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Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

What is “Character Education”?

“Multi-million pound award to support first research centre dedicated to understanding the UK’s character and values.” University of Birmingham News Release.

This is an interesting announcement from the University of Birmingham.

The Professor in charge of this Templeton-funded project, James Arthur, says he wants to influence policy in this country, and is clearly being taken seriously already (he mention that DEMOS have expressed interest in his research).

Character education can be a very good thing – and there’s much of interest to say about it (going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact – see below) – but whenever you see the phrase, approach with caution. In the United States, “Character Education” has been used as cover for the promotion of fairly conservative (usually conservatively religious)  educational methods. It was part of the  No Child Left Behind policy funded under George W. Bush.

Here’s a chapter from my book “The War For Children’s Minds” on character education which explain how some (certainly not all) of those who have promoted “character education” in the U.S. have had a rather illiberal agenda. Of course, research done at Birmingham may very well be squeaky clean and of real value.

(PS This article is an example of how “character education” tends to be set up in opposition to the kind of liberal approach I recommend in my book. If this is the direction “character education” takes in this country, we should all be very worried

This article on Character Education is interesting on how “character education” has developed in the US. Here is a quote:

Character education rests on three ideological legs: behaviorism, conservatism, and religion. Of these, the third raises the most delicate issues for a critic; it is here that the charge of ad hominem argument is most likely to be raised. So let us be clear: it is of no relevance that almost all of the leading proponents of character education are devout Catholics. But it is entirely relevant that, in the shadows of their writings, there lurks the assumption that only religion can serve as the foundation for good character. (William Bennett, for example, has flatly asserted that the difference between right and wrong cannot be taught “without reference to religion.”)[54] It is appropriate to consider the personal beliefs of these individuals if those beliefs are ensconced in the movement they have defined and directed. What they do on Sundays is their own business, but if they are trying to turn our public schools into Sunday schools, that becomes everybody’s business.

Hopefully, turning British state-funded schools into Sunday schools won’t be the recommendation of this particular research project.


Chapter of my book The War For Children’s Minds below…


How do we become good? One increasingly popular answer emphasizes the importance of building character by instilling good habits. It runs roughly as follows.
Being good and living well are skills, just like, say, being able to ride a bike or play the piano. And skills are primarily acquired, not through thinking, but by doing. Just as we cannot intellectually work out how to ride a bike, then hop aboard and confidently cycle off in style, so neither can we intellectually figure out how to be good and then immediately proceed to behave well. If we want people to behave well, we have to drill into them the right behavioural dispositions. It’s in having such dispositions that having “good character” consists, and it’s on instilling those dispositions that “character education” focuses.
This chapter takes a closer look at character education, which, on the face of it, might seem to be at odds with the Liberal approach advocated here.

William James on good habits

            In his The Principles of Psychology, the philosopher William James emphasizes how important good habits are to living well. He begins with a comical illustration of the force of habit:
There is a story, which is credible enough, though it may not be true, of a practical joker, who, seeing a discharged veteran carrying home his dinner, suddenly called out, ‘Attention!’ whereupon the man instantly brought his hands down, and lost his mutton and potatoes in the gutter. The drill had been thorough, and its effects had become embodied in the man’s nervous structure.”[i]
James believes that, just as soldiers are drilled to obey commands to the point where doing so becomes automatic and unthinking, so we should similarly drill ourselves in behaving in ways advantageous to us.
The great thing… in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemyFor this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can… The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.[ii]
It’s particularly important, thinks, James, that positive habits are ingrained at a young age. The mechanism by which our nervous systems become disposed to act in our interests is repetition. The more we make ourselves do something, thinks James, the more we will become disposed to do it.
James believes that it’s by this kind of repetitive drilling that good character is properly developed. If we want to behave well, the mere desire or intention to act well is not enough. We must instill the right habits in ourselves, so that good behaviour becomes unthinking and automatic.
No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.[iii]
James argues that unless the right habits are ingrained in us from early on, by constant repetition, so that good behaviour becomes unthinking and automatic, the fabric of society is under threat. Habit is “the enormous flywheel of society, it’s most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance”[iv].


