CHARACTER EDUCATION, William K. Kilpatrick
William K. Kilpatrick

            In my last talk I left unanswered an objection that is often raised when people criticize comprehensive sex education.  The objection is that young people are “going to do it anyway,” and therefore the only alternative is to teach them to do it safely.  My answer is “not necessarily.”  They’re not necessarily going to do it anyway.  It depends on how they’re raised.  It depends on the environment parents shape for their children.  It depends on how children are educated.
            But in order to adequately make the point I first need to set the stage.  Let me do that by describing a new and promising trend in American education. It’s called character education, and it is, in part, a revival of the classical virtues recommended by the ancient Greeks—prudence (good judgment), justice, fortitude and temperance. 

Temperance includes self-control and is obviously related to sexual behavior.  But the ancient Greeks felt that the four virtues were interrelated and helped to support each other.  Professor Thomas Lickona, a leader in the field of character education, makes the point this way:  “Down through the ages, the ability to control one’s appetites and passions—including one’s sexual desires—has been considered a mark of good character.  Traditional moral wisdom has also recognized the connection between self-oriented virtues such as self-control and other-oriented virtues such as justice:  We need to be in control of ourselves in order to do right by others.”  Thus self-control supports justice, and, in turn, self-control may need support from fortitude (courage) and prudence.

            The Greeks didn’t think it was enough to simply talk about these virtues.  They knew that it was difficult to practice the virtues without sufficient motivation.  So they used stories and histories to provide motivation and inspiration.  These stories also supplied models to imitate such as the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Some were models of good behavior to emulate and some were examples of bad behavior to avoid.  And sometimes it was the same individual who provided both good and bad example.  Plato, who thought at great length about these matters, believed that children should be brought up in such a way that they would fall in love with virtue and hate vice.  And he thought that stories and histories were the key to sparking this desire.  No amount of discussion or dialogue could compensate if that desire were missing.

            A third element in character education was and is practice.  It’s important to know what is right; it’s important to love what is right; but often the hard part of morality is doing what is right.  We often know what the right thing is.  Our problem is that we lack the will, or the courage, or the compassion to do it.

            That’s why Aristotle put so much emphasis on habit.  Virtues, he said, are acquired primarily through habit and practice, not through discussion.  As he put it, “A man becomes just by performing just acts, brave by performing brave acts, temperate by performing acts of temperance.”

            Because the Greeks understood virtues in this way they often compared character formation to athletic training.  In its original sense, the word “virtue” meant something like our word “strength.”  And like physical strength you could lose it if you didn’t keep in practice.

            Understood this way it also means that much or our modern talk about “making choices” or “making decisions” is rather shallow—because an individual can’t choose to do something if he lacks the capacity to do it.  For example, running the Boston Marathon is not a choice for those who are out of shape.  It only becomes a choice for those who are willing to put in many months of training.  In this respect, character education, because it emphasizes habit and training, may offer more real freedom of choice than all our contemporary curriculums which talk so much about choice but tend to produce individuals who are slaves to their own impulses.

            We talk a great deal about choices and options but in reality—because we have neglected habit formation—we seem to be the most compulsive and addictive generation ever to have come down the road of history.  Our societies are filled with people who seem to be able to exercise very little freedom of choice about their behavior.

            Consider the list of addictive behaviors our societies are afflicted with:  compulsive drinkers, compulsive smokers, compulsive eaters, compulsive gamblers, and, in the United States at least, even compulsive shoppers.  As Aristotle might have put it, individuals who don’t practice good habits, soon become the prisoners of bad habits.

            Sexual activity too can also become compulsive, and one of the important steps we can take to keep youngsters from falling into this trap is to help them learn habits of self-control at a very early age.  Just as we master a sport by practicing it, we master the virtues by practicing them.  You don’t learn to play tennis by reading about it, you have to practice it.  And you have to practice until your responses become second nature.  Virtue, too, must be practice until it becomes second nature.  It has to be in the “muscles” as well as in the mind.

            Why?  Because difficult moral decisions do not always come at the best of times.  They often come when we are tired or angry or confused or afraid, or perhaps slightly intoxicated; or they come at us with the speed of a hard hit tennis ball.  In situations like these nothing serves us as well as good habits built over the years.  In short, a moral situation is often more like a physical struggle than a mental problem.

