Character – Education’s Forgotten Goal

John Heenan | November 2007

A man once found an eagle’s egg and placed it under a brooding hen.

The eaglet hatched with the chickens and grew to be like them.

He clucked and cackled; scratched the earth for worms; flapped his wings and managed to fly a few feet in the air.

Years passed.

One day, the eagle, now grown old, saw a magnificent bird above him in the sky.

It glided in graceful majesty against the powerful wind, with scarcely a movement of its golden wings.

Spell bound, the eagle asked, Who’s that?

That’s the king of the birds – the eagle, said his neighbour.

He belongs to the sky.

We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.

So the eagle lived and died a chicken for that’s what he thought he was. (1)

Do not think me fanciful when I suggest that there are similarities between the experience of eaglet in this fable and those of many young people in today’s schools.

The eaglet learned the basic skills of ‘chickening:’ to cluck, to cackle, to scratch the earth for worms, to flap his wings and to fly a few feet in the air – but he learned nothing of its own character.

He was never inspired by goodness and character in other eagles.

He never gained a vision of what an eagles’ life could be.

He was never made aware that his own character was at stake.

He was never encouraged to ask such crucial questions as:

The eaglet’s story epitomizes Aristotle’s observation that the unexamined life is not worth living.

Throughout history and in countries all over the world education has had two great goals: to help young people master basic skills and to help them develop good character.

They need character for both. They need character qualities such as diligence, a strong work ethic, and a positive attitude in order to do their best in school and succeed in life. They need character qualities such as honesty, respect and fairness in order to live and work with others. (2)

In the West, those twin objectives, the mastery of skills and the formation of character, stretch back through the centuries to Plato who taught that we educate people to make them good because good people behave nobly.

Plato recognized the link between character and conduct.

He believed that society ultimately reflected the character of its citizens.

Others have commented more forcefully than Plato on the importance of the twin goals of education – skills and character.

The novelist Walker Percy observed, Some people get all A’s but flunk life.

Theodore Roosevelt did not mince words when he contended to educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

Martin Luther King, Jr. the hero of the Civil Rights Movement – We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

Remember the line in his I Have a Dream speech?

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Perhaps an old proverb is not far off the mark – An ounce of character is worth a ton of intelligence.

Educating for character 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, indeed a school, without educating for character.

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

Transmitting character is the work of a civil society.

Ours is the first generation that finds itself hamstrung in carrying out this task.

Of history’s twenty-one notable civilizations, nineteen perished, not by external conquest, but from internal decay.

They neglected character.

For most of New Zealand’s history character education was placed at the centre of the school curriculum.

It was there in the first curriculum in 1877.

In 1904 it was called moral education and from 1929 to 1961 character training.

The 1929 Syllabus of Instruction was unequivocal – The whole of school life should centre in character training.

The introduction of Values education in the syllabuses of the 1950’s and 1960’s led to the demise of character training.

When I started teaching in the 1953 each primary school teacher was required to prepare a class scheme.

The first chapter was always Character Training.

It was joked that there should be a monument to the teacher who wrote the original class scheme.

Perhaps the same is true today of school policies?

An extract from J. E McGregor’s scheme prepared for his 1934 class at Waihopai School, Invercargill provides an insight into the world-view of his day.

The teacher shall find in every subject – material which will provide opportunities for inculcating in children ideas of right conduct and for propagating the true spirit of honesty, modesty and perseverance. Such training will have this end in view that children may become self-reliant, patient, self-controlled and considerate towards others and that they may regard themselves as members of society and not pander to their own individual whims and caprices.

It is interesting that the objective of character training, behaviour was clearly stated.

There are two important questions that need to be asked about the demise of character training.

  1. Was character training ever refuted and if so by whom, where and how conclusively?
  2. Did character training merely die away as fashions do?

If it was the latter, this tells us nothing about the merit or falsehood of character training.

I taught through the years when character training was replaced by values education. My memory and my research lead me the conclusion that the fear of indoctrination loomed large in its 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.

To understand the paradigm shift that resulted from the replacement of character education by values education it is necessary to understand the history of the plural noun values and the difference between character and values education.

If this symposium had been held in 1877 when the first New Zealand curriculum was published the plural noun values would not have been used because the word had not been invented.

The plural noun virtues would have been used.

