Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and host of the Beg to Differ podcast. She served in several positions in the Reagan White House, including as speechwriter to the First Lady.

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?

We argue about character education in America because we are a boisterous, diverse and yes, multicultural nation. The virtues Berkeley, California upholds differ significantly from those of Birmingham, Alabama. Because we don’t agree, a national character curriculum is nearly impossible to craft. Some have been attempted, but because they must strive to bridge these divides, they descend into platitudes. Yet the urge to teach character will persist, because we have a nagging sense that Teddy Roosevelt’s warning was true: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

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?

Broadly speaking, there are two goals of character education. The first is to create a virtuous citizenry fitted for self-government. The second is to aid students themselves in making life choices that will lead to happiness. Regarding the former, localism is the only feasible route. Berkeley can stress tolerance, environmentalism and alternative lifestyles, and Birmingham can emphasize duty, order and self-sufficiency.

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?

It is impossible not to teach character. Children will learn what their culture approves and disdains every day of their lives. Whether their teachers convey a curriculum labelled “character” or not, children will figure it out. Some of the values that will be conveyed are universal—there is no society that valorizes cheating, for example—and others are particular. Every time a teacher rebukes a student for failing to wait his turn or for using a racial slur, character is being taught.

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

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