            As you can see, the character education model is concerned not simply with information but also with formation.  The idea is that young people not only need to be educated about good behavior but that they also need training in goodness.  In the present, psychologized climate, we, of course, have been trained to be very uncomfortable with the idea of training.  We have been conditioned to think that learning is a natural process that occurs more-or-less spontaneously.  In this view—a view which is fiercely defended by American educators—children develop best when they are allowed to follow their natural instincts and inclinations.  The role of the teacher, then, is not to instruct but to facilitate this natural growth.  From this point of view, formation is not only unnecessary but also harmful because it interferes with natural processes.

            This is the model which dominated American education from the late 60’s to the 90’s and it is still very powerful.  This also became the model for moral education or, as it was then called, “Values Clarification.”  Where did it come from?  The basic ideas, of course, go back to Rosseau but in the 1960’s the model received a boost from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers. 

            Following Rosseau’s footsteps, Rogers argued that humans were good, that their basic instincts were constructive, creative and socially beneficial.  According to Rogers, people could be compared to flower buds or bulbs which, given enough freedom and fresh air, would blossom naturally.  Of course, added Rogers, no two people are alike.  Some would unfold like lilies, some like roses, some like daisies.  What Rogers failed to consider, however, is the possibility that some individuals might unfold as skunkweed or poison ivy.  Unlike real gardens, the garden of natural goodness that Rogers envisioned needed very little weeding or cultivation.

            Starting with this positive view of human nature, Rogers pioneered a method of counseling that was non-directive, non-judgmental and client-centered.  In the sixties and seventies, with a great deal of encouragement from Rogers, these techniques were introduced into schools with the result that teachers began to take a non-directive, non-judgmental attitude toward their students and also toward values.  Each person would have to discover his own values, and no one could say that one value was superior to another.  Just as Rogers’s clients could be expected to find healthy directions when provided with an accepting and non-judgmental climate, so also students could be expected to discover positive values for themselves when provided with a similar atmosphere.  The emphasis—as it was in therapy—was on feeling good about yourself and feeling comfortable with your choices.  It was an approach which cast the teacher in the role of amateur psychologist and which turned the values education classroom into something resembling an encounter group.

            Despite it flaws, the Rosseauian view as refined by Rogers grew in popularity.  All over the United States and, increasingly, all over the globe, educators accepted the metaphor of the garden that needed no cultivation.  And increasingly they accepted the accompanying notion that virtue need not be taught.  Why teach what comes naturally?

            Many parents, to their eventual dismay, adopted this approach.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s books on child rearing began to reflect the Rosseauian/Rogerian notion that children were naturally good.  Books such as Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child and Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training were instrumental in convincing parent that the non-directive method which worked so well in therapy would work in raising children, too.  As a result multitudes of parents aspired to emulate the therapeutic model—to act in the role of therapist to their children rather than in the role of parent.  Other parents felt justified in adopting a permissive policy of non-interference, confident that their children’s natural virtue would flower on its own.

            As these attitudes gained credence, the idea of disciplining children grew suspect; and children, as a result, became increasingly unruly.

            This therapeutic view of life was soon adopted by courts.  Supreme Court decisions such as Tinker vs. Des Moines and Goss vs. Lopez guaranteed freedom of expression to students while severely restricting the ability of schools to punish, suspend, or expel them.  The psychologists had promulgated the doctrine of the free-flowering child and now the courts had reinforced it.  Teachers and administrators, who were already disinclined to discipline for psychological reasons, now had a further incentive to look the other way.  Equally important, they became reluctant to maintain or create the kind of orderly school climate that might assist students in learning daily habits of good behavior.  Instead, educators now feel obliged to respect every form of expression under the sun.  If students wear trench coats in the corridors or baseball caps in the classroom (turned backward, of course,) if they wear Marilyn Manson T-Shirts or studs in their tongues or rings through their noses, or if they yell obscenities, or if boys accost girls in the hallways—well that’s just their psychological and constitutional right to free expression.  In Columbine High School in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wore trench coats in emulation of Hitler, and had written essays and produced videos for their classes depicting their murderous intentions; but in the brave new world of the therapeutic school, open as it is to every kind of moral diversity, no one seemed to noticed the strangeness of their behavior.

