In the years between World War I and World War II in the United States, public and religious educators engaged in an extended struggle to define the appropriate nature of character education for American youth. Within a post-war culture agonizing over the sanctions of moral living in the wake of mass violence and vanishing certitudes, a group of conservative educators sought to shore up traditional values through the construction of morality codes defining the characteristics of the ““good American.”” At the same time, a group of liberal progressive educators set forth a vigorous critique of these popular character education programs. This article analyzes the nature of this liberal critique by looking at one leading liberal spokesperson, George Albert Coe. Coe taught at Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College, Columbia University, and used his platform in these institutions to forge a model of character education derived from the combined influences of liberal Protestantism and Deweyan progressive education. Coe posited a two-pronged vision for American moral education rooted in the need for both procedural democracy (collaborative moral decision making) and a democratic social order. Utilizing this vision of the ““democracy of God,”” Coe demonstrated the inadequacies of code-based models, pointing in particular to the anachronism of traditional virtues in a world of social interdependence, the misguided individualism of the virtues, and the indoctrinatory nature of conservative programs. He proposed that youth be allowed to participate in moral experimentation, adopting ideals through scientific testing rather than unthinking allegiance to authoritative commands. Expanding the meaning of morality to include social as well as personal righteousness, he also made character education a vehicle of social justice. In the end, I contend that Coe's democratic model of character education, because of its scientific epistemological hegemony and devaluing of tradition, actually failed to promote a truly democratic character.
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