Chris Stewart is a Minnesota-based writer, speaker, activist and the CEO of the brightbeam network, an education advocacy nonprofit. He is a former member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.

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?

Famed basketball coach John Wooden said his father gave his children six maxims to live by: “don’t lie, don’t cheat and don’t steal; don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses, just do the best you can.” For his part, Wooden built on that advice for his players, saying: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Between the elder and junior Wooden, there is a descriptive vision for defining virtues (i.e. don’t steal) and character—an individual’s internal moral framework that guides their thinking and their actions.

Among the most positive things to be said about these Wooden lessons about character and virtues is the fact that they were taught at home by a parent or trusted advisor. Education leaders clearly have a role in transmitting a collective culture, but they also need to be careful about wandering into child-shaping activities that go beyond the educative goals imparting skills and objective knowledge (to the extent that such a thing exists).

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?

Public schools are political entities, funded by the public, but mostly administrative by the state. As such, they should be restricted in seeking to develop a kind of person if for no other reason than the ethical problem with the state creating the model citizen who it will theoretically need consent from in the future. As compelling an interest as schools may have for instilling civic values or virtues or Americanizing a diverse citizenry, the dangers of a state seeking to create a compliant, well-behaved people outweigh the arguable benefit of teaching students a set of beliefs that will often be in dispute even if they are sold as alchemy for the common good.

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?

When we talk about character and virtues we speak as if they are real things. In fact, they are mental constructs that only exist in language. This is not to say these constructs are unimportant. There obviously can be material consequences for what people believe. In a pluralistic nation, the idea that all people should agree on abstract concepts like “character” is doomed. What is likely to happen is that the majority will rule, and through their position as the majority, they will use any state apparatus available to them to impose their subjective ideas as universal truths. That, ironically, is un-American.

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?

If public schools want to provide instruction about morality there must be a strong system of school choice and non-compulsory educational arrangements. A way to opt-out of material in public schools is especially important when those schools seek to teach lessons better left to clergy, families and voluntary communities.

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?

For people who believe the government should not be operating schools at all, and definitely should not have a monopoly on schooling; and for people who also believe that the history of moral issues as taught in the public schools has been lowered to the common denominator and has created something of a secular religion, there should be support for the view that public schools should be limited in what they teach. That’s even more true if you consider that these schools do poorly teaching even basic skills and can hardly afford an expansion of their mission.

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

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