Dr. Michael McShane is Director of National Research at EdChoice, where he writes about education policy, school choice and educational innovation. He started his career as a high school teacher in Montgomery, Alabama.

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?

I have yet to see anyone improve on the four Cardinal virtues put forth by the ancients: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

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?

We can’t, and that’s okay. We are unable to measure most of the important things in life (the love of a parent, the beauty of a sunset, the euphony of a piano concerto) and yet we’re able to muddle through. I think it’s the same thing here.

Assuming there are at least some legitimate differences of opinion about what constitutes character or virtue (or which aspects of character should be prioritized), shouldn’t we decentralize this area of education and allow districts and schools decide what to do? That way, different communities can choose for themselves how their students should be formed. Or, is there a role for something more standardized at the state level?

I believe that we should decentralize character education and allow individual schools to make decisions about what constitutes character or virtue. But (and it’s a big but), I think that at the same time, we should try to persuade people to adopt our definitions of character and virtue. We shouldn’t simply wash our hands and walk away. Just because a uniform definition of character or a universal conception of virtue cannot be imposed from the top down doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to work to cultivate one from the bottom up. It’s what Washington University law professor John Inazu calls “Confident Pluralism.” Have strong beliefs. Try to convince people who think differently than you. Just don’t use the mechanism of the state to force compliance.

For what it’s worth, this approach is consonant with the Cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance. It invites us to reason with one another about our competing values, and to listen and learn from people who are different from us. It calls for humility and moderation rather than grand plans and the hubris that animates them.

Is there a meaningful difference in your mind between character education and today’s more popular “social-emotional learning”? For example, does your preferred vision of character education add something that SEL lacks—or maybe you believe SEL helps us avoid problems caused by character education?

My primary criticism of SEL is that it often ducks the hard conversations that come with an articulated vision of the good life. It acts as if skills can be taught in a vacuum, not pointed toward a particular end. Why do students need to be self-aware? What constitutes responsible decision-making?

My preferred definition of character connects students to thousands of years of human experience and helps them understand that they are not the first people struggling to do the right thing. What’s more, too often SEL can be pointed inward rather than outward. It is important that students develop their own individual skills, but to pursue virtue or develop character is to orient those skills and talents toward the world outside and to see how they can be of service to their fellow man.

How do you respond to the argument that public schools should focus on knowledge and skills and leave the formation of character to families and voluntary associations?

If public schools are involuntary, I agree with it. Forcing parents to send their child to a school that is going to articulate a specific vision of character and virtue will lead to one of two problems. First, it could lead to the suppression of minority viewpoints. If you are from a minority race or ethnicity, religion or world view, your children will be taught the values of the dominant group whether you like it or not. Not good. The second, and frankly more likely, problem is a watering down of character and virtue education to the point that it isn’t controversial to anyone but doesn’t actually mean anything. While generally harmless, it represents a lost opportunity that voluntary institutions can take advantage of to actually form young people. We want children to develop character and virtue, but we don’t always agree on what that looks like. Doing nothing is not a solution.

The easiest way around this problem is to allow educators to create institutions organized around defined missions and shared conceptions of virtue and character, and to allow parents to choose the school consonant with their beliefs.

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

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