Many feel America has been in a slow moral decline since World War II.

There are, of course, many exceptions — civil rights, tobacco, trash on highways, caring organizations, etc.— but our American character since 1945 simply doesn’t measure up to our past.

Previous Americans fought a revolutionary war to establish a nation committed to freedom and equality; they fought a bloody civil war to maintain it, and two world wars to defeat imperialism, while eradicating Hitler’s “master race.”

They took pride in embracing “the land of opportunity” and the home of “the rugged individual.” They humbly shared — “give me your tired and your poor” — while rooting for the underdog. They insisted on fair play and, while greatly admiring individual initiative; it was a given that Americans help others, part of their strong belief in character.

These values have been passed down to us by our ancestors and matched or internalized by immigrants looking for the “American dream.” Until 1945, this morality was practiced in the vast majority of American families, extended families, neighborhoods, schools, religions, and community organizations.

Once World War II ended, the GI Bill inadvertently began a dramatic change in our culture.

Our so-called “greatest generation” came back from the war intent on getting ahead, and Congress passed a bill opening higher education to many of us who never would have considered it. Instead of being for the elite few, college suddenly became every GI’s ticket to success!

In time, school curricula became college prep, with the SAT — Scholastic Aptitude Test — the ultimate measure of achievement.

Given years of increasingly intense competition to get the best grades, best test scores, best colleges possible, the values of this new and powerful “achievement culture” soon overshadowed our American character values.

For example, a high school girl cuts her senior English class an unexcused third time, which means an automatic failure in the course. She asks her mother to write a note excusing her. The mother does so, compromising her integrity, feeling the cost to her daughter is too great to do otherwise.

Parents think they stand on principles and values, but after 1945, they unknowingly slowly shifted their focus from character to achievement.

Consider what our post-1945 educational system has done to America:

It failed in its only goal: academic excellence. In spite of over 50 years of reform, national test scores remain relatively flat, text books are sometimes dumbed down, inequality gaps remain and other nation’s educational systems move ahead while ours fall behind.

It disrespected America’s heritage by narrowly seeking to develop all children first and foremost as effective college students. Thus the powerful qualities of individuality and strong character were diminished. The “one size fits all” education ignores the deeper unique potentials of students.

The system is wracked with disruption — students who don’t like school, lack of motivation, truancy, drop outs, cheating, bullying, even school shootings.

This system created an “achievement society” with much less character. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, helped by greed on Wall Street and such low points as Enron and Madoff. Our governance seems increasingly controlled by political egos, with Congress less and less effective. A once hugely optimistic America now has several surveys indicating most Americans believe kids will fare worse in life than they did.

My generation was raised to this purpose: “do your best, help others and leave the world a better place.” The achievement purpose: better college=better job=more money=happiness.

We want our children to have solid literary skills and college preparation. But the foundation of their lives needs to be built on the development of their unique potential and character.

If this was our first and foremost concern for each student in our schools, wouldn’t it help each student trust his/her school? Wouldn’t it help give each student confidence? Help motivate each student? Help lead each student to help other students? Help inspire each student to seek his/her best?

Such students would surely produce far superior academic work to that of today’s students, with the powerful bonus that as citizens and leaders, they would take America to new levels.

This new educational system would have a powerful new base:

Since in character development, parents are the primary teacher and the home the primary classroom, America would return the leadership of its educational system from colleges to parents.

Parents play minor roles in the present system. But character makes them central to learning. With character development primary, we would see a rapid change in the quality of parenting and family life, largely brought on by the parents themselves in their new role as guardians of American culture.

That is clearly a role for our parents, not our colleges.