Ten Essentials for Character Education
This essay asks and answers ten questions that the author believes can serve as a primer or heuristic for educators who are considering character education as a meaningful part of their pedagogical objectives in both the university core curriculum and specific disciplines. All of the questions and answers are premised around the key assertion that the essential element of character education is the inculcation of intellectual or epistemic virtues.
I am already lying—in the nonmoral sense, Nietzsche would say (though this too has a moral dimension). I promised ten essential considerations for character education, but the number is purely a convention. In any case, this paper doesn't purport that there are in fact ten essentials, but that some sort of essential talk about essentials might be beneficial. The number ten itself raises another ethical issue. I chose ten because it has a certain ring about it—a ring of perfection, I suppose. I could have picked other numbers that have the ring of the sacred or the perfect, but ten has a long history and is a convenient convention. But will I really come up with ten? Will there be logical parallelism; will all aspects of each "essential" be mutually exclusive? Will this paper perfectly define the matter at hand? Or worse still, apropos of this paper, will shooting for ten expose what Kenneth Burke called our fatal impulse to be rotten with perfection?
Before things start, then, given the topic, I too grieve for my imperfections and the inevitable imperfection of trying to get this or anything else "right." The Romans would have begun with a grander display of ambition. Our culture requires to a greater extent than did theirs the qualifying of such ambition and the display of humility. I have in a sense already started this essay. For one of the main premises of this paper is that the art of rhetoric is the oldest of our disciplines that self-consciously and systematically has placed character education at its center.
The character of the speaker (ethos or the vir bonus of Quintilian) has long been a staple of training in rhetoric and rhetorical theory. What I propose to do is supply a kind of heuristic, or a primer, for those who are considering character education as a meaningful part of their pedagogical objectives. My approach will be based on my personal experience with character education issues, but I believe it will be a fair representation of substantive matters that have legs across the curriculum. [End Page 247]
What should be the primary element of character education? At the college level, character education should be primarily about epistemic or intellectual virtues.
Since I began with this issue indirectly in my introduction, I will make it my first essential: promoting virtues that have to do with being a good knower. This is not to say that nonepistemic virtues don't matter; that, for instance, it's not a matter of character education if students cheat in all the various forms that are available, not the least of which is the use of the Internet. Nor is it to say that we don't have any obligations to put in place policies that address these issues. And granted, in some instances the kind of behavior that comes under the charge of "plagiarism" is often at first a technical matter (acknowledging sources, but being unclear as to what constitutes good paraphrasing). Nevertheless, cheating or lying should not be the primary subject matter of what we do when we address character education. This is the much earlier responsibility of family and church and the early years of education. But it is the unique responsibility of the university to promote those virtues that constitute good knowing.
This kind of focus on epistemic virtues (one might call these "intellectual virtues" as well) will seriously call into question the so-called virtue of sincerity, that false face of honesty, which could be said to be no more than the virtue of not concealing what is on one's mind with little consideration as to whether or not it ought to be there in the first place. Too great a focus on this kind of "honesty" (often found with its companion false virtue, "frankness") actually ends up competing with the more critical epistemic virtue of intellectual honesty or integrity. Consider how this virtue might be called upon as we imagine someone from the West visiting a city like Tokyo, which, besides the Western facade visible at first landing, is organized in biomorphic and Dionysian ways, as opposed to the favored way of the West, which is geometric and Apollonian. The Dionysian way is more like the asymmetrical organization of a beehive, the Apollonian other way, all grids and circles.
Imagine if you will our unvirtuous student, who sincerely and frankly condemns the older parts of this city because they lack [End Page 248] "order," while failing to see the competing points of view celebrated by such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright who borrowed from the East. And now imagine a graduate of your university who has a check on herself, who recognizes competing points of view, understands in some fundamental way that all knowing is both a reflection and a selection (there is of course here a generous amount of disagreement about how little or how much knowing is reflection and selection, or some might even say construction). Imagine a graduate who follows Lord Acton's advice that one has no right to attack or oppose a contrary view until one can express that view not only as well as but better than its proponent. Such a student has one of the essential marks or characteristics of the virtuous knower—integrity. In sum, we are asking students to act in the manner of citizens of the university.
Is character education synonymous with morality or sexual morality? Character education should be synonymous with neither morality nor, more specifically, sexual morality.
