Although some behaviors are evolutionarily stable and others are not, they have to be learned.
Motivated by a declining sense of values in a society in which people are more likely to curse and less likely to offer their seat on the bus, schools in Wisconsin and across the country are turning the teaching of character into a formal part of the curriculum.
"I think that society has recognized that our young people - and not just the young people - have lost sight of what it means to be civil, of what it means to be polite," [Jefferson (Wisc.) school superintendent Michael] Swartz said.
And the Habits of Effective People might be more useful to the students than, say, the times-twelve tables (although elementary teachers really ought to be more conversant with Steve Karlson's rapid calculation tricks!)
The growing consensus is that children are less likely than ever to absorb basic values more naturally - in the home, on the streets or in church.
"It doesn't always just happen," said Henry Tyson, the principal of St. Marcus [Lutheran School in Milwaukee]. "It has to be taught."
The research isn't limited to the assessors. Chicago's James Heckman has been doing a lot of work of late on the role of noncognitive skills in human capital development.
While some may criticize such lessons for straying from a school's academic mission, Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, notes that there's increasing evidence that when character education is done well, test scores can rise. He points to a study done between 1999 and 2002 at several dozen California elementary schools that found that schools that established stronger character education programs also showed greater test score gains.
Berkowitz attributes the rising interest in the last five years not only to a decline in civility, but also to increasing federal support for the programs. He's reluctant to publicize results showing rising test scores, though, out of fear that school officials may turn to character education as a quick fix.