Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make “character education” a major theme of the College. The Kern Foundation is a politically conservative evangelical Protestant foundation. One not unsympathetic source has this to say of the Foundation:

Concerned that evangelical young people are “increasingly attracted to leftist arguments about ‘social justice’ and its resulting dependencies,” the Kern Family Foundation has funded several events. The goal is to help college students “see the connections between following God and serving others in a free market place.”

Brian Steensland & Philip Goff, The New Evangelical SocialEngagement, p. 63

I am not at all bothered by the fact that the Kern Family Foundation advocates viewpoints I do not agree with. That is healthy and good in a civil society. I will point out, however, that the foundation appears to believe there is a deep connection between Christianity and capitalism (especially in its neo-liberal Milton Friedman form). They appear to believe that “social justice” represents an immoral redistribution of wealth downward. However, every reputable empirical source acknowledges that early Christians lived communally and gave their goods and money over to the community. Further, no one, in my view, could read the New Testament and see it as an advocating for neo-liberalism.

Be that as it may, I want to concentrate here on the very idea of “character education.” In its everyday use, the word “character” means “doing the hard thing instead of the easier thing.” In many cases, humans act pretty much on automatic pilot to fulfill their short-term desires, when, in some cases, taking thought and acting more slowly would lead them to do a harder, but “better” thing. For example, it is normal that many people want to tell those in authority what they want to hear, in order to avoid punishment and perhaps even gain advantage. However, situations may well arise where someone decides it is necessary to do the hard thing and tell the truth, come what may. We say then that the person is “standing up” for what they believe is “right.”

This is an example of what we often call “character.” The person has displayed “courage.”

In such situations, it is often the case that the easier thing to do (lie to the boss) will benefit us personally and directly (e.g., help us get a raise) and the harder thing (telling the truth) will benefit others, even if it does not benefit us directly, at least in the short term. So, “character” is a social, public, and civic “good” and not just a personal one. That is why we associate character with things like honesty, fairness, courage, trustworthiness, taking responsibility, and citizenship. Institutions and societies cannot survive in the long run without these things, however much people in the short-run are tempted to do things that benefit only themselves and “people like them” personally and directly.

Now, from what I have said so far, who could object to “character education,” as I, in fact, do? Who could oppose honesty and courage? I certainly do not. The problem is this: taking thought and deliberation to decide to do the hard thing rather than following our impulses to do the easy thing means doing “the right thing.” The reason we do something hard rather than easy is because we believe, in a given situation, that it is the “right thing” to do and the easier thing is not. But, what does “do the right thing” mean? It means what a person determines is “right” based on his or her “value system.” And, of course, people have different value systems.

Imagine that one person, in a civil conflict, has a strong impulse not to kill, but overcomes it in the name of the “higher cause” (say, the Civil War in the United States, where, of course, the “higher cause” was different for each side). Imagine another person has an anger-and-hatred-filled urge to kill the other, but makes the hard decision to respect the other’s life in the name of

“humanity” and “mercy.” Do both these people have “character”? Saying that it is “good” that people have “character” actually says very little if we do not specify what “right” means. Otherwise the Nazi who makes the “hard” decision to kill Jewish people against his urges not to kill people he might have known personally before the war in the name of the Reich and the Nazi solider who refuses to kill and is himself killed both have “character.”

Where do people get the “value systems” in terms of which they decide what is “right” and therefore worth doing even when it is hard? They get these value systems from their socialization within their family early in life and within various social, religious, and institutional groups later on. Thus, they can have different value systems connected to different groups and can, of course, eventually make up value systems of their own made out of bits and pieces of the value systems to which they have been exposed. Value systems are always social in the sense that we have to learn them and in the sense that the values underling character are hard things we do in the name of a “higher cause” than ourselves (and kin) alone.

So, while value systems are, indeed, learned, can they be taught in a public school? No, because to give any meaning to “character” and the “nice” terms associated with, like “courage” and “trust,” we would have to socialize the students into “our” value system. We would have to pretend that “our group” was the “right” one. The Kern Foundation, for instance, clearly thinks that there is some close connection among character, neo-capitalism, and Christianity. Many others do not believe this. They define “social justice”— meaning redistribution of wealth downward—as “wrong.” I define it as “right” and decry the massive redistribution of wealth upward, from the poor and middle class to the rich, that we have witnessed over the last few decades.

In a pluralistic, non-authoritarian, secular society we must, by and large, leave socialization into value systems to the various social, cultural, institutional, and religious groups that make up the society. Character education means engaging in vacuous “nice words”—like “courage”—with no specific tie to reality or it means spelling out the value system that makes one person’s act count as “courage” (or “good courage”) and another person’s count as not courage (or “bad courage”) or even “cowardice.”

It is not surprising that character education is most often supported by rightwing or religious institutions. These institutions are often “authoritarian” in the sense that they have one “top-down” source about what is “right” and seek to enforce it. The irony here is that any attack on this authority is usually defined not as “character” or “thinking for oneself,” but as a crime or a sin.

So, what has school got to do with character? The answer is simple in theory, hard in practice. Schools should prepare people in civil society to be able to engage in productive debates about value systems and values—and their relationship to things like evidence, character, the “good life,” human rights, the earth, and society. Productive here does not mean “conversion” of one side to another or imposing one’s values. It means a slow (hard) process of better understanding one’s own value systems, those of others, and, possibly, over time, attaining enough convergence to live together and solve our shared problems. This doesn’t sound as nice as “character education.” It will not advantage one’s favorite authoritarian group. It is not character education, but rather, it is education in “civility.”

Now, of course, choosing civil discussion over imposition of one’s viewpoint is a value-laden choice. In fact, it is the essential choice that determines the nature of a society. People rarely have the opportunity to help determine how their society will work from the very beginning. Nonetheless, people can choose to work towards a society where top-down authority determines what is “right”, or a society where contending parties fight—even to the point of war— over who is “right”, or a society where what is “right” is discussed and debated with civility and due regard for evidence and the good of all, rather than only some. The last choice is the choice of a public sphere where discussion and debate trumps any one group’s religion, ideology, or power. Public schools in a secular pluralistic society are the training ground for this public sphere.

A society cannot last as a democracy if a great many of its citizens do not make the third choice. It cannot last as a democracy either of a strong minority intends to participate in the democracy only until, by hook or crook, they win and can then destroy it in the creation of an authoritarian state in the name of their values alone. In my view, in the United States today the third choice is in peril or, perhaps, even now already dead.