Lessons from the Past, Models for the Future

Second National Character Education Conference 30 September – 2 October 2003

Pre-Conference Address by John Heenan

The past is connected to the present and the present is connected to the future.

The past may seem distant but it is embedded in the present and therefore in the future.

In no area of human understanding is the past more embedded in the present and critical for the future that in the question of character.

Character, and in particular character and leadership and character and education, is the most important issue facing the community.

The questions of the relationship between character and the free person, between character and the good life, between character and the just society and between character and strong, wise leadership.

Character is central to good leadership – not just political leadership, but the leadership of mums and dads, principals and teachers, managers and administrators and everyone who influences lives around them.

Character Counts! Claim its proponents. Character has consequences!

Nonsense! reply the critics. In the modern world, character – if there is such a thing – is purely private. Competence and charisma are what matter.

Our three thousand-year Western consensus about character is now wracked with confusion and uncertainty.

Three broad questions help to clarify the issue of character.

  1. What is character?
  2. Why is the issue of character so confusing today?
  3. Why does character matter?

What is character?

The traditional understanding from the Hebrews and Greeks onward is that character is the inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is – whether a person, a wine, or an historic period. Character is distinct from such concepts as personality, image, reputation or celebrity.

Applied to a person it is the essential stuff that one is made of, the inner reality in which thoughts, speech, decisions and relationships are rooted. As such, character determines behaviour just as behaviour demonstrates character.

Character lies deeper than philosophies, allegiances, and accomplishments, even deeper than virtues. Character expresses most deeply what constitutes a person as a unique individual.

Character, as rooted in the Greek word for a graphic symbol depicting a hallmark or other distinguishing sign is the indelible stamp on a person beneath all masks, poses, guises and social veneers.

Character is the core of a person. Who we are when no one sees.

Character is constant – this consistency can be expressed as the habits of the heart.

Character is more than a collection of occasional behaviours or a set of good intentions, it is rather, who we are through and through.

Character is tested in the crucible of life and often involves a personal cost.

The biblical character Job is a classic example of character in a crucible. More recently Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, suffering and final execution vividly portrays the cost of character – in his case the price of the resistance to Nazi genocide.

Less spectacular but no less significant is the example of Malcolm and Janine Handley who received a National Character Award at last year’s National Character Education Conference.

The Handley’s sold their family home and other assets to pay staff when their business, Logistix Ltd., Palmerston North, failed because of the financial crash of Qantas New Zealand.

Malcolm Handley commented, We do not regard our actions [and those of our business partners] to pay our staff as much as we could from the sale of our assets as particularly extraordinary. It was just what we felt was an issue of integrity. The decision itself was not difficult. The ensuing impact on our family was, but we do not regret that and believe the lessons our children learnt from it are just one of the positive gains. I want to be able to sleep at night. These people have [all] got lives they want to get on with. It is more important to us to stand up and talk to people we owe money, rather than hide behind legalities.

Character is consistent, involves cost and is tested in the crucible of life.

Character is never simply inherited. Nor does it grow on its own like a weed. It has to be formed and cultivated.

It is for this reason that historically character was a central component of education.

The second clarifying question is - Why is the issue of character so confusing today?

Until the late twentieth century, character always held a vital place in Western civilization.

From the Hebrews and Christian scriptures to such classical thinkers as Plato and Aristotle, to the American founding fathers to many of the nineteenth century European statesmen, an influential majority saw character as fundamental to free, just societies.

What was once taken for granted in public discussion and popular understanding is now largely absent.

The principle reasons for confusion and uncertainty include:

The changes in the cultural climate have been profound.

The combination of faith, character and virtue, the rock on which traditional leadership was founded each crumbled during the twentieth century.

The gap between such leaders as William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln and today’s successors needs no underscoring.

The shift has not only been theoretical. It has been worked out in a thousand practical ways in the overall shift from the internal to the external, from the strong character to the striking personality or successful image.

Confusion over character also stems from our preoccupation with power.

Power – the ability to carry out one’s will despite resistance – has always been essential to leadership. But traditionally power has always been held in harmony with two other components: purpose and partnership.

Purpose is the heart of leadership, for without it leaders lead nowhere and belie their name. The modern preoccupation with image is a sign of mediocre leadership – leadership with no overarching goal or aim.

Equally, partnership is critical to leadership, for without it, leaders lead no one. Leaders only lead when leadership and followership are partners in a wider collective enterprise.

Today, purpose and power, the other vital components of leadership are shouldered aside by the craze for power.

