When I had my first phone call with my publicist, Cathy, she asked me why I decided to write a book about the virtues. Which is an excellent question and also not one I had actively considered at that point. After thinking for a quick minute, I told Cathy that my interest in the topic began when I was getting my M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction. My thesis and action research centered on character education in the school setting. Having researched different models of character education, my thesis refuted the usefulness of the Values Clarification and Kohlberg’s Moral Development & Reasoning models, and proposed Literature-Based Virtue Education as a superior alternative.
Values Clarification and Moral Development & Reasoning are both process-centered models of character education, whereas Virtue Education is a content-centered model. Process centered models are more concerned with how ethical decisions are made and personal values reached. Content-centered models are primarily concerned with making good decisions and valuing good things.
My main critique of Values Clarification was its lack of clear goals for outcome and its failure to distinguish between moral and amoral decisions. The VC model has no investment in what children end up valuing, it merely aims to help children “independently” decide what their values are. (Of course, value systems are highly dependent on social and cultural experiences and can’t be considered truly independent, anyway.)
Like VC, Kohlberg’s model is problematic for it’s relativistic approach, but also for it’s privileging of traditionally Western male values, and it’s scoring model that all but ensures that more highly educated individuals will receive higher ratings. Because Kohlberg did not care what decision his subjects ultimately made in given moral dilemmas, but only how they arrived at that decision, his scoring rubrics assign the highest values to well articulated explanations of moral decisions without regard for the content of their decisions.
Fundamentally, I cannot get on board with models of character education which don’t assess a person’s actual behavior and choices. All the linguistic gymnastics and ideological justifications in the world don’t make us good. If we want to form good people, we must concern ourselves with the content of their character. We must be concerned with what they value and not merely that they value something. We must prize acting and deciding rightly, not simply acting acting and deciding something.
If we focus only on “values,” we encourage children (and adults!) to evaluate their actions against themselves and their personal preferences. On the other hand, if we shift our focus to virtues, actions must now be evaluated against objective standards.
As I looked around my first grade classroom, I saw problems that could be solved by greater virtue. Excessive time devoted to behavior management could be eliminated by greater obedience. Bullying and teasing would fall by the wayside with greater compassion and kindness. Underachievement by bright children would be a thing of the past with greater fortitude and work ethic. Yelling on the teacher’s part (ahem) would dissipate if she grew in patience and gentleness. This concept applies to the larger world, too. So many of our problems are problems of too little virtue and too much ego.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about what virtue education is, and what I think is the best way to approach it.