Lauren L. Rollins is the Director of Research Publications at the R Street Institute. She came to R Street after a career in academia as a teacher and scholar of literature and early modern ‘populist’ political agency. She has also taught and mentored students for more than a decade—primarily at the undergraduate and high-school levels—at a diverse range of institutions: prestigious private high schools, community colleges, gateway-to-college programs, in both public and private universities, and in HBCUs. She specializes in urban, at-risk and non-traditional student 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?

I believe that language matters a great deal more than we realize when it comes to structure and implementation. The more clear and defined a concept is, the more targeted and useful our approaches to teaching it can be. Meanwhile, nebulous terms tend to leave us ‘up a creek without a paddle’ in that we can’t really devise strategies if we don’t even agree on what we’re trying to achieve.

For these reasons, I don’t think the terms “character” or “virtue” are particularly helpful for the purposes of education. For starters, both are often portrayed—and somewhat culturally understood—as inherent to an individual. She is ‘of good character’ or he is ‘virtuous,’ as if these things are innate. But, if these mystical qualities are the result of nature—gifts of the universe to some exceptional human beings (as they’re portrayed in much classic literature or even as demigods in mythology)—then, by definition, we can’t teach them. We can only admire those who have them and wish we did too.

In the real world, however, character is built. So, instead, we should concretize these concepts as demonstrated skills that can be taught, modeled and practiced. So, while ‘virtue’ alone would be nearly impossible to teach, ‘humility’ isn’t. Or honesty. Or bravery. Or empathy. Or personal accountability. Once we know exactly what skill we’re talking about, the theoretical becomes practical, and we can use sound pedagogy to align instruction methods and specific examples with desired outcomes. The focus shifts from “what you are” to “what you can do to act in accordance with these concepts of good 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?

Here again, I think that if we get away from thinking about demonstrated skills as ‘morality’ or ‘virtue,’ the sensitivity rights itself. Religion does not have a monopoly on teaching kindness, compassion, empathy, humility or accountability for one’s own actions—and these are the very real human behaviors that aggregate to form abstract qualities like “nobility” or “virtue.”

So, at a very basic level, if what we want is to make sure that the people in our society demonstrate these behaviors both as children and later as adults, and we want diverse parents and caregivers to get onboard with teaching them in schools, it would probably be helpful to start changing the messaging. It doesn’t offend anyone’s freedom to practice their own religion, for example, to teach students what empathy is and how to exhibit it. A faith-based family can consider this moral instruction if they choose, but a more secular family can simply consider it psychology-based, holistic health instruction. It has always been popular to portray science and religion as polar opposites that cannot exist in the same space, but that is politics, not Truth. They are merely two different modes of teaching the very same basic concepts. It’s time we depoliticized them and allowed them to function in complementary ways—in their appropriate contexts.

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?

Any experienced practitioner of education can tell you that all the knowledge and skills in the world can’t be taught effectively without a corresponding attention to a safe, respectful, kind, equitable and fair learning environment. And since places are products of the people who populate them, it’s impossible to achieve this foundation without some form of behavioral instruction.

But, more specifically, the trouble with voluntary associations is precisely that they are voluntary. As such, people tend to associate with people who are like them and share their worldview—no matter how limited or misguided it may be. But schools exist to expose students—and teachers—to diverse viewpoints, schools of thought, experiences and people. That’s what education is—a continuous expanding of one’s existing horizons.

And just because an association is voluntary doesn’t mean it’s positive. After all, a gang is a voluntary association. So was the Mob. So is the Church of Satan (an organization that is ironically more libertarian than religious in its orientation). This is the same issue with leaving character formation up to families alone. While families have a right to associate with whomever they choose and to adopt whatever views or ideologies they choose, not all such choices will foster good behavior in children. And this is particularly true when they leave the insulation of their private life and have to operate within the demands of society at large.

And, if a child is being led toward something that limits their own exercise of free will or exposes them to dangerous or harmful ideologies, don’t teachers, counselors, coaches or mentors—the other adults in the child’s life—have a fiduciary obligation to make them aware of the likely outcome of that behavior before it gets them into trouble—or worse, infringes on another person’s autonomy, safety or liberty?

We cannot force them to abandon the doctrines (such as they are) of the people in their private lives, but we can give them a realistic picture of how behaving in accordance with those doctrines may not get them where they want to go. And, in fact, that is our duty as adults who have been given the privilege of shaping the future lives of children and helping them to realize their highest potential. The bottom line is that—in many cases—children succeed and become good people in spite of their families and associations. And often, that’s because of the influence—and intervention—of effective, dedicated educators and mentors.

