Role Models, Self-Discipline, and Communities of Virtue

Published February 1, 2004

When teaching character education in public schools is proposed, a frequent response is, Why? One good reason is that since schools inevitably influence the character of their students, it would be prudent to ensure this 12-years-long influence is a positive one.

“[C]hildren cannot enter the educational system at age four and stay until age sixteen or seventeen without having their character and their moral values profoundly affected by the experience,” write Kevin Ryan and Karen E. Bohlin in their new book, Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life (Jossey-Bass, 2003; 304 pages; $17.95, ISBN: 0787962449).

Children also live in an influential pop culture dominated by what Ryan has called “such dubious heros as Eminem, Jennifer Lopez, Adam Sandler, and various professional-sports personalities,” all of whom are role models for character development.

Ryan and Bohlin, respectively founding director and assistant director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, point out that study and self-discipline are necessary for most children to succeed academically. These behaviors don’t develop effortlessly. They emerge from the focused effort that a good teacher–recognized as a moral authority rather than an equal–can encourage to flower.

“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned.” That nineteenth-century lesson in the development of good habits is cited by Ryan and Bohlin as just as applicable to the twenty-first century.

In Building Character in Schools, the authors address the responsibilities of adults in the development of character and provide practical guidelines for schools that seek to become “communities of virtue where responsibility, hard work, honesty, and kindness are modeled, taught, expected, celebrated, and continually practiced.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].