Portraits of character touch something deep in the human heart. In the award-winning Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, one of the most commented on and moving moments was the reading of a letter written by a Union soldier, Major Sullivan Ballou, to his wife, Sarah, a week before his death at the Battle of Bull Run:
My very dear Sarah,
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days -- perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing -- perfectly willing -- to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt....
Sarah, my love for you is deathless...and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long....I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me -- perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name.
Here was a humble man, a courageous man, who loved his family and loved his country and, spurred on by high ideals, did his duty as he saw it without complaining. Tom Brokaw, interviewing veterans of World War II in his best-selling book The Greatest Generation was struck by many of the same qualities. September 11 produced abundant examples of unassuming heroism and sacrificial generosity.
We are moved by these stories of character because they show us human beings at their best. They reveal our capacity for goodness. They challenge us to be more than we might otherwise be. And they renew our faith in every child's potential to grow into a person of character.
As we begin a new century, we have a sharper sense of how much character matters. We need good character to lead purposeful, productive, and fulfilling lives. We need character to have strong and stable families. We need character to have safe, caring, and effective schools. We need character to build a civil, decent, and just society.
We are troubled, however, by the unraveling of the moral fabric of our society. In a recent national poll, nearly three of four American adults said that they believe that people in general lead less honest and moral lives than they used to.1 Says a high school teacher, "Kids today are more cynical than ever about the lack of honesty they see in the adult world."
We're troubled by all the ways societal moral decline is reflected, as it inevitably is, in the attitudes and behavior of our children. We're troubled by the precocious sexual behavior of the young. We're troubled by the bad language that comes out of the mouths of even elementary school children. We're troubled by the breakdown of the family and the growing numbers of parents who seem to let their children do and watch what they please. We're troubled by a ubiquitous media culture that grows more violent and vulgar by the day.
How can we renew our moral culture?
Children are 25 percent of the population but 100 percent of the future. If we wish to renew society, we must raise up a generation of children who have strong moral character. And if we wish to do that, we have two responsibilities: first, to model good character in our own lives, and second, to intentionally foster character development in our young.
Happily, an effort to do this is under way. For more than a decade, there has been a resurgence of character education in our nation's schools. It can be seen in a spate of character education books and curricular materials; in federal funding for character education and character education mandates in more than two-thirds of the states; in the emergence of national advocacy groups such as the Character Education Partnership and the Character Counts! Coalition; in the new Journal of Research in Character Education, the National Schools of Character awards competition, and reports on how to prepare future teachers to be character educators; and in an explosion of grassroots character education initiatives.
Character education is welcomed by parents who need support for the hard work of raising good children in a hostile moral environment; welcomed by teachers who went into teaching hoping to make a difference in the kind of person a child becomes and are demoralized to be in a school that gives up teaching right from wrong; and welcomed by all of us who are saddened by the decline in values as basic as common courtesy that we once took for granted. Effective character education in our schools is something all of us have a stake in, not just educators and parents, but everyone who cares about a decent society.
The premise of the character education movement is that the disturbing behaviors that bombard us daily -- violence, greed, corruption, incivility, drug abuse, sexual immorality, and a poor work ethic -- have a common core: the absence of good character. Educating for character, unlike piecemeal reforms, goes beneath the symptoms to the root of these problems. It therefore offers the best hope of improvement in all these areas.
Character education, of course, is not only the responsibility of schools. It is the shared duty of all those who touch the values and lives of the young, starting with families and extending to faith communities, youth organizations, business, government, and even the media. The hope for the future is that we can come together in common cause: to elevate the character of our children, our own character as adults, and ultimately the character of our culture.
At the heart of effective character education is a strong partnership between parents and schools. The family is the first school of virtue. It is where we learn about love. It is where we learn about commitment, sacrifice, and faith in something larger than ourselves. The family lays down the moral foundation on which all other social institutions build.
