Carl Sommer’s 1984 book, “Schools in Crisis: Training for Success or Failure?” is credited with influencing school reform in many states. In a new book, “Character Under Attack and What You Can Do About it,” Mr. Sommer examines why the educational system does not support the teaching of good character in public schools.
The 74-year-old ex-Marine is also the author of the “Sommer Time Stories” children’s book series, which features stories that teach character. His books have won the Children’s Choice Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award and Today’s Librarian Award for Best Children’s Picture Book.
The following are excerpts of a recent interview with Mr. Sommer:
Q: What prompted you to write “Character Under Attack and What You Can Do About it?”
A: I knew what was going on [with character in schools] because I wrote “Schools in Crisis: Training for Success or Failure?” [in 1984]. Having my [children’s] books rejected [by major reviewers] reignited me to look into why. School Library Journal [is] the one that really was the catalyst and brought this whole thing to the forefront. I’m trying to help children develop values that will help them be successful in their life.
Q: When you published your children’s books, you got a bad review from the School Library Journal, one of the main children’s books reviewers, and yet won the Children’s Choice Award. What was School Library Journal’s objection?
A: [School Library Journal] criticized books because that are “didactic.” When they said that, I looked “didactic” up in Webster’s [Dictionary], and it said … “intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment.”
What’s wrong with being didactic? Shouldn’t learning convey instruction and information while being entertaining? The ideal instrument for education is something that informs and still gives pleasure and entertainment.
[School Library Journal] said, “No self-respecting child would be moved by this preaching lesson” about “It’s Not Fair,” and yet when I sent it out to the Children’s Choice Award, this book won.
Q: Why is didacticism considered bad?
A: There’s a philosophy out there that’s so prevalent today that says children should choose their own values. If you go back to the Founding Fathers of our nation, they [held] values and morals they were taught. Our nation was built on values. Today’s teachers say there is no moral absolutes. They just let children choose their own values, and unfortunately, they are choosing the wrong values. It’s a major problem in our schools today.
Q: How does the problem manifest itself?
A: This concept of leaving children alone and choosing their own values is a disaster. Many [children] are choosing the anti-social values, not the good values. [They choose the] “if-it-feels-good-it’s-good-for-me” value. We have a lot of bullying and, unfortunately, girls are being raped today because the boys feel good about it.
Q: If being didactic is unattractive, why did your book “It’s Not Fair” win the Children’s Choice Award?
A: One of the things the children like about the books is that they teach them things. Children want to be taught.
Q: What can schools do about the problem?
A: What’s happening with children [right now] is if they have these anti-social values, we are locking them up and throwing away the key. That’s not really the solution. The solution is to have values be taught early in schools and have schools exemplify these proper values. It’s costing the taxpayers billions of dollars for the criminals that we are throwing in the prisons who are not being trained properly in their youth.
Q: How do parents fit into the equation?
A: The problem starts with the parents. Parents should transmit their values to their children, not just leave them alone and drifting. It’s important to instill the values they believe into their children.
Some think that if you let children grow naturally, they’ll turn into beautiful flowers. It’s like planting a seed. You can leave the garden alone and hope for the best, or you can watch over the garden by watering and weeding.
Everyone knows what will happen if you don’t take care of the garden. Parents need to teach their own children the values they believe in and not to leave the children to grow up and choose their own values. They need to walk the walk and be an example.