In the 1880’s the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche began to speak of values in the present sense – not as a verb, meaning to value or esteem something; nor as a singular noun, meaning the measure of a thing (the economic value of money, labour or property) but in the plural, connoting the moral beliefs and attitudes of a society. (3)

Nietzsche disliked virtues.

Nietzsche believed that both the classical virtues – Fortitude, Justice, Prudence and Temperance – and the theological or Judaic-Christian virtues – Faith, Hope and Love – imprisoned people.

He wanted people to be set free from them.

The four classical virtues are also called cardinal virtues – not because they have anything to do with the colour red or the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church – but because cardinal comes from a Latin word meaning the hinge of a door.

They are ‘cardinal’ virtues because they are ‘pivotal.’

The four cardinal virtues – Fortitude, Justice, Prudence and Temperance – have been recognised by all civilizations and cultures.

They are consistent, universal and transcultural, multi-ethnic and cross all lines of race and creed.

Some claim that different civilizations and different ages have had different virtues.

But that is not true.

A study of such different civilizations and cultures as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Creeks, Romans, Ancient Hebrew and the world’s Indigenous Peoples will show this. (4)

Other virtues, including the eight cornerstone values hinge on the four Cardinal Virtues.

The cornerstone values – kindness, concern and consideration and compassion, for example, are aspects of the cardinal virtue Justice.

Unfortunately, much of the meaning of the cardinal virtues has been lost.

Prudence was practical common sense – wisdom. Thinking about what you are doing and what the outcomes were likely to be. In the language of the Cornerstone Values approach to character education – it includes respect, responsibility, the law of consequences and rational decision making.

Temperance has changed its meaning. Now it is about teetotalism - abstaining from alcohol.

But temperance was about all pleasures. It did not mean abstaining from them but using them in moderation. Temperance was about going the right distance.

Justice was about much more than what goes on in our courts of law. Justice is the old word for everything we call fairness – Honesty, consideration, kindness, compassion, keeping your word.

Fortitude included two forms of courage – the kind that faces danger and the kind that ‘sticks with it’ in adversity. In modern language Fortitude was about having guts.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the father of values, disliked virtues because he felt that they limited, and inhibited personal freedom.

The view that virtues restrain people from having a good time and are unnecessary restraints on personal freedom is widely held.

In reality, the opposite is true.

The old virtues gave direction and cohesion to social interaction.

They prevented breakdown, strain and friction.

They were there to ensure that society ran smoothly.

The old virtues were concerned with three things:

  1. Fair play and harmony between individuals
  2. Harmony within an individual
  3. The well-being of the society

Nietzsche believed that the death of virtues would set people free because it would allow them to choose their own virtues.

Then, he believed, there would be no good or evil, no virtue or vice. There would only be values – which he saw as personal virtues.

And so Nietzsche de-graded virtues into values in the hope of creating a new set of values for his new man.

His purpose was clear. He wanted to create a new person free from the shackles of external virtues.

There are critical differences between values and virtues.

Values are preferences and subjective. They are something to have.

Values can be changed and modified.

Virtues are principles which are objective. They are not something to have, like a mobile phone or an xbox but something “to be,” – indeed, the most important thing to be, like honest, kind, compassionate and considerate.

Virtues are the foundation of character.

When virtues become habits they become character.

For that reason character is sometimes defined as the habits of the heart.

Knowing the good, desiring the good and doing the good.

There are also critical differences between values education and character education.

Values education is said to be the process whereby students develop responsible attitudes towards others and skill in making judgements about right and wrong.

Values Education, is primarily concerned with the quality of students’ thinking.

Like so much in modern education it is process orientated.

Values education has never been concerned with the formation of character.

In contrast, character education is primarily concerned with the formation of good character and consequently behaviour.

It recognises that character determines behaviour just as behaviour demonstrates character.

Character produces behaviour that is beneficial for individuals, others and the community.

The traits of character – virtues, objective values, cornerstone values – have only positive and constructive outcomes.

They have qualities that benefit others as well as self.

Virtues have an extraordinary ability to reproduce themselves as they are practiced.

Once received virtues are reciprocated.

It is a strange person who does not respond positively when treated with honesty, respect and decency.

As they are given virtues are gained and gained as they are given.

Honesty, for example, returns as trust, respect and loyalty – consideration as courtesy, gentleness and helpfulness.

This compounding of the traits of character explains why intention character education has such a dramatic impact on school culture and personal behaviour.

