On Teaching Character, Part II

Last week on the blog I was reflecting on the profound discouragement we all feel as we witness, on an almost daily basis, eruptions of ugly scandalous behavior in our midst. “What in the world is going on here?” we ask. “Doesn’t it seem to be worse than it used to be?” “And why is it so hard to talk about these things without seeming inappropriately judgmental?”

I’d like to think about these kinds of questions again.

Some time ago I was speaking in downtown Seattle to a roundtable of business and community leaders. I was asked to talk about what I considered the distinctive purposes of my university, and I decided, naturally for me, to talk about our commitment to character formation. After all, our mission statement at Seattle Pacific talks about graduating people of “competence and character.”

I assumed I was surely preaching to a choir. Character matters to our community. Character is essential in business and the professions, in politics and in our schools. Character is vitally important to our families and our marriages and our relationships. Surely we would all assume this is at least part of the business of the university.

When the Q & A time arrived, another university president in the audience, the president of one of our strong public institutions, raised his hand quickly and said, “But, Phil, this is not the purpose of the university. We have no business thinking we have anything to say in the complex and conflicted arena of character. We can’t be in the business of imposing any kind of moral framework on our students.”

I was surprised, stunned actually. I think I was being scolded. I think I was being told I am somewhat antiquated in these pursuits, too moralistic, out of step with the true work of the university in our day. The day of teaching character is over. This was disturbing to me. While I thought I was preaching to the choir, apparently, when it comes to the teaching of character there is no choir out there.

But I don’t buy it. While I have such enormous respect for the important work of James Davison Hunter on the “death of character,” the death of our ability to teach character, I want to run right in the face of these cultural currents. I believe we can and must teach for the formation of character in our students.

I think back on a note struck by George Weigel following the death of the great Pope John Paul II. George Weigel says that the Pope understood so clearly that any progress in the 21st century would come “in the realm of culture: in vibrant public moral cultures capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous energies — economic, political, aesthetic, and, yes, sexual — set loose in free societies.” Yes, I think this is it. This is what is missing as we witness the unfolding of so many sad stories in our day. We have failed to build those “vibrant public moral cultures.”

And how do we go about doing just that?

“A vibrant public moral culture is essential for democracy and the market,” Weigel goes on to say about the pope, “for only such a culture can inculcate and affirm the virtues necessary to make freedom work. Democracy and the free economy . . . are not machines that can cheerfully run by themselves. Building the free society certainly involves getting the institutions right; beyond that, however, freedom’s future depends on men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good.”

That’s precisely where the work of the Christian university enters the picture. We are trying to learn better every day how to shape “men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good.” Not an easy task in a world where the teaching traditions of virtue are constantly contested. But that’s certainly our task as a Christian university.

We have a chance to fly right in the face of the currents of culture that tell us the days for teaching character are over. And as we do just that, we have a chance to help build that “vibrant public moral culture” that is indeed so essential to the health of our world in the future.

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Categories: Change, Character, Culture, Leadership

14 replies

  1. As a youth ministry veteran of 30+ years I have seen too many of our students become discouraged and disenfranchised through the influence of teachers, coaches and other adult “mentors” who cared more about their agendas than investing in the lives of the youth. I support excellent teaching and training but let us care for the whole person. I am beginning work in the Santa Barbara area to build a coalition of people in the church and outside the church who genuinely love adolescents and purpose to help them develop their minds, their heart and their character. Thanks for your timely and provocative post.

  2. I personally am SEVERELY skeptical of any notion that either morality or “character” can be taught, and even then, who decides what constitutes “good character?” Perhaps modern culture has the correct university model in mind, emphasizing education over Christian conditioning. I’m of the opinion that a university should expose students to the knowledge and other world views necessary to allow them inform their own PERSONALLY DECIDED character. Students must (and should) decide for themselves what type of individuals they will be.

    I agree completely with the other university president.