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?

Well, to some degree, norms always start out by reflecting the values of the dominant group because that’s precisely what makes them ‘typical’ or ‘standard.’ But, they don’t have to stop there. And on that note, I think it’s important to consider not only how character education is developed but how it’s implemented and enforced. Schools may be wary of engaging in anything that seems like morality, but they do so every day. The problem is that there are huge racial, ethnic and gender disparities with respect to the way we do it. For example, one need look no further than to overly restrictive dress codes that attempt to impose notions of ‘chastity’ largely through shame (which is not a pedagogically sound teaching tool) on girls and women but not on boys and men.

And, here again, language can be illuminating. In education, when we refer to “at risk” students, it is understood that the populations we’re talking about are most likely of color and economically disadvantaged. They are ‘at risk’ of failing to succeed, at risk of getting caught up in the ‘wrong’ kind of voluntary association, at risk of having their morals ‘further’ eroded, at risk of costing society later on down the road. But, in my entire career, I’ve never heard that term used to refer to well-resourced, white, male students—even when they repeatedly exhibit behaviors that strongly indicate a likelihood of future illegal, immoral or otherwise costly behavior. For example, as national politics have recently illustrated, unchecked privilege and entitlement are among the most destructive behaviors to morality, civility, personal development, the rule of law and to the basic, human rights of others. But we largely do not have pedagogically sound mechanisms in schools to confront and retrain these patterns of thinking in the students who are most likely to exhibit them.

In fact, I’d wager that anyone who has been a practitioner in diverse educational environments would candidly (albeit reluctantly) admit that when we want to correct the behavior of a well-to-do, white, male student who is exhibiting racist, misogynist or bullying behaviors or who is otherwise acting in negative or disruptive ways, such interventions most often hold the highest risk for the school. Because of this, schools have more or less adopted the criminal justice system’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard to prove wrongdoing before they’ll intervene in these cases. Not only does this turn administrators into investigators—and place the burden of proof on the victim—but it also stops adults from carrying out their duty to proactively change behavior before it physically or emotionally harms another student—and the student himself.

And, not surprisingly, since the model is taken from the adult criminal justice system, it also replicates that system’s racial and ethnic disparities, and infuses them more deeply into schools, where outcomes (and the severity of consequences) for white students versus those of Black and Brown students are already skewed. This is not only inequitable but it’s a missed opportunity. Children are not adults. They are still impressionable and can much more easily be trained out of bad patterns of behavior long before the consequences become irreversible. But worse, ultimately, our failure or refusal to admit and confront these inequities merely teaches certain students to use the system’s ineptitude to continue victimizing others.

On the other hand, when we’re talking about traditionally ‘at-risk’ students, more often than not, no one bats an eye at the paternalistic, proactive imposition of “correct” values on them—whether they’ve done anything wrong or not. In fact, much of the charter school business model is centered around markets with ‘failing’ school systems, which is almost-always synonymous with ‘predominantly non-white and economically disadvantaged’ areas. Indeed, most of the nation’s most established charter systems are eager to tout their records with non-white and impoverished students precisely because the mission of these schools often includes the imposition of the morals or values of the private entities that own, operate and fund them onto these impressionable students, who are assumed to lack moral instruction from their own families and voluntary associations. This assumption is an archaic holdover of early Protestant rhetoric that very successfully linked poverty with moral failing. But, the reality is that in impoverished areas, bad academic performance and poor behavior are almost exclusively the result of lacking resources—not lacking morals. And certainly not race. In my experience, this ‘white savior’ impulse is rarely challenged—even by those who vehemently oppose any similar imposition on white children in well-funded school systems.

So, the real question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we actually want a system that isn’t just an imposition of the norms, assumptions and blind spots of the dominant group? Because our education system—both public and private—is not currently designed to achieve such an outcome.

If we truly want a more inclusive system, the first step—particularly in this moment of racial and cultural reckoning—is to immediately confront the impulses that cause us to accept imposition on some and not on others. We must then ask of and listen to those who have been marginalized when they tell us the hard truth of how we’ve been failing with respect to forming character within the dominant group. Or, more succinctly, those of us involved in any aspect of decision-making in education must do our parts to demonstrate our own humility and selflessness. Then, interdisciplinary experts in children and their holistic education (families, teachers, administrators, coaches, mentors, social workers, school therapists) need to be given the respect, autonomy and resources (by politicians) to implement structural reforms, policies and curricula to rectify the problem.