Within two years intentional character education can transform a school culture and dramatically improve personal and public behaviour.

The school’s culture has changed when objective values inform and influence everything that happens within a school regardless of whether it is in the principal’s office, the board meeting, the playground or the classroom.

Character education is product orientated.

Character education is about one’s destiny. The kind of person one is becoming.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it simply character is destiny

An old poster the classroom wall put it like this.

The devaluing of character and the demise of character education has brought significant cultural and social changes.

While the curriculum developers of the 1960’s may have sought to illuminate indoctrination they simply traded the fear of indoctrination in the old virtues with indoctrination in the ideology of moral relativism.

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.

Ironically, it can be argued that there is more indoctrination in schools today than at any time in the past.

This view is supported by a recent a British High Court ruling that school children need protecting from political propaganda.

Another significant change is that the language of character has been eroded along with the loss of objectivity and the description of moral character.

The loss of objective meaning in the vocabulary of character can be illustrated by the word gentleman which used to denote a land owner with a coat-of-arms.

Consequently it was possible to say that John was a gentleman and a liar.

Gentleman described a readily identifiable kind of man.

Gentleman now means little more than a statement of approval.

Gentleman no longer has a clear objective meaning. It possesses the same order of meaning that a nice meal might have.

The vacuum left by the loss of objective meaning in the vocabulary and language of character has been replaced by the word values which has no universal objective meaning.

The noun values is subjective and means what the speaker assumes it means.

For this reason most discussions on values are frustrating because they are undermined by the absence of a universal acceptance of any given value.

Consequently, a traditional objective virtue such as courage is no longer the possession of an individual and part of his or her character.

Courage like gentleman has become the subjective, even if informed, opinion of an observer.

Character is reduced to little more than a matter of opinion.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to schools that arises from the degrading of character is the dramatic change in behaviour.

The disturbing behaviours that bombard us daily – violence, insolence, disobedience, obscene language, selfishness, greed, dishonesty, poor work ethics, binge-drinking and abuse in all its forms – all have a common core, the absence of good character.

The murders, mayhem and misery that will be the weekend news headlines can all be traced back to the deficit of character.

What can be done to redress the situation we find ourselves in?

Some writers are pessimistic about the renewal of character and the restoration of character education.

In his book The Death of Character James Hunter writes:

We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels. The price is too high for us to pay. We want character but without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist on it; we want moral communities without limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms we want it. (5)

The common wisdom is that we can not turn the clock back.

But is that correct?

If a clock is wrong the most sensible thing to do put it back.

If we want to make progress, get nearer our goal, sometimes the most progressive thing to do is to go back and correct our error.

Isn’t that what do we do if we make an error in a calculation?

If we are out tramping and take the wrong turn continuing to go forward takes us further away from our goal.

If you are on the wrong track to make progress you have to turn back and find the right track.

The tramper who turns back first is the most innovative and progressive.

The same is true of the renewal of character and the restoration of character education.

When I was a little boy and I lost something I used to get furious when my mother asked, When did you last have it?

If knew, it wouldn’t be lost, I’d sulk.

Those principals and teachers, who have turned back to the historical goals of education – the mastery of skills and the building of good character – are the most innovative and progressive of our day.

Their work and example needs to celebrated and emulated.

There is tremendously hope in what they have achieved in some New Zealand schools.

Like all genuine reforms, the restoration of character education has started at the grassroots.

If character education is to be restored to its historical and rightful place it the heart of the curriculum then it will happen school by school and community by community.

The renewal of character and the restoration of character education offer hope of what schools and their communities could be. It is a reminder of what is important. It places first things first.

And the good news is that it does not cost a mint of money or attempt to implementation theoretical constructions that probably don’t work in practice.

Children make up 22% of our population but 100% of the future.

If we want to renew our society, we must raise up a generation of young people who have strong character.

If we wish to do that we have two responsibilities:

John Heenan – Presented to the Connecting Character and Conduct Symposium, 2 November 2007, National Library, Wellington, New Zealand


  1. Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, Diaz del Rio S. J. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, Gujarat, 388 001, India, 1982
  2. Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson, Smart & Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond, State University of New York College, Cortland, 2005 – Page xxi
  3. Gertude Hammerfarb, The Demoralization of Society, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 1995
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Geoffrey Bles, Centenary Press, London, 1947
  5. James Davidson Hunter, The Death of Character Basic Books, 2000

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