  3. Dear Student – I find it interesting that Harvard University, the well established Ivy League school, agrees with President Eaton. Check out Harvey Cox’s Book “When Jesus Came to Harvard.” It is Harvard’s story of implementing moral and ethical (not to be confused with religious) education in order to establish successful students with Integrity in every school of study.

    I agree completely with President Eaton and cheer on the effort for character education.

  4. Apparently corporations, ad agencies, and the like believe that messages sway us — or they wouldn’t have spent $495,145 million on advertising in 2009 (per Zenithoptimedia.com).

    Now, ads are not the same as parents, teachers, professors, ministers, and peers giving us their messages over the years. But the connection is clear: We DO internalize, and live out, what we have been exposed to. Both good and bad.

    Robert Fulghum had it right when he wrote about one of our first organized character lessons: “All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten” (http://www.peace.ca/kindergarten.htm).

    Duh … we are all walking proof that we are — including our characters — the sum of what we have been exposed to.

  5. I think character formation is certainly part of a university’s mission, though dissimilar from the sort of formative and instructive role that, say, parents have. At university, it is not teaching by saying, “Here, this is right, go be this way;” it is creating an environment where difficult questions can be asked and debated. Where students are encouraged to give their own thoughtfully crafted answers, not just the ‘right’ ones for that professor or course. Where those answers can be debated and refined through healthy discussion and debate. Note that we are talking about forming character, not forcing or superimposing it. To me, this is an essential part of graduating responsible global citizens.

  6. As a teacher in a secondary education setting, I see character education as vital and necessary. Character education doesn’t have to equate religious views on life or how to live. I am a Christian. I teach in a public school. All teachers should and are supposed to teach character education as part of our school-wide curriculum. It’s not just for faith based organizations and institutions.

    This month the banner at the front door reads, ‘Honesty’. Most students I encounter are not honest. It is my job, and responsibility as an educator to model and teach, to the best of my ability, what it is to live an honest life and as an honest individual. If we are not allowed in the world of education to help instruct students in these areas, where do we expect them to learn?

    Doug – There are many teachers that do care, do invest time in students, and are willing to mentor and encourage them without just worrying about an ‘agenda’. Yet, many high school students have their own agenda, thrive off of distracting teachers, desire exemptions for reasons that are not legit, and a myriad of other stories are displayed each day. Please always remember that a student sharing with you about their experience is just that — unless you know the other side of the story, don’t assume that teachers are all about agenda’s. Some are, yes. Many are not. There is curriculum that needs to be taught as required by the state. If I dropped what I had planned everytime a student had an issue or something they needed to talk about, I would never get anything taught….I daily have students with things that don’t fit in the agenda — it’s the troubled world we live in. I say this as a teacher, but I am also a former church Youth Director – I’ve experienced both sides. Part of being an excellent teachers is meeting your students where they are at, striving to teach in a way that is engaging, and getting to know each student (all 125 of them)…a huge task. Thank you for support excellence in teaching, and encouraging your students to see the other side as well.

    Student – Christian conditioning and character are not necessarily one in the same. Honesty, loyalty, fairness, etc. are all character traits that we teach — doesn’t matter if you’re in a Christian setting or not…those are traits that need to be developed to be a productive and diligent member of society. You are right in the fact that each individual needs to and will decide for themselves how to live. But, we can still strive to teach what it is to be honest, be loyal, be fair, etc.

  7. I truly appreciate your perspective and willingness to speak thoughtfully on this topic. My young children attend a public, urban elementary school. Their school has embraced a language of “life skills” that are, in every sense of the word, expressions of the character we hope to build in the next generation. The list is long, but includes such qualities as “honesty,” “perseverance,” “courage,” and “trustworthiness.” These expectations of character are woven into every piece of life in the school: from actual lessons on the meaning and examples in Kindergarten – 5th grade classrooms, to physical education, to words of encouragement from a teacher passing a student in the hall, and as expected, in disciplining behavior and managing classrooms.