            Of course, the vast majority of students will not turn out to be killers, but almost all of them will be hurt by the low, loose ethos that characterizes so many schools.  That ethos suggests to students that they are under very little obligation to control themselves or respect others.  An ethos of unfettered free expression invites youngsters to ignore the constraints of decency and civility.

            Our Romantic vision of childhood has prevented us from seeing how much guidance, supervision and structure children really need.  It has also provided a rationale for adults who wish to abandon their responsibilities.  The myth of natural goodness and natural resistance to moral pathogens proved a very handy philosophy for adults immersed in their own preoccupations.  It allowed many parents to convince themselves that divorce does not really harm children.  It allowed parents, psychologists and educators to convince themselves that long hours spent watching violent television or playing at violent video games would somehow leave children unharmed; that the nihilistic messages of popular culture would not tempt them.

            Confident that their children would choose good values, parents took seriously the admonition that they should not impose their values on their children.  The result was that children, far from being freer to decide for themselves, were far more at the mercy of the entertainment and advertising industries—industries that seemed to have no qualms about imposing their values on impressionable young minds.

            Because of this abdication, the imaginations of young people are being cultivated and formed not by parents and teachers but by popular culture.  And ironically, the evil that psychologists had assured us was not there, has returned with vengeance.  If youngsters in the sixties were wearing flowers in their hair, many youngsters of the next generation were wearing spikes instead of flowers, and listening to a music preoccupied with themes of hopelessness, destruction, suicide, Satanism, and sexual mutilation.  By the late 1990’s the imaginations of millions of youngsters had been captured by images of evil attractively and seductively presented.  As it turns out, the bland vision of therapeutic adjustment offered by schools and psychologists is no match for the twisted but fascinating visions cast up by movies, MTV and internet porn sites.  In the world of pop culture and youth culture, evil is increasingly seen as “cool.”  So, despite the humanistic belief that formation was unnecessary, formation was indeed occurring.

            As a result of these harsh lessons some educators and parents began to rethink the importance of school environment and home environment.  The therapeutic ethos which had invaded both school and home did not seem conducive to the development of character.  Why?  Because character formation is less about accepting yourself, and more about overcoming yourself, less about feeling good, and more about doing good.  Moreover, the therapeutic ethos was simply not strong enough to counter the powerful attractions of the gang ethos or the powerful temptations of the media, or the simple everyday temptations all youngsters are subject to.

            Rather belatedly some schools began to realize that it does no good to have courses in values if students are allowed to show disrespect for their teachers, or if they are allowed to use indecent language in the corridors, or if they are allowed to wear sexually suggestive clothing, or if they are allowed to kiss and fondle one another in the hallways.

            Schools—some schools—began paying more attention to discipline codes, to dress codes, to appropriate punishments, to school traditions, to reward and recognition systems, to ritual and symbol.  Educators—some educators—began to understand that the school environment could, and should be a profound molding system.  For example, some large city schools discovered that simply requiring students to wear school uniforms produced substantial improvement in student behavior.

            A small but growing number of parents have also begun to question the effectiveness of the therapeutic approach.  More and more parents are becoming involved with their children’s schools.  Fewer are willing to take it on faith that teachers know best.  More parents are consciously attempting to shape the environment their children grow up in.  They want their homes to reflect their own values rather than the values of pop culture.  They want to choose the books, music, art, and film that their children are exposed to.  Many parents have shown a renewed understanding of the importance of family rituals, traditions, prayers, and practices.  Some of these traditions are probably taken for granted in Europe.  It may or may not come as a surprise to you that a great many American families have difficulty simply practicing the tradition of shared family meals.

Parents have also come to realize that their children’s friends are an important part of their moral environment.  And many have decided not to leave it entirely up to chance.  Since many friends are made in school, families are paying much closer  attention to where their children go to school.  If they are not satisfied with the public schools, they may send their child to a religious school.  If they are not satisfied with the religious school they may get together with other parents and form their own school.  And many parents now are deciding to school their own children at home.  Home schooling, in fact, is the fastest growing form of schooling in America.  And almost all home schoolers are involved with home school associations or home school groups with whom they can share ideas and interests.

