Jennifer A. Frey is associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. She is also the host of the philosophy and theology podcast, “Sacred and Profane Love.”

Do you have a go-to, straightforward definition for “character” and/or “virtue”? If not, can you provide some rough outlines for those terms that might be helpful for educators and education-policy experts interested in helping form students?

In its broadest sense, virtue is that excellent quality that allows a thing to attain its characteristic activity or function. The virtue of a knife, for instance, is its sharpness. Assuming that we have a function, which is living well or attaining human flourishing, then the virtues are those excellent traits of character that allow us to live well or flourish as persons. More specifically, the virtues are those stable dispositions of thought, action and feeling that make us existentially ready to make good choices in our lives. When we discuss the virtues, we are either talking about those good habits of mind that allow us to think and reason well, or those good habits of desire that allow us to want what is truly good for us. Like other good habits or skills, virtues require training, discipline and a proper intellectual formation. It is impossible to become virtuous without someone to model virtuous behavior for us and to help us learn to think, act and feel in certain characteristic ways.

Do our public schools really need to focus on teaching character? Can’t we trust that educators will pass along lessons of character—things like honesty, diligence, public-spiritedness—naturally as part of their day-to-day teaching?

That depends on what we think the purpose of a public education is. If we think it is about helping young people gain a competitive advantage over others in life and succeed in the global marketplace, then it’s not obvious that virtue education is necessary. However, if we think it is about shaping young people into the sort of citizens who can help our nation flourish, then yes, virtue education is essential to achieving this goal. My own view is that if we want to have a society that is just, peaceful and prosperous, then we must be invested in character education for all. Our schools therefore need to impart to our young people more than the knowledge and skills necessary for material success, they need to teach them to become the sort of person who is able to seek, realize and enjoy those goods that constitute authentic human flourishing.

It’s one thing to measure reading or math proficiency—standardized tests can do much of that. But, how do we measure (and therefore hold teachers, schools or school networks accountable for transmitting) character and virtue? Or, said another way, how can we tell if we are successfully developing students of character?

The question of whether virtue can be successfully taught and measured goes back at least as far as Plato. The trouble is that virtue is a transformation of the person rather than the inculcation of a skill. For example, if you want to know if a child has developed the skill of grammar, you can look at her sentences, since skill is measured by the product created through its use. With virtue, things are far more complicated. A student can do the just action—return the lost money rather than pocket it for herself—but we might still wonder whether she did it because she perceived that justice demanded it or because of some other motive, like fear of punishment or promise of reward. Virtuous actions must be performed for the right reason and from a stable disposition, but it would be both difficult and unwise to try to measure motive or stability in a student’s behavior. Furthermore, if we make virtuous behavior a matter of assessments or grades, then we run the risk of instrumentalizing it. We want students to pursue virtue for its own sake, rather than for the sake of passing or failing a class or meeting some well-intentioned benchmark. I’m personally very hostile to our current regime of high-stakes testing and would certainly be opposed to character testing. At the same time, we have to make sure that students are learning the basic concepts and are able to apply them to particular cases. We can do this without falling into the false belief that we are measuring their character—an impossible task.

I would think that we want to see two things in virtue education: that students understand what the virtues are and why they are important, and that students are able to participate in a variety of activities and projects that hold the promise of cultivating specific virtues in them. We should worry less about measuring virtue and more about making it comprehensible and attractive to students, by showing them how it is a part of their authentic flourishing both inside and outside of the classroom.

A critic might say that “character” is nothing more than the norms of the dominant group. If that’s the case, families who don’t identify as part of that group—whether because of income, race, religion, heritage or something else—might always take issue with aspects of democratically developed character education. What should we make of that?

I believe that we need virtue in order for our society to live up to its own democratic ideals, most especially those of equality and fairness. We have seen how our most basic democratic institutions have become corrupt over time and how the public has lost faith in the ruling, managerial class in this country. This is, at least in part, a crisis of character; ordinary people have lost their faith that the people in charge are working for the common good. But our democracy cannot thrive without this social trust, and it depends on persons who are able to run our public institutions with honesty, integrity and courage. Second, if we look at some of the most effective agents of social justice—Dr. King or Nelson Mandela, for example—we see persons of good character who we think are worthy of imitation but who were also members of vulnerable minority populations. Third, even if virtue were nothing more than the social customs of the ruling classes, that would still not be a good argument against teaching them. Norms of civility, grammar and manners often reflect class distinctions. But does anyone think that we can get along without them? Does anyone think we do disadvantaged students any favors by pretending they won’t need to conform to these norms in order to make their own way in society? I don’t think virtue is mere convention, but even if it were, it would not be a reason to exclude it from public education.

Public school systems can be wary of engaging in anything that seems like instruction about morality because morality brushes up against faith traditions, the First Amendment, different conceptions of the “good life,” and so on. How can a school have a robust approach to forming student character and avoid the charge that it is veering toward religious instruction?

The truth is that we already teach morality in our schools. Public education students are taught to follow the rules and to treat one another fairly, equitably and with respect. They are taught that it is wrong to bully or mock others, to take more than their fair share, to steal, cheat or lie, etc. These are, in fact, lessons in justice, but what is too often lacking is the broader virtue and character framework that would contextualize these rules by enabling the child to connect them to their own good and the good of the society they will one day join as adults. Of course, public schools are not going to be able to promote the full range of virtues insofar as some of them are religious in character, like piety or chastity. But we must ask what is so “religious” about honesty, patience, sobriety or courage—these are perfectly secular virtues. My own view is that we should not be so worried that virtue will be controversial, since public school curriculum will always be controversial and contested to some extent. We currently have hotly contested debates about how to teach American history, for example, but the fact that we are unable to reach unanimous consensus about this is no argument against teaching history. Similarly, the fact that we will never reach unanimous consensus about virtue is no argument against virtue education.

(Read the full list of questions here. Find the other “Character Matters” Q&As as they publish here.)

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