In the most highly functioning education system, those who are not part of the dominant group would be encouraged to take issue with any aspects of the system that don’t account for them. After all, the goal of education is not forced assimilation and resignation. It’s continual improvement, inquiry and expansion. In light of this, if the system can’t withstand a challenge to what it’s doing, it should be read as a sure sign that it’s not functioning properly.

Should we think about character as something that is taught or something that is modeled? In other words, if we care about character, should we focus on standards and curriculum, or should we focus on developing educators who embody key virtues?

To treat teaching and modeling as an either/or proposition is deeply troubling. Here’s why: if you separate the exercise/practice (modeling) from teaching, all that’s left in the latter is lecturing. And “Do as I say not as I do” is not now—nor has it ever been—an effective strategy to teach anything except hypocrisy.

For example, children surrounded by adults who smoke, are more likely to smoke themselves—irrespective of their parents’ warnings not to. Likewise, children of heavy drinkers are more likely to become heavy drinkers—even if their parents cautioned them against it. Children who are abused by adults are far more likely to become abusers despite anything they’ve been taught about violence. This is because children—and, in fact, all humans—‘learn what they live’. And, given this, if teaching is valuable at all, it only ever is when it aligns with the example being modeled and the outcome desired.

This is the tough part. Because while adults argue about whether and what is acceptable to teach to children about morals in schools, too often we lose sight of the ways in which the system we’ve created—and its policies—undermine even the standards we agree upon. This is largely because, as is so often the case, the people making the rules for education aren’t actually practitioners or experts. Moreover, these decisions always prioritize money, which at no time and under no faith or moral tradition I’m aware of has ever led to virtue.

For example, every school I’ve ever taught in or attended had some form of honor code that stressed the unacceptability of cheating and the value of one’s own work process. But everything about the actual education system in America encourages and rewards cheating. We can see this in low-hanging fruit like standardized testing, which is almost universally hated for its myriad problems—the most obvious of which should be that ‘teaching to the test’ (to secure funding) is cheating.

It also pervades the college admissions process, which has become so formulaically tied to grade point averages and test scores—without regard for demonstrated ability otherwise—that the only thing we know for sure upon admission is that the majority of students we accept are the ones that had the most resources—or parents with the time to micromanage or do the work for them (or to pay someone else to). This is also cheating. [The latter scenario becomes painfully apparent in the first semester of college when these same students can’t manage daily life—much less their studies—without someone doing it for them. Or when, in the classroom, we pose an open-ended query and they blink at us—terrified—because they don’t know how to navigate a question where a limited set of predetermined answers aren’t provided for them.] This is what they’ve learned from our model—irrespective of what we ‘taught’ them about morals—or the value of education.

But it doesn’t stop at honesty. We still ‘teach’ merit, work ethic and civic responsibility as virtues, but the system doesn’t model it. As I write this, I suspect very few people would argue that a majority of Americans are woefully uneducated with respect to basic civics—and there is no question that the perilous position in which our democracy finds itself is, at least in part, a result of that ignorance. But that didn’t happen by accident. In fact, we got exactly what we modeled when we cut funding for classes like civics and other humanities and social science courses. These are precisely the classes that are meant to teach students how to think for themselves; how to approach wicked problems; how to manage competing priorities; how to respect and engage civilly with people with whom we disagree. But we have largely abandoned them because we prioritized money above these virtues.

And worse, even where these classes do still exist, they’re left to function with more students and less resources. When this happens, educators have to triage, and this has very practical consequences for modeling the value of merit or hard work. For example, where a complex question really would require a 5-7 page paper to demonstrate proficiency in the topic, a single teacher with a large class may be forced to reduce the length or complexity of the assignment merely because of practical constraints. In doing so, we lose nuance, deeper knowledge and the challenge that education is supposed to provide. Instead, it’s reduced to a box-checking exercise—and students emulate this model. Shortcuts abound—the more clever or efficient the better. And these often include buying papers on the internet, paying others to write them or recycling work that’s already been graded. What are students learning from this exercise? To do as little work as possible, as easily and conveniently as possible—by whatever means possible— just to get credit for the grade. Actual learning—or demonstration of skill—are rendered unnecessary.

All of this is to say that we must acknowledge the myriad ways that the best virtues of our educators (as well as their professional expertise)—and by extension, the characters of our students—are actively thwarted daily by decisions that have nothing at all to do with education, virtue or future outcomes. And until that problem is meaningfully addressed, it may not matter how laudable the character of our educators is because they’ll often be required to act against it in order to remain employed (or to operate outside the official rules of the system to have a real impact). This is a tragic failure with dire consequences and we owe better to our young people, our teachers and our nation.

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

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