Character Matters: An R Street Q&A Series on Character Education — Greg Richmond
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?
A person has character if s/he contributes to a good society, which is a society that equitably supports all people to lead a healthy, fulfilling and meaningful life. While numerous attributes enable a person to contribute to a good society, such as honesty, compassion, integrity, humility and forgiveness, I find the whole to be a better indicator of character than the parts. No one is perfect, but all have the ability and opportunity to contribute to a good society.
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?
This should not be an either/or construct. We need both. We need educators to incorporate and model character in their day-to-day teaching and we need educators to teach character. Issues of character, virtue and morality have challenged humanity for millennia, including great philosophers. There is nothing easy or automatic about them. We cannot assume that character we be learned and absorbed through observation alone. We need to equip each generation with the ideas, language and tools of discourse to rigorously and explicitly examine issues of character. When we fail to equip people to think about, discuss and act with character, we risk creating a society that acts in fear, ignorance, prejudice and selfishness.
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?
Character and virtue should be rigorously explored and debated, not dictated from a central government. It is through dialogue, debate and practice that people best learn character.
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?
A person who acts equitably to enable all people to lead healthy, fulfilling and meaningful lives is a person with character. “Equitably” and “all” are demanding criteria, but the meaning of those words is clear, no matter the dominant group. The slaveholder, the Nazi, and the soldier at Wounded Knee no doubt each believed they were virtuous. Indeed, they may have possessed traits such as humility, honesty and grit. But because they applied those traits to deny others a fulfilling, meaningful life, they did not possess virtue.
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?
Issues of character and virtue are and have been present in every society, regardless of that society’s faith tradition. Thus, the existence of a dominant religion in a society does not eliminate questions of character and virtue. There are Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists with character, and Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists without it. Indeed, a Christian can recognize a Muslim who possesses character and, simultaneously, a Christian who does not.
(Read the full list of questions here. Find the other “Character Matters” Q&As as they publish here.)