Character Matters: An R Street Q&A Series on Character Education — Todd Huston
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?
We should trust that educators will pass along lessons of character and many of us have important personal experiences that reinforce it. I know how much I benefited from teachers who reinforced the importance of honesty, respect and hard work within everyday classroom experiences. It did not need to be mandated but was done through caring, instinctive actions.
It’s one thing to measure reading or math proficiency—standardized tests can do much of that. But, how do we measure (and therefore hold teachers, schools or school networks accountable for transmitting) character and virtue? Or, said another way, how can we tell if we are successfully developing students of character?
Simply put, you cannot measure it. I am a huge fan of measurement, but character is something that is seen and observed, not measured. It is possible to measure acts of service and other outcomes but, if done for the express purpose of measurement, we would not trust the motive of the action. Character is often not noted immediately in words or action. It is seen when those words and actions are combined with attitude and grace. A great teacher shows these behaviors every day in the classroom and those traits reinforce the importance of character and virtue among students.
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?
Strong character traits like hard work, compassion and respect are not norms of a dominant group. They are attributes of successful individuals across all groups of people. Building character does not require certain philosophical or religious beliefs. It requires us to respect the words and actions of those with whom we work and interact. That is earned and not given. Character determines if that is accomplished or if it is just a meaningless set of words and actions.
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?
Character must be modeled, and any instruction will either be reinforced or erased via the actions of the individual. The best teacher I ever had largely disagreed with me on every political opinion or topic. Yet she taught me every day by probing, pushing and challenging me to defend my positions. Her goal was not to make me change my mind but to make me better at articulating my case with facts and reasoning. I respected her and her character more through that experience even though we disagreed on issues we both felt passionate about. I saw through her teaching and interaction with me what it means to be honest, considerate and respectful—even during intense disagreement. That experience has helped shaped me in so many of my political interactions over the course of my career.
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?
Focusing on knowledge and skills while instilling strong character are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they work in perfect unison. Successful individuals have strong character and the knowledge/skills to apply it to their life and career. I have never known an employer who does not value character over skillset because without the attributes of a strong character, the person will not be successful. Character is molded through the accumulation of knowledge and skills in the vast majority of instances.
(Read the full list of questions here. Find the other “Character Matters” Q&As as they publish here.)