Aristotle, like James, also emphasizes the importance of instilling good habits. Aristotle’s thinking is particularly influential in today’s “character education” movement.
Aristotle thought that while we aren’t naturally virtuous, we can become so. The right way to raise a child, according to Aristotle, involves inculcating certain habits or customs of behaviour. We must be trained to act well by getting into the habit of doing it, so that such behaviour becomes part of our nature. So that it becomes, if you like, second nature.
Aristotle believes children will not spontaneously develop such virtuous character traits as honesty, integrity, generosity, fortitude, perseverance and orderliness. There nature, to begin with, is to do whatever they feel like doing. They are led by their own immediate fancies and whims. It’s only be being trained, by some external authority, to behave well that they will acquire the habit of behaving virtuously.
            However, unlike James, Aristotle is not after mindless, automatic behaviour. As Sarah Broadie, the author of Ethics With Aristotle explains, Aristotle’s view is that
[f]orming a habit is connected with repetition, but where what is repeated are (for example) just acts, habituation cannot be a mindless process, and the habit (once formed) of acting justly cannot be blind in its operations, since one needs intelligence to see why different things are just in different circumstances. So far as habit plays a part, it is not that of autopilot…[v]
What we should get into the habit of doing is reflecting and applying our intelligence in order to arrive at the right judgement, and then acting upon it. This is obviously not something we can do unthinkingly. Our minds need actively to be engaged.
            As Broadie points out, there’s a further reason why it would be a mistake to characterize Aristotle as recommending we turn citizens into unthinking automata or mindless creatures of habit. By getting into the habit of behaving well, so that it becomes second nature to us, we are able to learn two valuable lessons.
First, we learn that behaving in these ways is good. This is not something that can simply be figured out purely in a purely intellectual way. We need personal experience of what living virtuously is like before we are in a position to appreciate that this really is how we ought to behave. And we are only able to have that experience if we have been trained, disciplined and habituated into acting well by some an external authority. It’s only by doing it, by being forced into the habit of doing it, that we are able to recognise for ourselves that this is how we should live.
Second, having been properly trained, we are also released from the grip of our own immediate desires, and so we are now also ableto live that way.  So it seems an individual trained in the way Aristotle recommends acquires both a kind of knowledge and a kind of freedom that the child left to his or her own devices will never attain.

Character education

            There’s a great deal of intuitive plausibility to Aristotle’s vision of what a good moral education involves. There’s undoubtedly some truth to the suggestion that individuals can’t be expected simply to reasontheir way to being good, that they must get into the right habits before they will be in a position to judge. But then shouldn’t moral education, in the first instance, be about, not about getting them to think and reason, but about developing good character by instilling good habits?
            That moral education needs to be rooted in the instilling of good habits is, as I say, an increasingly popular point of view. Numerous books have been written to help parents and schools build character, including best-sellers like Thomas Lickona’s Character Matters – How To Help Our Children Develop Good Judgement, Integrity, And Other Essential Virtues, David Isaacs’ Character Building – A Guide For Parents And Teachers, and Helen LeGette’s Parents, Kids And Character: 21 Strategies To Help Your Children Develop Good Character.
In the U.S., character-building has caught the popular and political imagination. Many see it as the cure for the moral malaise. Thomas Lickona, for example, says that:
The premise of the character education movement is that the disturbing behaviours 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.[vi]
Indeed, character education has become a focus of both the Democrat and Republican parties. George Bush’s plan for education, No Child Left Behind, specifically refers to character education, stating that,
additional funds will be provided for Character Education grants to states and districts to train teachers in methods of incorporating character-building lessons and activities into the classroom.[vii]
Character education has, according to one proponent, Kevin Ryan, become the “new moral education”.
The new moral education is not a fad. Instead, it is a break with the faddism that characterized much of the moral education of the Sixties and the Seventies, when the emphasis was on process and teachers pretended that the culture has few moral principles or lessons to transmit. … [T]he new moral education is really quite old; indeed, it is deeply rooted in classical thinking about education. [Some of it] comes straight from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle said that a man becomes virtuous by performing virtuous acts; he becomes kind by doing kind acts; he becomes brave by doing brave acts. A school that institutes a community service program is merely operationalizing Aristotle. And a teacher who takes on the new moral education is simply reassuming a responsibility traditionally assigned to teachers. The role of the school is not simply to make children smart, but to make them smart and good. We must help children acquire the skills, the attitudes, and the dispositions that will help them live well and that will enable the common good to flourish. For schools and teachers to do only half the job puts the individual child and all the rest of us in danger.[viii]
Proponents of character education suggest there’s growing evidence that character-building programs are effective, and that they can even help improve academic results.[ix]The building of character is increasingly seen, not as an optional extra that might be added to the curriculum, but as the framework within which good teaching takes place. Schools with character-building programs are, it seems, more effective schools. There’s certainly a great deal of anecdotal evidence that character-building programs can work. Here, for example, is Hal Urban, a high school teacher, testifying to the power of character education to transform a school:
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 see clean campuses and buildings, hear clean language, and see kids dressed cleanly and neatly. I 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.[x]

An attack on the Liberal Approach

But if character education is the way forward, doesn’t that mean giving up on the kind of Liberal approach advocated in this book? Surely the Liberal approach, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and the use of reason, has now quite rightly been superseded by character education, which places the emphasis where it should be – on doing, rather than on thinking. Surely we need to cultivate good habits precisely so that individuals don’thave to start reflecting on what to do.