Parents, if they make the effort, can remain formative influences even during the challenging adolescent years. Building a Better Teenager, a 2002 research report based on hundreds of studies, concludes that the most academically motivated and morally responsible teens -- and the ones least likely to engage in risky behaviors -- are those who enjoy warm and involved relationships with their parents and whose parents set clear expectations and monitor their activities in age-appropriate ways.
For the past nine years, our Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (respect and responsibility) at the State University of New York at Cortland has worked with schools and parents to promote the development of good character. We publish a Fourth and Fifth Rs newsletter (www.cortland.edu/c4n5rs) spotlighting character education success stories and run the Summer Institute in Character Education, which trains teachers, counselors, administrators, and other educators from across the country.
Character education, we always emphasize, is not a new idea. Down through history, all over the world, education has had two great goals: to help students become smart and to help them become good. They need character for both. They need character strengths such as a strong work ethic, self-discipline, and perseverance in order to succeed in school and succeed in life. They need character qualities such as respect and responsibility in order to have positive interpersonal relationships and live in community. At the beginning of our republic, the Founders argued that a democracy -- government by the people -- could not thrive without virtuous citizens, ones who understood and honored democracy's moral underpinnings: respect for individual rights, voluntary compliance with the law, participation in public life, and concern for the common good. For most of our nation's history, character education was at the center of the school's mission.
Unlike the nondirective and often relativistic values education of the recent past -- which encouraged students to "make your own decision" without grounding them in the content of character -- character education is the deliberate effort to cultivate virtue. The school stands for qualities of character such as hard work, respect, and responsibility. It promotes these through every phase of school life, from the example of adults to the handling of discipline to the content of the curriculum.
What is the content of character that we should try to model and teach in school, at home, and in our communities? In this book, I set forth ten essential virtues that are affirmed by nearly all philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions: wisdom, justice, fortitude, self-control, love, a positive attitude, hard work, integrity, gratitude, and humility. Part 1 explains these ten essential virtues and the way character profoundly affects the quality of our individual and collective lives.
Part 2 shows how parents can raise children of character and how schools can help parents fulfill their primary role as children's first and most powerful moral teachers.
Part 3 shows how all classroom teachers, regardless of subject matter, can create a learning community that fosters responsible work and moral behavior.
Part 4 shows how any school can become a school of character. Here and throughout the book, I report on exemplary elementary, middle, and high schools, many of which have won national recognition for excellence in character education. These schools have reaped the rewards of fewer discipline problems and higher academic performance by putting character first.
Part 5 shows how to involve an entire community in promoting good character.
Character education, to be sure, can be done ineffectively, as little more than slogans, banners, and adults' urging kids to be good. But schools that do character education well -- in a way that transforms the school culture, the daily experience of students and staff -- create an environment in which diligent effort, mutual respect, and service to others are the rule rather than the exception. A growing body of character education research (see, for example, What Works in Character Education, www.character.org) documents these positive outcomes. Hal Urban, an award-winning high school history teacher, a character education speaker, and the author of Life's Greatest Lessons, shares his firsthand observations:
I've had the good fortune to visit schools all over the country that have character education programs in place. The first word that pops into my mind when I visit them is "clean." I seen clean campuses and buildings, hear clean language, and see kids dressed cleanly and neatly. I also see courtesy being practiced by everyone -- students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Most important, I see teaching and learning going on in an atmosphere that is caring, positive, and productive.
At the end of a unit on slavery, a fifth-grade boy in New Hampshire said, "We think slavery was bad, but what are people going to say about us in a hundred years?" Most of us would be likely to agree that our contemporary society faces serious social-moral problems and that these problems have deep roots and require systemic solutions. Many of us are also now coming to recognize the link between public life and private character -- that it is not possible to develop a virtuous society unless we develop virtue in the hearts, minds, and souls of individual human beings. Families, schools, and communities can and must each do their part in creating a culture of character by raising children of character. Indeed, the health of our nation in the century ahead depends on how seriously all of us commit to this calling.
Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Lickona