Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and the founding and current editor of National Affairs. Previously, he served as a member of the White House domestic policy staff and as a congressional staffer at the member, committee and leadership levels.

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?

There is no doubt that good teachers will teach virtue by example every day. But it’s also valuable and important to clearly send children the message that character and virtue are part of what the school exists to teach them, and that curricular requirements help both teachers and students see that learning about how to behave in the world and hold yourself up to a high standard is part of what schooling owes students. The emphasis on it is part of the lesson being taught—explicitly conveying the message that this matters is part of the point.

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?

It will not be possible to measure the success of character education in the way we can measure math and reading proficiency. But that it isn’t equally measurable doesn’t mean it isn’t at least as valuable. In some respects, the emphasis on measurable proficiency in education policy in recent decades has come at the expense of precisely the sorts of formation that now need to be recovered. To recommit to character education means accepting the uncertainty involved in the work of formation that can only show results over the course of a student’s lifetime.

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 is both taught and modeled, but it may be best to think about it as something taught through edifying examples. That means that, when it comes to curricular choices, character education will often involve the study of the lives of great women and men who stand as models of virtuous behavior. And it means that educators should, to the extent they can, try to model and articulate these sorts of virtues too. There is no substitute for the example set by a teacher. But that does not mean that character education requires no curriculum or formal emphasis in school.

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?

Character education should be rooted in the study of the lives of exemplary men and women, so that it can draw upon models of virtue that may themselves be informed by religious commitments and ideas, but that then offer the rest of us examples to follow that can appeal to the highest ideals articulated by our own communities. In this sense, the pursuit of virtuous character can be a way of unifying students across religious and communal lines in our diverse society.

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?

Over the course of many decades now, American civil society has been undermined and weakened by the intrusion of both government action and market mentalities. Ultimately, the institutions of civil society can only succeed in forming us if they also play a pivotal practical role in our lives, and in many cases they have been robbed of that role by the evolution of American political, economic and cultural life. Schools remain an exception. They serve an essential primary purpose—the education of the young—and therefore are also in a position to bring us together around shared ideals. They may well be the strongest institutions of American civil society at this point, which makes it only more essential that they do not abandon their core formative purpose.

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

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