painful.
This is a truth our society chooses to ignore. Everything from aspartame to Willow Creek testifies to our desire to avoid the discomfort of self-discipline. Considering how we spend thousands of dollars trying to lose weight without diet or exercise and how we try to depict church as an amusing place of high quality, meaningful entertainment so the audience won’t be too upset by Christ’s demand that the self be killed, it is not surprising that we would also try to cajole children into self-discipline by making it somehow "fun."
But countering "I don’t feel like doing that" with a program that coaxes the child into "feeling like doing that" ignores the truth that for self-discipline, the will must not be the slave of the emotions. If Mr. Starbuck fails, the children will not learn responsibility, and if he succeeds, they will be no better off, for as soon as they outgrow him (about third grade it seems), they will cease to be responsible.
"We laugh at honor," wrote C. S. Lewis, "and are shocked to find traitors in our midst." Our society laughs at responsibility through divorce, abortion, and a never-ending stream of media messages glorifying the immediate gratification of every bodily desire, and our children laugh right along with us. Until we stop laughing, we cannot expect our children to do any better, and we will not be able to cure the evil by refusing to be the responsible and virtuous adults our children need to admire and imitate, offering them instead the imitation of Mr. Starbuck.
Nancy Harvey teaches French at Cuba High School in Cuba, Missouri.