Defending the Liberal Approach

The attack sketched out in the preceding paragraph commits the fallacy known as false dilemma. It insists we choose between two alternatives that are, in fact, entirely compatible. We can have both character education and a Liberal approach.
Certainly, the Liberal approach outlined in chapter three doesn’t rule out character education. It’s focus is on freedom of thought, not freedom of action. It’s consistent with a strict, disciplined upbringing. It’s also entirely consistent with drilling and the instilling of good habits. You’ll remember that Liberalia High, a school that adopts a highly Liberal attitude to moral education, is just as regimented and disciplined as Authoritia High. We can enforce good habits, applying authority with a small “a”, while at the same time encouraging a critical, questioning attitude. We can say that, while we might expect students to behave in certain ways, we certainly don’t wish them to swallow whatever we say blindly and uncritically.
            So the Liberal approach to moral education is consistent with character education. Indeed, it requires it, for at least two reasons:
             (i) The kind of Liberal approach advocated in this book can only work within a fairly disciplined environment where children have gotten into the habit of listening to different points of view, calmly and carefully considering them, and so on. So it seems that the Liberal approach does inevitably need to be paired with something like character education.
(ii) One of the virtues we should be promoting is that of thinking critically and independently and getting individuals to take seriously their responsibility for making moral judgements. But, to be effective, this is something we need, not just to tell them about, but to get them into the habit of doing, so that it too becomes second nature. In which case an effective Liberal moral education must inevitably involve an element of character education.
            So, yes, the Liberal approach needs to be paired with character education. But the reverse is also true: character education needs to be paired with the Liberal approach.
One obvious potential problem with “character education” is that it can be used to ingrain not just noble and virtuous attitudes, but also racist and sexist attitudes too. Suppose we ingrain in our young the habit of treating women as domestic serfs. If our offspring are raised to treat women in this way, without much exposure to critical thinking, no doubt they will find the belief that a woman’s place is behind the sink “obvious” and will in turn pass it onto their children. In this way, such “obvious” beliefs as that women should stay in the home and that Jews are untrustworthy will merrily cascade down the generations without ever being effectively challenged. The “character” each generation develops will be sexist and racist.
An important safeguard against this potential problem with character education is to add a further habit to the list of habits character education should aim to instil: the habit of thinking carefully and critically about our own beliefs and attitudes.
I stress this needs to be a habit, a habit introduced fairly early on. If it’s introduction is delayed until those sexist and racist beliefs and attitudes have got themselves fully ingrained in the child’s character, it will then be very difficult to get them out again. If independent, critical thought is not encouraged until late on in the child’s development, and if it is then only tokenistic and not habitual, it’s unlikely to be of much benefit. The safeguard won’t work.
So, far from being in opposition, character education and the kind of Liberal approach to moral education advocated in this book actually complement one another.

Two types of “character education”

Many proponents of character education are clear that it’s both compatible, and desirable that it be paired, with the fostering of independent critical thought. But not all. For some, “character education” is merely a useful banner under which they hope to reinstate religious Authority with a capital “A”. They want the opportunity to drill children into mindlessly accepting their own religious and moral beliefs. They are looking to instil specifically religious habits, to get them ingrained in children while their intellects are firmly switched off.
Advocates of character education are aware of such divisions within their ranks. Take for example, this quote taken from an article at the character education website
What is character education? This is a highly controversial issue, and depends largely on your desired outcome. Many people believe that simply getting kids to do what they’re told is character education. This idea often leads to an imposed set of rules and a system of rewards and punishments that produce temporary and limited behavioral changes, but they do little or nothing to affect the underlying character of the children. There are others who argue that our aim should be to develop independent thinkers who are committed to moral principals in their lives, and who are likely to do the right thing even under challenging circumstances. That requires a somewhat different approach.[xi]
It does require a different approach – a Liberal approach.
We should be wary of allowing those wishing to return to more Authority-based forms of values education to hijack character education. Some proponents of character education are, in truth, merely looking for an excuse to turn children into moral sheep with a religious Authority leading the flock.
Those enthusiasts for character education who are, in truth, closet Authoritarians, are fond of draping themselves with Aristotle’s intellectual mantle. The irony is that Aristotle was no Authoritarian. Yes, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of applying authority with a small “a”, so that the right habits can be instilled. But Aristotle’s aim in doing so is to get individuals in a position rationally to recognise for themselves from personal experience that this is the right way to live. Aristotle’s idea is not to get individuals blindly to accept whatever Authority tells them.
So let’s say yes to character education, but let’s be clear that it needs to be Liberal character education, not Authoritarian.

[i]William James, The Principles of Psychology, chpt. 4, on-line at, p.121
[ii]Ibid, p. 122.
[iii]Ibid, p. 125.
[iv]Ibid, p. 121.
[v]Sarah Broadie, Ethics With Aristotle(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 109
[vi]Thomas Lickona, Character Matters(New York: Touchstone, 2004) p. xxiii
[vii]From “No Child Left Behind: Executive Summary” by G. W. Bush, available at:
[viii]Kevin Ryan, “The New Moral Education”, available on-line at:
[ix]See, for example, B. David Brooks, “Increasing Test Scores and Character Education – The Natural Connection”, available on-line at:
[x]Quoted in Thomas Lickona, Character Matters (New York: Touchstone, 2004) page xxvi.

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