            Interestingly, the most common objection to home schooling is that children schooled at home won’t get enough socialization.  I know this because my wife and I home school our six-year old daughter, and when people find this out they invariably ask:  “Aren’t you worried about her socialization?” or “Does she get enough socialization?”  Our answer is that “yes” we do worry about her socialization, that’s why we are home schooling her.  We don’t want her to be socialized by the children at the local public school or the local Catholic school because these children have received most of their socialization from the media.  You as a parent ought to be the primary socializer of your children and, after that, they should be socialized by children  whose parents share your values.

            I hope I have managed to convey some of the complexity of character education.  It is not an easy undertaking.  It can’t be accomplished by a simple course offering.  Although humanistic education claims to be “holistic,” character education is, in fact, more holistic.  It’s meant to educate the intellect, the imagination and the will.  It doesn’t look upon young people as autonomous individuals but as members of society.  It requires cooperation between parents and teacher.  It requires special attention to shaping the home and school environment.  In places where popular culture has come to dominate society, it requires a counter-cultural attitude.

            Character education is about learning and practicing virtues such as responsibility, good judgment, courage and self-control.  People who learn these virtues and practice them generally have more freedom of choice than those who do not.  Good character frees us to go beyond our impulsive self to be our best selves.

            Character education is about developing a whole self, an integrated self.  This is certainly the way Aristotle understood it.  He would not have appreciated the notion that our sexual behavior can somehow be separated from our total character—although that seems to be the attempt of much current sex education.  Sex is about relationships and therefore it is inherently about morality.  The idea that we can somehow have moral-free sex education strikes many as an absurdity.  They contend that sex education can’t really be divorced from character education.  With this in mind some educators and medical professionals in the United States have joined forces to develop principles for character-based sex education.  Perhaps the best known of these principles is the one that states that “the only right, good, and healthy activity is to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage.”  The popular misconception is that this means that their only message to youth is to “just say no,” however there is a lot more to it than that.  These principles and the programs based on them are primarily about developing the character to say no to sex and yes to responsible relationships.

            Part of the task of developing character is the development of reasoning abilities.  Character education emphasizes formation of the total person, and, therefore, it does not neglect formation of the intellect.  Aristotle and other classical thinkers were intent on making a rational case for practicing the virtues.  Likewise, contemporary character educators want youngsters to study the virtues so that they can see the reasoning behind them.  None of them is asking youngsters to take it on faith that abstinence is a good thing.  By contrast, those sex educators who suggest to impressionable minds that youngsters can practice sex safely are asking for a giant leap of faith.

            The Medical Institute of Sexual Health has developed a set of National Guidelines for Sexuality and Character Education.  One of the Guidelines states:  “Character-based sex education should help students understand the relationship between sex and love.”  Here is a part of the guideline:

Many young people think, “Isn’t sex a natural way to express your love?”  Character-based education helps them understand that true love means wanting what is best for the other person.  Is sex outside a truly committed relationship (which historically has meant marriage) really what is best for the other person?  What are the dangers?  (Pregnancy, disease, hurt, and so on..)  Can you really claim to love someone if you’re willing to gamble with their health, happiness, and future life?  In this way, young people can be helped to arrive at a clear moral judgment:  Sex without a secure, committed love relationship is wrong precisely because it is not truly caring—not caring about oneself, one’s partner, the child that might result, and society as a whole.

            Young people should be helped to see that sex within marriage is one of the chief ways a man or woman brings happiness to a spouse, but that sex outside of marriage is one of the primary ways that people bring misery to one another.

            Consider once again the possibility of depression, incurable diseases, cervical cancer, pregnancy and abortion.  Aristotle said that love means to will the good of another.  But, according to Dr. Richard Wetzel, a physician with extensive experience treating sexual disease, “So numerous and so serious are the risks inherent to premarital sexual activity that the assertion that people engage in it to show their love for each other is incongruous.  In other circumstances, we make every effort to protect our loved ones from risk…, why then, are we so ready to expose lovers’ to avoidable risks, the magnitude of which we would not dream of exposing our immediate family to?”