Winning friends and influencing people is only the kindergarten course. At the graduate level, all life can come under our control and be ours to exploit.

Then there is the advent of style and image.

Jean Colbert, chief financial adviser to Louis XIV, devised a brilliant new strategy to promote France’s economic power.

With our Taste he declared, Let us make war in Europe and through fashion conquer the world. French “taste” has been legendary ever since.

But of greater importance, Colbert’s promotion of style and image has become the currency of modern politicians and leadership.

Style is everything. If money is the mother’s milk of modern politics, style is its lifeblood.

Whereas style and substance were once linked today style has become an end in itself. The perception is now the reality. Identity is a matter of presentation.

Style is the art of skilfully packaging illusions and projecting them with confidence as we walk down the corridor of images that make up modern societies.

Once again, character is the causality.

The third clarifying question is, why does character matter?

Currently we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in character – society’s previous dismissal of the importance of character is itself under scrutiny, while present day initiatives to re-introduce character education is burgeoning.

Even the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education’s modest WebPage in the year to March 2003 attracted 130,000 visits and 25,000 pages were downloaded.

The fact the Foundation has been successful in getting people to think character rather than the nebulous values education is significant.

Character Counts! is being stressed in dozens of different ways.

To be sure there are critics.

Yet for all their sophisticated disdain of virtue talk, virtucrats and new Victorianism two inescapable realities bring the topic back to character again and again - the pressure of events and character’s vital importance to leadership and education.

Such problems as rising crime, increasing violence, the loss of social cohesion, welfare dependency and the misuse of drugs and alcohol, were once seen as essentially rational problems. As such they were seen as solvable by purely technical, economic, legislative or social strategies. The challenge was to uncover the circumstances that created the problem and them work to change them.

The story is told of two sociologists walking down a road and, coming across the badly wounded victim of a mugging, one turned to the other and said, Whoever did this needs help.

But now, as most parents have always known, there is a growing awareness that a variety of social problems can only be understood, and perhaps addressed – if they are seen as arising out of a deficit in character formation.

The headlines that will front tomorrow’s newspaper will almost be certain to have at their core the deficit of character formation.

The other reason that character is back on the agenda is because of the behaviour of some holding elected or public office.

Character in leaders is important for two reasons:

Externally, character provides the link of trust between leaders and followers.

Internally, character provides the leader’s deepest source of being and strongest source of restraint.

In many instances the first prompting to do good and the last barrier against doing wrong are the same – character.

The present crisis of character runs deeper than any public scandal. For that reason the search for a remedy needs to look back in history for wisdom and direction.

During two periods of Western history, which parallel our own day, the character issue was given a place of prominence in an effect to renew civilization and restore a civil society.

The closer period – was in the late eighteenth century when an extraordinary burst of reforms – most notably, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire – were triggered.

William Wilberforce had two great objectives – the suppression of the slave trade and the reform of manners. Momentous though the first task was, the second he considered harder to achieve. Yet what Wilberforce and his generation accomplished was so influential it transformed the social and moral climate in the years that followed.

The second period deserving close attention is much further back but has been decisive not just for the English speaking world but all of Western Civilization – the fourth century BC and the writings of Plato.

Plato was not just the world’s greatest philosopher but a genius of education. His ideas and examples have made him teacher of the world, his Academy in Athens the school of the world.

Following the defeat of the Athens by Sparta in 404 BC, the descent of democracy into demagoguery and the unjust execution of Socrates [in 399BC], Plato was challenged to think through a new vision of society.

Plato’s classic response was The Republic which sets out his vision of the ideal state.

At its heart is his new view of education – not the cultivation of skills nor the communication of certain branches of knowledge [such as the three R’s] but the formation of character and the striving to direct one’s life so as to fulfil the highest ideals of human excellence.

The state, Plato believed, would ultimately reflect the character of its citizens: the States are as people are: they grow out of human character.

Plato concluded that the renewal of the State is dependent upon the development of the individual character, especially that of the leader.

Plato’s view of education was influential until the middle decades of the twentieth century.

If you ask what is the good of education, mused Plato, the answer is easy – that education makes good people, and good people act nobly.

Perhaps the principal of an American High School had Plato’s thoughts in mind when he wrote to his teachers about the most educated and sophisticated in mid-twentieth century Europe.

Dear Teacher

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness.

Gas chambers built by learned engineers; children poisoned by educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses; women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education.

My request is; help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

Reading, writing and arithmetic and all that schools seek to do, are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Character Education is at least as old as recorded history. Its advent probably coincides with the beginning of civilization, for it is difficult to sustain a civil society without educating for character.

