Cherie Harder is president of the Trinity Forum. Previously, she served in the White House as special assistant to the President and director of policy and projects for the First Lady, and as a policy advisor to the majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

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 can’t say I have a go-to definition for character or virtue, but some rough characteristics/guidelines would include:

  • “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” (Will Durant summarizing Aristotle). Our character is formed by the accumulations of our actions, habits, routines and decisions, and this has the effect of shaping our desires and priorities.
  • “We are what we love” (summarizing Augustine). What we desire, love, prioritize and pay attention to will form our minds and characters. Augustine also defined virtue as the proper ordering of our loves: to love what we should in the priority we should. 

Together, our actions, habits, desires and priorities define our virtues and shape our character. They also affect each other, as what we love and prioritize affects what we do and how we act. Conversely, habits, routines and embodied practices shape our preferences and priorities.

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?

It seems to this observer more accurate to argue that, rather than dominant groups constructing notions of character based on their group norms, people with power are often subject to different standards in applying or enforcing norms. We all know of instances of hypocrisy—where seeming pillars of the community were secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) engaging in immoral, illegal or otherwise objectionable behavior and got away with it, while others averted their gaze or shrugged it off (which would not have been done with others). But, as for norms themselves, while there is undoubtedly some variation across communities, there are also striking similarities—including the seemingly universal value of care and regard for others. As C.S. Lewis posited in Mere Christianity, in comparing the moral codes of different people across religions and centuries:

Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.

It is undeniable that there have been double standards in the application of character norms, but it is a fundamentally different argument to say that character norms are themselves mere constructs meant to reflect the characteristics of a dominant group. And, indeed, a common strategy of moral reformers (including MLK, Frederick Douglass, the writers of the Seneca Falls declaration, the muckrakers, etc.) was to point to the great distance between the norms of a group and its actual behavior. 

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?

By focusing on universals of character formation, including honesty, kindness, courage, self-discipline, justice/fairness and love, which are common to all faith and secular traditions.

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?

While families and voluntary associations should indeed be involved in character formation (and ideally families are the primary conduits), education, classically understood, necessarily involved moral formation—to (very roughly) paraphrase Aristotle, education should equip the student to not only be able to discern the true, good and beautiful from their opposites or counterfeits, but to learn to love and seek the former over the latter—a process which involves not merely a skill, but a cultivation of moral priorities.

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