Ever since man stumbled out of the cave, we have been concerned, albeit
fitfully, with improving the human condition. Our first target was conquering
nature and dealing with threats, whether sabre-tooth tigers or sub-prime
mortgages. Our second fight was an internal one, about improving our nature. We
struggle to listen to our better angels lest we slink back to the cave, dragging
Cindy Crawford by the hair, to drink beer and watch football. The lives of most
of us are continuing battles to deal effectively with outside and inside

The formation of a good character has long been seen as a means to deal with
these challenges, particularly the internal ones. “Character” is one of those
seminal words that has been around so long that it has morphed and been twisted
almost beyond recognition. Its Greek root is charassein, meaning “to
engrave” or “make marks” as on a wax tablet or a metal surface. From this the
meaning evolved to the conception of character as a distinctive mark or set of
marks, that is, an individual’s pattern of behaviour, his moral constitution.

Early on, the human race learned that good character does not just happen.
Children left to themselves either die of physical neglect or develop into
self-centred, often dangerous, adults. It takes time and energy to acquire the
habits and dispositions that constitute good character. From caveman days to the
present, parents have had the primary responsibility for assisting their
children in forming the moral habits that make up a good character. Historically
parents have had help engraving the behaviour patterns and moral understandings
on children’s quite plastic characters from older siblings, neighbours,
churchmen and others. It was commonly understood that these engraved marks, such
as the habit of telling the truth or settling differences peacefully, are
essential to happiness or the human flourishing of both the individual child
and the community. This was mother’s milk wisdom captured in many adages,
such as, “As the twig is bent, the tree inclines.” The parents or the society
that does not attend to the character formation of their young ignores it at
their peril.

We invented schools when the accumulation of knowledge about how to conquer
and manage the external world surpassed parents’ time and abilities to pass it
on to their children. Schoolmen, in response, embraced what we now call
character education with vigour and passion. Nowhere was this truer than in
Colonial America. In 1647, the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, thus establishing the first public schools in
North America. The act empowered state government to tax families in order to
establish elementary and secondary schools. The educational purpose, however, is
captured in the act’s title. The early settlers, living in a strange, new land,
surrounded by savages and cut off from civilisation, were fearful for the
eternal souls of their children. Schools, then, were established for the primary
task of teaching children to read and understand the Bible, the written word of
God. In this manner, children would gain the strength of character to resist the
influences of that Old Deluder, Satan.

In the centuries since their beginning in the West, school had character
formation as a central educational goal. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries
in the US, character education was a strong mix of Biblical religion and
training for good citizenship. However, in the 20th century the religious
element was stripped away, leaving the justification for and content of
character education increasingly secular. Further, the mission and justification
for character education was dramatically undermined during the socially
wrenching events of the late 1960s and early 70s. An unpopular war in East Asia,
new sexual mores attributed to artificial birth control, widely available
“recreational drugs” and the often violent strife over civil rights appeared to
shatter the nation’s moral consensus. This perception left many educators
asking, “Whose values can we legitimately teach?”

In response to this turmoil, many teachers and administrators simply stepped
back from their traditional responsibilities as educators of character and
transmitters of the society’s moral values. In the 1960s, those educators still
convinced that they had a responsibility to address their students’ moral needs
found two quite different psychology-based approaches, both claiming to fill the
gap: values clarification and cognitive developmental moral education.

Teachers as facilitators

Values clarification is well named. Instead of teaching particular moral
concepts or values, teachers were urged to be neutral facilitators. Though games
and various exercises they regularly engaged students in opportunities to
clarify their own moral values. Not their parents’ or their
church’s or their country’s or the moral wisdom of the ages, but the values that
came to the surface from these exercises. While in history’s rearview mirror,
the idea seems absurd, values clarification was wildly popular in our schools
for fully 20 years. In the 1980s, educators sobered up somewhat when research
studies found this approach ineffective, except for possibly promoting moral

The second approach, cognitive moral development, was essentially the
theoretical creation of a psychologist housed at a great university and, as a
result, it was, perhaps, taken much too seriously. The theory posits that
individuals are capable of evolving “upward” through six distinct stages of
moral reasoning. Further, things can be done to help us move higher and faster
through these stages. Specifically, if people at a lower stage of moral
reasoning are intellectually engaged in an environment where moral discourse
occurs at a higher stage, the lower-stage moral thinkers will gradually
gravitate to habitual thinking at the higher stage. In other words, have
low-level moral thinkers spent lots of time around higher level moral thinkers
and good things happen. Educators were taught to have students discuss and
debate what were often very complex moral dilemmas. Over the period of the 1970s
and 1980s, several dilemma-based curricula were developed for use in elementary
and secondary classrooms.

Again, when the research results came in, advocates were discouraged. All of
the ethical wrangling resulted in little or no movement to higher stage
thinking. In addition, teachers found conducting a classroom discussion of a
thorny dilemma was daunting enough. Having to identify which students were at
which state and then to engineer the discussion to ensure that lower stage
thinking students listened to the higher stage students was simply beyond the
pale for most teachers.