Historically, civilizations passed on their cultural values to succeeding generations as a means of cultural preservation.

Ours is the first generation to find itself hamstrung in this task.

Until the later decades of the twentieth century character education, or character training, was seen as an essential component of schooling.

J. E. Macgregor, a teacher at Waihopai School in 1934 began his character-training scheme by quoting the Syllabus of Instruction, The whole of school life should centre in character-training.

His scheme included the comments: The teacher should find in every subject, material which will provide opportunities for inculcating in children ideals of right conduct and It is the attitude of the teacher which is the dominating factor in moulding the character of the young.

His comments reflect the historical view that character is taught by precept and example.

The fear of indoctrination loomed large in the demise of character training.

Curriculum developers, strongly influenced by psychology and sociology, felt that in a pluralist liberal democracy it was inappropriate to promote one set of values that may violate the beliefs, values and rights of those holding different views.

From the 1960’s character education gave way to values education.

Unlike character education, values education was less concerned with behavioural outcomes and more concerned with the quality of students’ thinking.

It became the overriding concern of values education that programmes should not favour any particular religious or philosophical point of view. Programmes and approaches were developed which presented as being neutral and without religious or moralistic bias.

It was seen as important that any values teaching be non-sectarian and non-doctrinaire.

The outcome has been that young people, regardless of their social, racial and economic background, have absorbed the unmistakable message that right and wrong are relative, that they must not be judgmental, that what is right for one person may be wrong for another. Right and wrong are personal values, never objective, and always dependent upon time, place and circumstance.

This is not a neutral position but the doctrine of situation ethics; moral and cultural relativism.

Curriculum developers in an attempt to eliminate doctrinal bias simply traded perceived indoctrination with the traditional upstanding that there are core universal values for indoctrination in the ideology of ethical relativism

Neutrality in values education is an unachievable aim.

Schools must promote some moral values if they are to work at all.

Everything a school does teaches values. Whether it is the way the principal treats her staff, the way the class teacher relates to her students, the way the school allows students to treat each other or whether or not the school choices to discuss moral issues.

In developing an approach to values education New Zealand curriculum developers imported, particularly from the United States, programmes and resources.

Since the 1960’s values education has been dominated by two main approaches – Louis Rath’s values clarification, [aimed at helping students clarify their personal values and consistently act on them], and Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral dilemma discussion, [aimed at developing better moral reasoning.]

Raths argued that schools should not teach values, Instead, he said, schools should encourage young people to clarify their own values. The idea that teachers, parents or other adults should directly instruct children in right and wrong or even try to influence their values was explicitly rejected.

Values clarification spread like wildfire through schools in the Western world. It had an immediate appeal to busy teachers because it was so simple to use. No special training was required and dozens of recipe-like examples were provided. Preparation was minimised and teachers were offered instant activities that could be slotted into any part of the school day.

One of the major problems with the values clarification approach is that it makes no effective distinction between moral values and other values. Whether one values blue clothes over red clothes is seen as being much the same as whether ones values cruelty to animals over kindness.

To aim simply for clarification in matters of taste is unobjectionable but when it comes to matters of morality, a non-judgemental acceptance of extreme positions is itself immoral.

There are other problems with values clarification.

But of greater concern is that values clarification opened the door to the acceptance of ethical relativism and moral indifference – of the two, moral indifference may be the greater danger.

Lawrence Kohberg developed the moral dilemma discussion approach. It gained strong support among academics and researchers and eventually had a worldwide impact on educators.

The approach grew out of Kohberg’s stages of moral reasoning. He argued that all children pass through the same stages, but at different rates.

Kohberg reasoned that if children discussed moral dilemmas with other children, particularly those at a higher level of moral development, their moral reasoning would develop more quickly.

The approach had great appeal to educators because moral development could be objectively defined in stages and evaluated.

While the approach enabled teachers to assist students in resolving moral conflicts and facilitated student reasoning it neglected the behavioural and emotional components of character.

Over the last century there have been three main approaches to moral education

Research into the effectiveness of these approaches provides guidance for developing models for the future.

James S. Leming reported similar findings. [Character Education, James S. Lemings, Institute of Global Ethics, Maine, USA, 1993]

Leming found that neither values clarification nor moral dilemma discussion appears to be effective in influencing student behaviour.

Neither contributed to the development of character.

Moralising, inherent in the traditional approach to character education, did not work in terms of developing character.

However, he did find that moral dilemma discussion resulted in small increments of growth in stages of moral reasoning.