A great disservice was done to the word "character" during the past ten years of political life in America. The term has become narrowly focused and the behavior of former President Clinton has become the defining moment of defining this term. As noted, this does not mean that morality or sexual morality are not character issues, only that character includes more than this. The weaknesses of President Clinton's character were revealed by his behavior and I will be up front here when I say that I do not think his offense was an impeachable one. Voters who might have had the opportunity to vote again would be within their rights to consider such behavior, but it would also be an opportunity to consider many of his virtues.
I think all voters, when they vote, are voting for a person and not merely for issues. And all of us reveal our characters every time we engage in social and civic life, politicians more than most. Unfortunately, many commentators' observations about our shared political life argued that the failure of Clinton's impeachment showed the decline of American values. We no longer acted, they [End Page 249] said, as if character mattered. A good reading by such commentators of, say, a recent biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American by H. W. Brands, should disabuse them of such a narrow definition of character, particularly if they wish to extol the "virtues" of such a founding father. In any case, character matters in fact do matter and they matter whether we call them that or not.
An exclusive focus on morality narrowly defined suggests that character education is about inhibition—and I am certainly willing to grant that much of character education that happens at home and in church and in our early years might in fact be inhibitive and necessary. I have Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents in mind. But character education of the sort that is arguably the job of the university is liberating. We should resist the term "character" being co-opted by narrow sectarian and religious causes.
Are character traits the same as personality traits? Character traits should be viewed as personality traits that are privileged.
A typical replacement word for "character" is the word "personality." This word, of course, lacks much. Its problem is the opposite of the problem of making sexual morality synonymous with character. Such a definition is too narrow, whereas "personality" is too broad. "Character" is a term used to refer to a composite of personality traits that are essential. We will have many students in our classes with a variety of personalities. Some will be optimistic and lighthearted, quick to laugh. Others may be more serious, less engaging, more to themselves. It would be hard to imagine us demanding that our students "loosen up," but not hard at all, I think, to encourage them and to demand of them that they act with integrity or intellectual honesty. The term "personality" also doesn't suggest inner effort or even choice. Personality is more like temperament. It is bred in the bone.
In some circumstances, personality traits could achieve "character status." I think having a sense of humor might very well be an outcome of an education focusing on integrity and the inevitability of flawed knowing. Humor may be our only redemption. [End Page 250] Schopenhauer said something to the effect that comedy was the greatest art form because it told no lies; and Nietzsche that tragedy was, because it told such beautiful lies. Such talk certainly has the potential to elevate a personality trait to that of a character trait. In any case, we do not choose our personality; we do choose our character.
What virtues should constitute someone of character or be the focus of character education? Character education should include a set of stipulated epistemic virtues.
Such virtues and habits will in fact make up the person of character who would hopefully be identified as such when she or he leaves the university. I have already mentioned the premier virtue for membership in an academic community: Integrity or intellectual honesty. Companion virtues would be intellectual courage, responsibility, humility, and hope.
These virtues admittedly are stipulated. First of all, they are the virtues that are most essential for membership in an academic community. (Loyalty might be the premier virtue within some other types of communities.) Second, they are stipulated because they are valorized within specific contexts and within specific time frames. In other words, I am not claiming that these virtues are universal and timeless. The Romans would have balked at humility and viewed ambition as a virtue. Of course, the phrasing and ordering of these virtues or intellectual habits are a matter for personal construal. They could, in other words, go by different names or could include sublists. For instance, I think the virtue of integrity includes tolerance for other points of view because the good knower understands the contingent nature of human knowledge. We don't tolerate other points of view because it's good manners, but because knowing well demands it.
Likewise, intellectual courage is required and the demand for it also inculcates it. Habits are formed by the actions that express them. Serious exploring of ideas risks shattering our preconceived notions, our images of the world. To lie down with a new idea is to [End Page 251] risk conception, birth, and dis-ease. But in the university setting conception, birth, and dis-ease are essentials in forming character. To do otherwise, to make education little more than information (consider Daniel Boorstin's "homo-up-to-datum"), is to potentially deform.