            “Sex without love,” he continues, “is unburdened by such regard.  It is sex geared toward self, without serious concern for others.”  Youngsters understand this on some level.  That is why, in the United States, sexual activity at the high school and college age level is quite often preceded by heavy drinking—a sign that young people may be trying to cloud their perception and thereby diminish their responsibility.

            What about the objection “they’re going to do it anyway”—that no matter what adults may say, teens are going to be sexually active?

            Some young people, will, of course, go ahead and do what they want to do regardless.  The question, however, is not what some will do, but what most will do.  What most people do, even in regard to sexual behavior, has a lot to do with social expectations and social controls.  When society loosens its controls, people loosen their behavior.  As Joseph Sobran observes in regard to the American experience, “Abortion ‘happened anyway’ before it was legalized.  It happens much more commonly now.” 

            Hormones are distributed pretty evenly across cultures but rates of sexual activity are not.  Even within the same culture the rate can change significantly within a generation.  Why weren’t they “doing it anyway” in the U.S. in the 40’s and 50’s and early 60’s when the incidence of sexual activity among teens was much lower than it is today?  Why weren’t they doing it anyway in Japan in the 1980’s when 83 percent of teenage girls were virgins, or in the Philippines where, in that era, the vast majority of young women were virgins when they married?

            The answer, of course, has to do with cultural expectations.  By-and-large we tend to conform to cultural expectations, even if not perfectly.  Why are teens more sexually active today?  One often overlooked answer is that this is what we expect of them.  We expect them to do it anyway, and we tell them in a hundred different ways that this is what we expect.  The idea that “they ‘re going to do it anyway” is, in fact, the perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            The key to changing the sexual behavior of teens is for adults to convey—and convincingly convey—the highest expectations.  Why?  Because it’s a rule in education that expectations determine behavior.  When we set the standard high, behavior rises to meet it.  Now, it’s true that actual behavior tends to fall below the cultural standard.  But that’s all the more reason for schools and society to set the standards at a high level.  Let me use the American experience to make the point.

            In America in the 1950’s the standard was sex within marriage.  This, of course, was a high standard, but it had strong cultural support—even in popular music and popular movies—and most people were able to meet it.  But not everyone.  Actual behavior sometimes fell below the standard.  But it didn’t fall that far below.  If not everyone waited until marriage, they did try to wait until they were engaged.  When the social scientists noted this phenomenon, however, they complained that the standard was unrealistic.  Social opinion makers gradually responded by setting the standard lower.  Instead of sex within marriage, the new standard became sex within a committed relationship.  As the standard was lowered, however, actual behavior began to fall below it.  Many couples decided that, as long as they were in love, it wasn’t really that important to wait until they were engaged.  Once again social opinion makers complained that the standard was too unrealistic.  A more realistic standard, they decided, would be sex with love.  None of this was done by decree, of course, but by degrees and in subtle shifts, so that one day Americans woke up to the realization that no one really expected them to wait until engagement;  everyone now understood that the new standard was sex with love.  But human nature being what it is, actual behavior again fell below even this lax standard.  And soon the new standard seemed unrealistic.  Perhaps a more realistic standard would be “sex with like.”  Sex was deemed acceptable as long as you felt a liking for your partner.  Somehow, gradually, and without any official notification this became the new standard.  But, once again, actual behavior fell below the standard.  People began practicing recreational sex.  So, in order to be realistic, society again set the bar lower.  Recreational sex became the new standard.  No one was any longer saying you ought to make any commitments, or even love or like your partner.  Sex had become like a sport.  It was OK to participate as long as no one got hurt—at least not too badly hurt.  This is pretty much where the standard is today; but in the United States we have begun to notice that actual behavior has gone lower still—to the level of exploitative sex.  Teenage boys now regularly use sex as a means to “score,” or to prove their manhood by deliberately getting girls pregnant, or to assert their dominance by beating up their “girlfriends.”