In developing models for character education we need to learn from the mistakes of the past and create new models that are guided by the experience and wisdom of the past but which incorporate the most effective practice of the present.

To achieve these schools must understand two things.

  1. How schools influence the development of character
  2. How character is learned

Whatever the approach it must integrate knowledge, attitudes and behaviour.

The foundation of character is a comparatively small set of objective values, cornerstone values or virtues.

These cornerstone values work in three interrelated parts.

For me to be compassionate, for example, I must first have moral knowledge. I must know what compassion is.

But knowledge, by itself, does not make me compassionate. I must also care about compassion and be emotionally committed to it. That is, I must have the capacity for appropriate guilt when I behave without compassion and be capable of moral indignation when I see others as the victims of injustice.

Yet even an emotional commitment to compassion will not make me compassionate. A further step is needed.

I must practise compassion in my personal relationships and carry out my obligations as a citizen to help build a caring and just society.

These three parts of a cornerstone value - moral knowledge, moral attitudes and moral behaviour can be expressed as the involvement of the head, the heart and the hand.

These objective values – cornerstone values - are inextricably linked to character.

Lickona defines character as knowing the good, desiring the good and doing the good.

Just as a cornerstone values has three interrelated parts involving the head, the heart and the hand, so character has the same interrelated components.

If good character is represented as the rim of a wheel, then objective values, virtues, are the spokes. Each is of equal length and spacing and gives the wheel its shape and strength. They have no hierarchical order and work in harmony. The spoke at the bottom takes the weight but the support of the others is essential. The hub, which holds the spokes in position, is duty. Duty [not to be confused with flags and war memorials] is obligation – the obligation to practice the objective values that are the building blocks of character.

The starting point for effective character education is not programmes and resources but understanding what character is, why character is important and how character is learned.

In developing models for the future the findings of research will be helpful but the best guidance and wisdom will be found in the past.

The old fellow who choice to sit at the back of the wagon knew a thing or two. He was no fool.

He knew that the past was a guide to the future.

He knew that the further back we look the further forward we one see.

He knew that we write our history to tell the future.

Perhaps he even knew that if a society neglects the formation of character or denies the part character plays in building a civil society then society to forced to invent rules and regulations in an attempt to compensate its loss?

When the history of our generation is written maybe it will be recorded that we attempted to compensate for the loss of character by appointing Commissioners of the State to guide our attitudes and behaviour.

To determine how we should behaviour in terms of human rights, race relations, the treatment of children, and respect for the privacy of others.

When educators ignore the experience of the past they are left at the mercy of the theoretical constructions of the present.

And experience teaches that theoretical constructions, like relativism and values clarification, do not work in practice.

You can not re-invent the wheel.

As a national New Zealand has spent millions on theoretical constructions that promised Utopia but which soon become fossils of a life that never was.

Good intentions and the expenditure of vast sums of money does not ensure that programmes and strategies work.

James Leming and others have found from school-based research that some approaches are effective in influencing character formation.

Secondary schools are often reluctant to become involved in character education. Even though adolescents and adults commit most irresponsible acts, character education tends to be concentrated at the primary school level.

Perhaps this is because it is widely recognised that core values are learned at a young age.

The principles of effective character education are the same for the secondary school as they are for the primary school.

The school culture and the infusion of character education into all curriculum areas are the starting point.

The secondary school can influence the character of its students by:

The key to effective character education is not programmes and resources but school culture and the quality of relationships.

Objective core values must inform and direct everything that happens in a school. Regardless of whether it is in the principal’s office, the boardroom, the classroom, the playground and the sports field.

Effective character education is not a clip on like the extra traffic lanes on the Auckland Harbour but an infusion, like a tea bag. Character education must permeate – infuse – everything the school does.

There is no better guide than the Character Education Partnership’s paper Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education. Not only does it provide guiding principles for effective character education that also serves as criteria for the evaluation of approaches, resources and outcomes.

The first sentence says it all.

There is no single script for effective character education, but there are some important basic principles.

These principles of effective character education remain constant regardless of the level of schooling, the methodology and resources changes to remain age appropriate.

Character education is a reform that will work. Other reforms may work but high standards of behaviour and conduct do work and nothing works without them.

Character education offers hope of what schools and their communities could be. It is a reminder of what is important. It places first things first.


When No One Sees, Trinity Forum, Virginia, USA

Character Education, James S. Lemings, Institute of Global Ethics, Maine, USA

Educating for Character, Thomas Lickonia, Bantam Books, New York, USA

Building Character through Cornerstone Values, John Heenan, New Zealand Foundation for Character Education

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