Responsibility is an epistemic virtue as well. There is a sense in which "curiosity," often viewed as a virtue and not just a personality trait, about the world and our capacity to "put nature to the rack" can be a vice. Certainly the discovery of the secrets of the atom and of DNA reveals the dangerous side of intellectual curiosity unaccompanied by intellectual responsibility. But there is another sense in which responsibility is an intellectual virtue, an epistemic virtue, and a companion virtue of intellectual honesty. We are all potentially separated from each other by our unique stories and images of the world. To behave responsibly requires us to act as if we are not trapped in our identities. To behave responsibly is to behave generously (as mentioned earlier, our virtue language can be varied) and it may even be appropriate to use the word "love." Normally, the injunction to love our neighbor is seen and ought to be seen as a virtue taught sooner and elsewhere and not the unique responsibility of the university. But when love means something like openness not only to other points of view, but to other people, when love means respect for these other people's stories and even a willingness to go it alone for a while without reciprocating generosity, we are talking about a virtue that falls under our jurisdiction. The requirement that we should or must or need to reason together, and for awhile even alone, to embrace, if you will, may be another way to say we should love.
Character education is not "do-goodism." College students can volunteer for much in their community and such activities are often the results of nonepistemic virtues that have been inculcated earlier in their lives. However, insofar as Service Learning is about the learning that takes place when knowledge is acquired and its application to civic and communal life learned, then here is where the virtue or habit of intellectual responsibility is learned and fostered. I think Service Learning is an opportunity to bridge the gap between earlier forms of character education and that which is the unique responsibility of the university. [End Page 252]
Today, more than ever, concerns about the uncertain contingencies of the future mark our students. Hope, defined as a proper balance between desire and expectation, is a power, necessary for living well, necessary for solving problems, necessary for establishing communion with others. Optimism, wishful thinking, eschatological fads, blind faith in progress, complacency abound. These are hopes false faces, like sincerity is the false face of intellectual honesty. I am arguing that hope be a critical virtue in the canon of character.
Is character education a bonus, a nice add-on to an undergraduate education? Character education is not an add-on—it is evoked, inculcated, and increased by virtue of getting a university education.
This could easily have been my first essential, but I thought it best to get a few other essentials out there. We have been doing character education all along if we have been truly educating our students. Both the core curriculum and the courses that constitute any major must foster the virtues discussed thus far because they are inevitably called for. That is how virtues become habits, through the simple act of needing them. You might want to have the Wizard of Oz in mind here. We know by the end of the story that what the story's characters all hope to get from the Wizard they already have by virtue of pursuing their goal. We already have seen how smart the Scarecrow is (made so or even more so because such strengths and habits have been called for or evoked), how brave the Cowardly Lion has become, and what a large heart the Tinman has. For our purposes, the matter is about the value of being explicit about such matters and building habit-forming practices into our pedagogical strategies.
In my discipline of rhetoric, character education is most certainly not an add-on. The expression of the character of the speaker, his ethos, if you will, is an integral part of the process of inquiry and persuasion. Furthermore, the term "ethos," properly understood, consists of the speaker's or writer's ability to be in touch with those traits that are most valued by her community. We constantly invent ourselves and such inventions are situational. You cannot be teaching someone [End Page 253] to be a good writer and speaker (and I assume in some very important ways all of us committed to general education, as well as to our majors, are in fact teaching students to write and talk and read critically) without implicitly calling for and therefore inculcating matters of character.
Should character pedagogy be implicit or explicit? We should find ways to make what is implicit, explicit.
As noted, the teaching of rhetoric is already explicitly about character. I think the first five essentials already point in this direction. But I want to add here a notion that I admit is controversial—I would even caution against the misuse of it. I believe that teachers should use character language more often in their evaluative comments. Admittedly, I believe this should be done almost exclusively with the virtue term and not the vice term. Students whose work has been exemplary, say in the area of integrity, ought to be so praised. The student who maintains his enthusiasm in spite of assorted gumption traps, but who has exhibited both humility and hope, ought to be so praised. The real mark of an educated person, possessing those characteristics that surely identify us, will not be whether she is abreast of all the current knowledge or that he would score well on Jeopardy, but the possession and display of certain virtues. Start the process of acknowledging this now.
Are we not competent, for instance, to say whether our students have pursued a subject honestly (separate from plagiarism issues), looked at all sides, understood the provisional nature of knowledge (at best) and the futility of believing in "immaculate perception"? Is it not obvious that when our students read literature that a self is being evoked, that patterns of desire are being called forth: strengthened in the case of virtue, or hardened in the case of vice?
