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Character Education

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates

Goodness without knowledge is blind; knowledge without goodness is dangerous. Inscription above the entry to Phillips Academy

Ideology and Character

Character traits that are important to a teacher's success and are linked to his/her ideology. You can be optimistic or pessimistic, wheither a Democrat or a Republican.

Skepticism is a healthy, if not essential, quality trait that leads citizens to press for explanations and information so that they can make informed judgments.

Cynicism can easily lead to apathy. It is a pessimistic view of the future. A teacher who is excessively cynical can destroy the optimism, energy, and enthusiasm needed by the next generations of citizens.

Any man who is under 30 and is not a liberal has no heart,
Any man who is over 30 and is not a conservative has not brains, Winston Churchill

Character Education

Character Education is also referred to as Values Education or Moral Education. Character Education requires a teacher to promote an often ambiguous and fluid “democratic ideology” about how personal judgments about right and wrong are to be thought of and acted upon. Through social studies we share with students the accumulated examples and ideas of civilization (both good and bad) so that they can become wiser and better understand themselves and their duties to others. Through Character Education we seek to help future adults to develop the ideas and habits to reconcile internal challenges with those that come from being a part of a larger community.

The Roots of Character Education  Character Education has its roots in Western philosophical traditions dating back to Greek antiquity. Plato and his mentor Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) concluded that knowledge is our best hope for knowing the right thing to do, but having knowledge is no guarantee that  someone will do the right thing. Some people have a great deal of knowledge but still make poor choices. And some people Socrates distinguished between true opinion, which may come to people instinctively or by mimicking others, and knowledge, which he defined as not only knowing the right thing but also having reasoned why the alternatives are not right. Knowledge is our best hope for becoming wise and then acting wisely. When we choose to do the right thing, we enjoy what philosophers call the “good life.” By this term philosophers do not refer to a wealthy lifestyle but rather to a satisfying state of mind and being, the knowledge that we are fulfilling our potential as honest human beings. 

Virtues and Values 

 Virtue is a character trait. We can say that a person is virtuous or acts virtuously. The term values is a sociological concept. When we say people have good values, we mean they are virtuous. Values are part of the changing,  normative system of a culture. Children often assimilate the culture’s norms  (values) into their beliefs without reflection, as if their familial and community values were the only way to think and behave. Parents, communities, and  peers are the greatest influence on both the values and virtuous behavior that children bring to their schools  Doing something we know to be wrong is often referred to as a dichotomy between conceived values (what we know to be virtuous) and operational values (how we act). As an example, most students understand that they must do their homework (conceived value) but not all do their homework (operational value) because it is more fun to watch television or play with friends.  Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) believed that virtues are character traits that regulate desire and that they lie at a mean (in the middle) between more extreme character traits. For example, the virtue of courage lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness and the deficient extreme of cowardice. A fearful child needs to develop the virtuous character trait of courage. A child who curbs fear too much is rash, which is a vice, and a child who curbs fear too little may be judged as cowardly, which is also a vice. This concept is not unique to Western civilization. Buddha (563–483 B.C.E.) espoused a similar view, known as the Middle Way. These may be thought of as personal virtues in contrast with equal opportunity and freedom of speech which may be thought of as civic values. The goal of character and citizenship education is to shape students’ character by having them adopt productive personal virtues and civic values. 


The socialization that takes place in the school setting is a crucial component of character and citizenship education. As they come to school from dissimilar families and communities based on diverse cultures, communities, experiences, and socioeconomic status (SES), socialization transforms students by allowing them to adopt and act on personal virtues and civic values that are important to individual growth and citizenship as well as virtuous behavior beyond the values they bring with them.  The socialization that is necessary to a classroom’s functioning will compel acceptable behaviors even if students do not bring the personal disposition or skills from their home or community that they need to be high-functioning members of the class. Students’ character is tested by the academic and socialization challenges of schools, just as their adult character will be challenged as members of their societies. Parents, to differing degrees, prepare their children academically and socially for the school experience. Teachers are expected to reinforce the productive behaviors that children bring to school and discourage unproductive behaviors. It is, arguably, the most fundamental democratic principle at work, to say that each child must learn to give up some preferred behaviors (doing what they want when they want to, etc.) for the common good of the classroom members so that learning can proceed in an orderly fashion. Many students who are not prepared for the rigors and structure of school will need their teacher to provide an entirely new way of thinking about their school experience and their duties to their classroom society.  

Approaches to Character Education

George Washington felt civility was such an important character trait that he recorded and tried to live his life by 110 rules of courtesy and decent behavior. Today, many critics contend that civility is lacking in our political discourse and our everyday interactions with our fellow human beings because of a lack of Character Education. According to a 1996 U.S. News/Bozell poll, 89 percent of Americans long for more civility. But the Jerry Springer show has been on TV for over ten years!


It is axiomatic that values cannot not be taught.

A teacher who responds to students thoughtfully, gives everyone a turn to speak, and clarifies students comments to further the search for the truth, is teaching a virtue. The teacher’s own manifestation of virtuous behavior communicates values to students. How well you are prepared for class, how you interact with students, and how you insist students interact with each other all establish a classroom culture upon which the challenging tasks of learning can take place. These kinds of often subtle messages about values and behaviors are always perceived by children and are referred to as the hidden curriculum

Civility is more than just being nice. The underlying principle is that people should care about others, be open to hearing and adopting their ideas, and respect them even if they disagree with others’ beliefs. The culture you create in your classroom by having high expectations for students to be civil offers a unique opportunity for students to learn civility. 

Explicit Teaching of Character 

The Character Counts movement at is one of a number of organizations promoting school wide and classroom teaching of character.
Character Education
Character Counts  
Random Acts of Kindness  
Teaching Tolerance   
Good Character Activities 


One of the dominant approaches to Character Education is to use fiction and nonfiction stories from history like this can be found in The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories by William J. Bennett (1996). 

Current Issues Discussions 

Public Agenda at provides a rich resource of background information for teachers on current events.

The End, return to Civic Education





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