            As you can see, once society adopts the attitude “they’re going to do it anyway” it creates a vicious cycle.  The “it” in the equation is revealed to have an insatiable appetite for expansion, so that the “it” “they” were doing yesterday seems almost innocent in comparison with the “it” they are doing today, and the “it” they will demand to do tomorrow.  Those who adopt this attitude always end up capitulating to whatever it is people happen to be doing today.  It is a kind of cultural appeasement.  Having given away so many social Rhinelands and Sudetenlands we must stop and ask if there is any point in further concessions.

            Cultures can be turned around.  History provides several instances in which an age of license has given way to an age of restraint and virtue.  It is similarly possible to accomplish a restoration of sanity in a culture’s attitude toward sex and toward the education of the young.  If we can’t change the culture immediately—and admittedly we can’t—we can at least make a start by recapturing some of the culture that has been lost to schools and to families.

            I’m not suggesting the cultural situation is as bad here as it is in the United States.  The American experience does suggest, however, that parents everywhere need to pay special attention to shaping their children’s environment in cooperation with the schools or, if necessary, without the schools.

            In regard to character education and sex education this means that parents and schools need to set high expectations.  But in order to convey high standards in a convincing way adults need to have conviction.  And this is where the problems lies.  Because by-and-large we don’t have that conviction.  When it comes to sexual behavior we don’t believe we have the right to say what’s right and wrong.  Many of us are still suffering a hangover from having imbibed too much of the wine of non-judgmentalism and non-directiveness.  We send mixed messages about practicing abstinence and having safe sex, and youngsters conclude that the risks must be acceptable.  We equivocate and youngsters pick up on that equivocation.  We compromise, and youngsters get the message that it’s alright for them to compromise, as well.

            When adults really do believe something is wrong, they say so unequivocally.  And when they say it unequivocally, young people take it seriously and begin to respond.  We’ve begun to understand this about drugs and smoking.  We no longer use the non-directive, make-up-your-own-mind approach.  Rather, we tell youngsters to say no to drugs and cigarettes, we give them reasons to say no, and we give them ways to say no—because we care about them, because we don’t want to see them become addicted, because we don’t want them to ruin their health.

            There is one other important aspect of the character education approach in America which I’ll mention briefly in closing.  Some educators and psychologists in America have in recent years developed an interest in a topic called narrative psychology.  Therapists have found that one of the most effective ways of treating some clients is to help them find or rediscover the story of their life—the narrative thread that gives life a sense of direction and purpose.  Criminologists have been working along similar lines.  Professor James Garabino of Cornell University has made a lifelong study of violent boys; much of the violence, he suggests, comes from masked or covert depression.  And the depression comes from a profound sense of meaninglessness.  Professor Neil Postman of New York University has applied the idea to schooling.  He writes:  “Without a narrative life has no meaning, without meaning, learning has no purpose.  Without purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.”

            Within the field of character education a similar concern has surfaced, much of it stemming from the work of the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre.  What these philosophers and educators have been looking at is the connection between vision and virtue or—put another way—the connection between meaning and morality.

            It is easy enough to come up with a list of virtues but where are the compelling narratives to give them force?  We want our children to lead worthy lives but can we say what it is we want them to be worthy of?  All of this is to say that there is an integral connection between morality and meaning.  Without the sense that life makes sense, all the other motives for acting well will lose their force.  If, in the words of Macbeth, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” then it really doesn’t matter how one behaves.   If life itself is pointless, what’s the point of trying to lead a good life?  If, on the other hand, one has the chance of playing a meaningful role in a meaningful universe—that is a considerable source of motivation.  In finding a point or a purpose or a plot to life, young people—indeed people of all ages—can also find the motivation to transcend selfishness and irresponsibility.

            Despite the seductions of the media, the idea of behaving nobly still appeals strongly to young people.  Consider, for example, that in a poll of readers The Lord of the Rings was voted the most important book in English of the twentieth-century.  Or consider that the movie version is immensely popular with young people.  This story about a narrative quest, about maintaining self-control and purity of purpose in the face of great difficulties, makes a deep impression on them.

            The response to The Lord of the Rings suggests that the current generation of young people have been singularly deprived of meaningful narratives—the kind that both explain life, and sustain us through difficult times.  In raising children, then, and in educating them, it seems of great importance that we help them to find a meaningful vision of life in which the self-discipline and sacrifices we ask of them make sense.

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