The emergence of character education

The disappointing failures of these two psychologically based approaches, one
the favourite of therapeutically oriented educators and the other of university
professors, dampened interest in character education. However, the traditional
responsibility and clear necessity for schools to attend to the moral and
character needs of students would not go away. In the US, the public’s awareness
of the extraordinary, 40-year rise in youth pathologies (ie, violent crime,
out-of-wedlock births, drug use) continues to keep educator’s feet to the fire.
Nevertheless, without strong ammunition, such as provided by religious belief or
compelling humanistic ideals, what has been called “the character education
movement” has appeared to stall. More fundamentally, the problem appears to be
that the character education movement has little relationship to human

By academic standards, modern, impirical psychology is a young science. And
with a few exceptions (ie, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers), much of this
discipline’s attention has been concerned with mental illness and other human
dysfunctions. It was not until the very end of the 20th century that a major
research effort was mounted to explore what constitutes a flourishing human
life. Signifying this change of direction, the new effort is called positive
psychology. These psychologists are trying to uncover what contributes to
happiness or human flourishing. The term they use most often is “mental

In their search to identify what constitutes mental wellness, positive
psychology researchers have identified six core human traits, which contribute
to human happiness. Further, they find that these six and the 24 associated
character strengths to be universal. They are: wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity,
open-mindedness, love of
, perspective); courage (bravery, persistence,
vitality); humanity (love,
kindness, social
); justice (citizenship,
fairness, leadership);
temperance (forgiveness and
mercy, humility, prudence, self
); transcendence (appreciation
of beauty
and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality).
It is worth noting that positive psychologists reached back to the ancient
philosophical words “virtue” and “character” to label their scientific findings.

Reviving virtue ethics

This movement in empirical psychology has been paralleled by the revival in
philosophy of virtue ethics. With it has come a rediscovery of the traditional
meaning of character. While the revival of virtue ethics can be attributed to
the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the term has its roots in the quests
of ancient philosophers and religious thinkers to identify just how humans
achieve happiness or human flourishing. Aristotle, after having established that
the route to human happiness is living a virtuous life, (that is, to possess
qualities of character, such as justice, self-control (temperance) and courage),
he examined how a person attains virtue. His answer is through
establishing habits or moral virtues. We must first understand the meaning of a
virtue, such as temperance or justice, and then dispose our minds toward it.
That is, we must have a disposition to possess these virtues or human habits.
Second, we must “act”. We must practice the virtues until they become “second
nature” to us. Aristotle famously said that we become virtuous by doing acts of
virtue. We become courageous by doing acts of courage and we become
self-controlled by acting in a self-controlled manner.

Both of these intellectual movements acknowledge the ancient idea that human
beings do not come into the world and naturally develop into people
of good character. That is, we need education about what it means to be a “good
person” and training and opportunities to acquire the habits or virtues that
mark a good person. Thus, virtue ethics, in particular, offers educators
both a clear, historical mandate and a method to engage in character
education. In brief, the method is to immerse students in an understanding of
those virtues which constitute a good life, provide them with exemplars from our
history and our literature and point out clearly the pitfalls to attaining and
maintaining these virtues. Most effective, however, is educators’ imbuing
students with an understanding that their entire school experience, whether
academic successes or failures, whether athletic victories or social
disappointments, is grist for the mill of students’ primary task: becoming
craftsmen of their own good character.

Stirring the moral cauldrons

At the present moment, character education is hardly on the public schools’
front burner. Under pressures from school boards and employers to turn out a
more highly skilled and productive work force, teachers and administrators are
focusing on literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge, areas which can be
measured by what are called “high-stakes test”. In addition, most educators,
like the populace to whom they answer, have themselves gone through “value
neutral” schools, and thus, are unprepared to teach what many may perceive to be
just another educational fad.

The stubborn reality, however, is that schooling a child without attending to
his or her character and moral values is disabling the child and, in turn,
dangerous for a democratic society. Schools, themselves, are moral cauldrons
with ethical issues of cheating, bullying and fairness continually bubbling
away. Thankfully, as the 21st century gets underway, the arrival and coming
together of two intellectual movements, positive psychology and virtue ethics,
holds the promise of lighting the way for educators toward a more grounded and
robust character education.

The modern educational apostles of multiculturalism and diversity will
undoubted be unnerved by what they perceive as such churchy and “dead white
male” utterances as “virtue,” and “character,” let alone the mention of such a
hoary figure as Aristotle. They might be encouraged to know, however, that one
of the leading advocates for both virtue ethics and positive psychology is both
Asian and a non-Christian. On the other hand, he is pre-internet, using archaic
terms like “sow” and “reap,” which are way out of the “lived experiences” of
most Western children. Those pluses and minuses aside, 25 centuries ago,
Confucius nailed the essence of how we acquire character in a four line poem.
The Chinese sage wrote:

Sow a thought. Reap an action.
Sow an action. Reap a habit.
Sow a
habit. Reap a character
Sow a character. Reap a destiny.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at
Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20
books. He has appeared recently on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning
America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking
on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu

Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....