I have always been impressed with how much character language is part of coaching (note here as well the metaphor behind the word "coach" and the character dimension thus bestowed on what coaches do) and how much it is part of the pedagogy of creative writing teachers. In both instances, the teachers have rightly personalized education. One of the worst terms we use is the word [End Page 254] "instructor," with a great etymology connected to building, which certainly could include building character, but of late refers more to the imparting of knowledge or a lesson. Education becomes synonymous with storing and retrieving information.
Leaving out cases of physical violence against players, I find it interesting that we accept character language, including the use of vice terms, in coaching and in creative writing. It seems that in both of these areas we have given permission for these coaches and teachers to chew out students for a lack of character—to be forthright about weaknesses and to treat some of the weaknesses as character flaws. Failure to be a team player, lack of courage, sentimental or dishonest writing are not unusual accusations in the language of evaluation in these areas. I am loath to argue for them in the context of this paper, but I think it is worthwhile to look behind the strategy, because behind the strategy is the recognition that education at its best is about character not "homo-up-to-datum." Certainly the student who goes to Tokyo and fails to see its biomorphic order can at first be excused on the grounds that he doesn't yet know about such cultural differences (and in the course of learning such things he is also being asked to become someone too). But at some point continued condemnatory language in the face of the unknown and the unfamiliar is not a knowledge problem, but a character flaw.
We ought not, nor do we have to, challenge students or support them with verdicts like "wrong" or "right." Rather, we can challenge them by using the language of virtue (or its lack). Suggest that they are being "unfair," or "intemperate," or "intolerant"; "sentimental" or merely "frank," confusing sincerity with intellectual honesty and frankness with responsibility.
A focus on character and virtue is practical. A bad reputation or a credible or incredible ethos is an advantage or disadvantage in a world where few truths are self-evident. Aristotle rightly pointed out in his discussion of rhetoric that ethos is the most important element in effective persuasion. An audience must believe that the speaker is benevolent, knowledgeable, and intelligent.
It is important not only to examine ways to make the implicit explicit, but to avoid pedagogical practices that do the opposite: that deform character. Earlier I wrote that assignments that create dis-ease in our students have the potential to increase the habit of [End Page 255] intellectual courage as we ask our students to risk cracks in their self-confidence and image of the world. I still believe this is essential. But I think that it is possible that this is translated into the practice of seeing writing as merely self-expression, where students are assigned highly emotional topics in which they are allowed to express opinions that they never reasoned themselves into. We run the risk of merely teaching our students to pimp. Many of our research assignments, besides inviting plagiarism, invite exercises in dishonesty, intellectual dishonesty, by misrepresenting the nature of research and the "prejudicial" nature of all knowing. I would think that almost any discipline charged with teaching the research methods of that discipline is knee-deep in character matters.
What should the relationship be between character education and "truth"? Character education should involve a complete separation of the inculcation of intellectual virtues from a priori truths or correct positions.
The greatest treason to character education will be to do a so called right or correct thing for the wrong reason. Honest differences of opinion about the most important ethical decisions facing us will not disappear if every university in the country succeeded with character education. Jerry Springer might hopefully disappear and so-called news/entertainment shows in which speakers who represent polarized positions take part in shouting matches might lose their appeal. But disagreements will not go away. Character education should not have a feel of being either right or left. It would not be unreasonable to assume that many would find the contingency-based knowledge of rhetoric that underlies much of what I have written as already to be left-leaning since I apparently am eschewing absolutes. But for those of you who know the sophistic tradition of ancient Greece, it should be fairly easy to understand that a contingency-based, or pragmatic, philosophy, doesn't prescribe one's politics. Nor should character education be seen as avoiding action. Reasonable people, people of character, can come to agreements, and compromises can be reached, and the rule of law maintained. [End Page 256]
Character education isn't about right decisions, though character education is about decisions, about choices. Nor am I suggesting a false dichotomy between how we decide and what we decide, since being aware that a decision needs to be made, that a problem exists, is already to be aware enough, and reveals and promotes character. We ought not, nor do we have to, challenge or support our students with simple verdicts like "right" or "wrong." Rather, we can challenge them by using the language of virtue, character language.
What should the relationship be between character education and current controversies? Character education should keep a respectful distance from ad hoc issues.