    I believe the essence of solid character is as important as anything else that is taught, encouraged, and modeled in my children’s elementary school. While I am the parent, and thus responsible for teaching them our family’s faith and helping them to see our God as the source of all things good, I think it’s reasonable to expect my schools to support and expect the standards of character.

    All to say, if a public, inner-city elementary school is applauded for teaching and expecting such character from 5 year-olds, why would any respectable institution of higher education be different? It seems to me that preparing our future public servants, business leaders, creative minds, educators, and leaders of all professions for their future requires a solid understanding of ethics and expectation for high character. Indeed, these expectations should not end at middle school.

  8. As a public elementary school teacher I frequently think about and plan to teach character development. Every time I do social problem-solving or address issues of death, divorce or poverty with my students who long to make sense of their troubles, I am teaching character. I’m saddened that the leader of a “strong public institution” would be so clueless as to think the avoidance of teaching within an explicit moral framework is not a moral framework in itself. How sad.

    Also, there is a vast chasm between character education that attempts to produce men and women of character through a rule-based behavior matrix versus authentic engagement with issues of human nature. I doubt quality character education is effective through canned curricula or mere rules, I have great hope for character education that comprises lessons from history, including biblical narrative.

    Finally, as the mother of a college-bound high school junior, I am delighted to hear that SPU’s chief visionary is stirred by this important cultural conversation.

  9. P.S.
    Dear Student,
    If I were to steal your stuff, cheat on a test you studied for, cut in the grocery line in front of you, take your seat in a movie theatre or do any number of selfish acts against you, I believe you would most likely wish I had been taught to make better choices, to recognize the limits of living a completely self-centered life and to delay self-gratification.
    You might even exact revenge. That would be right in line with what you appear to defend. In a world with no acknowledged universal moral values, you would soon – and perhaps happily so – be put in a position where you would not need to bother with choosing a university! Universities, the rule of law, democracy and many things you daily take advantage of, by definition as a student(!), would soon atrophy and disappear. Please consider the trajectory of your thinking before you decide character is of no value. I would argue that you have quite a lot of learned personal character development yourself if you are a student in good standing at a respected university. Think about it.

  10. For a University president to pretend that character is not a mission of education is preposterous. Is there a single University, for instance, that leaves the definition of “plagiarism” to the relativistic mind of the individual student? Of course not.

    A University that turns an institutionalized blind eye to character is in fact teaching character and indeed moralizing — in the worst way.

  11. I hope responses are not inappropriate on blog comments. Claire, please do not suggest that I think there is no value in “character.” I said no such thing. A code of ethics that agrees with the best interest of the rest of society is obviously a wonderful thing to have and students should definitely be morally sound… but such is for parents to teach, not the school. Students don’t need MORE parents, they need educators.

    I understand that many may disagree with me and I respect that, but I do not appreciate insinuations that I have not thought through my position.

  12. I graduated last year and spent about six years doing so. It gave me a contemporary, close up view with respect to our moral ground… or lack of same. In so many circles, the entire subject of right and wrong has been rendered moot in the educational environment. And what was more distressing than confronting a view that differed greatly, even passionately from mine, was the abject spiritual vacuum of advancing generations. It was frightening to witness the livid, expressionless faces that looked back at me with genuine apathy – if indeed there can be such a thing. It’s nice to see that you offer something more than the standard catalog of courses a la carte, but rather a formative opportunity as well. Kudos.

  13. JB . . . for the record I have experienced that most teachers are encouraging and aim toward excellence. I may not be on the frontlines of education in the public school but I have worked with many teachers to see their side as well. Both students and teachers are responsible on this issue. Thanks for your faithful work in the public school. We need more people like you.

  14. Like many before me, I transformed from idealist (I had lot of ideas how to chnge things) to regular person (I know that I can not change things I can only live my life as good as i can end not be obssesed with money like everybody else around me). That transformation begun at school where i sa that everyting is mesured by money and who your parents are in the world. Is good to see that not everyouene are like this and do not change.

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