Little Soldiers in the Culture War

Evangelical radical Bill Gothard's Character First! curriculum teaches students in Fort Lauderdale to obey his will

Bush and the two legislators were introduced to Character First! by Hamilton C. Forman (no relation to Howard), the millionaire patriarch of a family that has, more than any other, shaped Broward County. Forman, a devout Christian who made his fortune in land speculation and has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns during the past half-century, founded the Charter School of Excellence and is the man behind Florida's Character First! legislation. He decided every student in Florida needed to be taught it -- and he just happens to have the power and political influence to turn his own whims into the law of the land.

"I'm building a prototype," Forman says. "When I get through, I intend to make it available to every city. I'll say, 'Here it is -- all you have to do is add students, teachers, and money.'"

Forman says Bush, who has wavered on whether to support prayer in schools, visited the Charter School of Excellence last year and was thrilled with the Character First! program.

"He said, 'That's exactly what we need,'" Forman says of the governor's response. "And he grabbed my $35 [Character First!] book and went off with it, and I still haven't been paid back."

The teachers at Bush's Liberty City school have been trained by CTI representatives in how to use Character First!, which will soon be installed there, says Katrina Wilson, the Liberty City school's principal. Forman's Charter School of Excellence teachers say Character First! has been a success and has helped to bring good behavior and discipline into the classrooms.

"The word obedient, they just know what that means," says first-grade teacher Blocker, who spends about two hours a week teaching Character First!. "They really get into it. I could just look at them and ask, "Are you being attentive?" and they'd know what to do."

David Clark, the spokesman for the 65,000-member Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, says he's not against some type of values-training in public schools but adds that "extremists must not take over that agenda." An extremist is exactly what Bill Gothard seems to be, he says.

"A lot of these things [in Character First!] hit you wrong as it relates to the understanding and appreciation of tolerance and issues of diversity in our culture," says Clark from his Tallahassee office. "We are suspicious and leery of those types of things. This is not Mao's China. It sounds innocent on its face, but it smacks of thought police and a lock step mentality."

To pass the time on one of his numerous car trips to the state capital, Representative Stafford listened to a tape of Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues, a bestseller full of fables. Stafford is the first to say that he and Bennett, the former secretary of education and "drug czar" under Presidents Reagan and Bush, have little in common, but the fables, he says, took him back to his boyhood in Broward County, when the world seemed simpler and better.

"The stories were familiar to me," he says. "And it seemed to me that they had been lost somewhere. I don't know that what we are exposed to as children is the sole determinater of what kind of adult we will become, but we do know that they are exposed to pretty rough video games, R-rated movies, and very little parental supervision."

It was Bennett who pushed the idea of a "culture war" in the early '90s. While writing of the "cultural elite" pushing smut, violence, and a left-wing agenda on the American public, he also led the charge to bring character training back to public schools. Dozens of character training curricula have been developed during the past decade. Bennett has his own set of educational tapes for children based on his Book of Virtues. One of the most popular programs is "Character Counts!" (what is it about moralists that loves an exclamation point?), which is also named in Stafford's bill. Hamilton Forman says he had Character Counts! put into the bills because he thought having a second choice would help get the bill passed. Forman says he doesn't much like Character Counts!, a program which lacks the authoritarian nature of Character First! and wasn't designed by a minister. Rather than obedience, for instance, Character Counts! touts "citizenship."

In the past few years, several Southern states have passed bills encouraging some form of character training. Georgia already mandates it.

Stafford -- who has received at least $2750 in contributions from Hamilton Forman -- and Howard Forman are liberal Democrats and unlikely promoters of Gothard's program. Both say they did it because Hamilton Forman asked them to do it. Neither politician, it turns out, really knew where the programs came from when they introduced the bills, which will take effect July 1 if passed.

When asked about Bill Gothard, both Stafford and Forman are stumped. Neither did his homework on the curriculum -- they've never heard of Gothard and weren't aware that the man behind Character First! is an evangelical minister. When told about Gothard's emphasis on the "chain of command," Stafford immediately recognizes the danger in such teachings. "I can see how that could lead to a continuation of child abuse," he says.

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