This is a fairly short essential. I wish my curtness to speak for itself. Enron now, lawyers during Watergate. Typically, this is when calls go out for a greater emphasis on teaching ethics in law schools or MBA programs and expressions of shock are proclaimed at our collective failure to do so. Character education isn't ethics per se. I think all courses teach to matters of character insofar as these courses require intellectual virtues, but not all explicitly address ethical reasoning or the ethical dimensions of various disciplines and professions. These issues are best addressed at the professional school level or, as noted earlier, they are about the absence or presence of virtues that should have a place in an earlier phase of education. Confronting sociopathic behavior is not what we do best when we address character education. To tie character to ad hoc issues is to forever marginalize it. By all means attempt to reinforce those virtues that ought to have been taught earlier (not to steal, cheat, or lie), but to tie character education to them, will prevent the explicit attempt to do what we do best and make character education, as it too often has been, a reactionary response to ad hoc issues.
Is character education a private or public matter? Character education is a public matter. [End Page 257]
Character education is citizen education. It's about talk, not voting, which is in the final analysis private. Citizen education is about the character and manner of our talk and deliberations about our shared world. It's how we talk, not what we decide. I have noticed more and more in our public discourse about character the tendency to separate private and public. There is no such clear line of separation. Only circumstances and contingencies can decide these matters. It was a mistake to so narrowly define and misdefine character during the Clinton terms, but it was an equal mistake to claim his failings were private. They were public—which is not to say that these particular failings would be the primary territory of character education at the university level.
I have been moving to a position that is counterintuitive to a prevailing viewpoint in our profession—that virtue for its own sake is the highest expression of virtue. I think this is a mistake. Character education for us ought to be about public, measurable, and explicit virtues with real-life, practical consequences. Character education at its best is not private and it is not for its own sake. We need less, not more, of an overly romantic focus on self, a view toward freedom that sees resistance to community as freedom's only expression. Benjamin Franklin rightly understood that the American Revolution was about more than simple self-rule, which he felt at bottom was only another form of office seeking. Instead he felt that it was an opportunity to apply virtue to politics. This is also the view in the later tradition of John Dewey and other American pragmatists who saw democracy as more than just a container for competing interests, but as a means for the general improvement of mankind.
What should be the relationship between character education and other disciplines? Character education should seek for interdisciplinary understanding.
We should avoid reinventing the wheel. Leadership education, learning style pedagogy, personality traits, rhetorical invention especially of ethos, decision research, and "cognition and communication" are all about character education and are ideally linked. Part [End Page 258] of the education within the university core is making these links explicit. It is also important to point out how within the tradition of liberal arts there are metaphysical positions that are at odds with the underlying prerequisite of character education: that there is a self that is not reduced and determined, that is transcending, not merely an immanent creature caught in an environment.
It is often the nature of the social sciences and physical sciences to explain and thus predict the motions or motives of human behavior. A belief, at least a modicum of belief, in the essential freedom of human will is essential, but it is often not recognized and at times poorly addressed. It would be a frightening outcome indeed of a college education that a student left the university with despair and doubt about such an essential prerequisite. Or left the university having chosen an explanatory and reductivist point of view, without recognizing that education, character education, isn't about choosing a point of view, but about using points of view to make choices. Even math teachers, who live in the realm of a priori truths, are in fact value teachers. The truths of math are one thing; that you "ought" to know them is another.
A valuable service is certainly done as our students come to confront all that stands in the way of being free of this time and place. I am not at all bothered by the notion that language might speak us as much as we speak it. By all means come to know and understand the role that language plays in shaping and constructing our world and even ourselves. But to believe we are reduced and determined by this or any other force or motive is to surrender, and is most assuredly the road to madness.
I think that one of the best signs of intellectual honesty will be a habitual resistance to false dichotomies. Many of my essentials hopefully had this "sign." We are constantly confronted with false dichotomies.
False dichotomies between words and deeds, facts and fictions, subject and object, ideal and real, and self and community abound. [End Page 259] If our students leave the university with an everlasting quarrel with such partial presentations and misrepresentations, they will have had an education worthy of the name character.
But most important, it will be our own modeling of what constitutes a bona fide member of the university community that will have the most lasting influence.
Thomas M. Rivers is a Professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana. He also serves as Director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program and is currently a board member of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs. His scholarly interests are in rhetoric and character education. He received his undergraduate degree from St. Michael's College in Vermont, his master's degree from Southern Illinois University, and his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1975.