As students and teachers across the country head back to school this month, hopes run high for a year of academic flourishing (those high-stakes tests still far in the distance). Schools employing strong content-based curricula or the gold standard Core Knowledge Sequence have a leg-up on this goal. Their meaty language arts, history, geography, math, science, and fine arts programs feed a very real hunger for solid knowledge (not vapid fluff) in a voracious student population.
But why were the Founders insistent on “virtue” as the necessary companion to knowledge? And what is virtue? How does it differ from values? Think of it this way: the difference between a value and a virtue is the difference between “want” and “should.” Anything can be a “value.” I can value cunning, uniformity, or ethnic purity. Hitler did. Stalin did. In China and Myanmar, they still do – and those deeply held “values” can get the world into a lot of moral (and political) trouble.
A “virtue” on the other hand, is an “excellence.” The Greek root word for virtue (“arete”) means “excellence.” This millennia-old philosophical tradition calls us to our highest self – not simply to tolerance, but to respect and to justice; not principally to self-assertion, but to diligence, perseverance, and temperance; not to ecological awareness, but to stewardship; not to cultural sensitivity, but to compassion and civic courage. The list goes on.
The tradition of educating children in the virtues has very long roots – going back to Plato’s dialog with Socrates in The Meno. It is a tradition the Founders prized. Even as we entered the twentieth century American statesmen agreed that virtues education was the task of quality schools. “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society,” Theodore Roosevelt reminded us.
Many schools today resist this lesson. They strive for strong academic results, but see “character education” (in its many possible forms) as a burdensome add-on, yet another non-academic to-do for teachers whose main task ought to be educational. Isn’t this the job of parents? Where will I fit it in? But one cannot avoid educating for character in the schools (hence the proliferation of conflict-resolution curricula); we do it whether we think about it or not. And the virtues – not a panoply of self-chosen values - are necessary for quality academic work.After all, how can we foster healthy classroom interaction and the meaningful exchange of ideas in class without respect and responsibility? How does the nine-year-old child memorize her times tables and math facts without perseverance? How does a child take to the stage and recite a poem, play a role in drama, or try a new solution to a math problem without courage? How does that same student handle the disappointment of not doing well on a test without humility? How do kids learn to push themselves to study still harder and do better the next time without diligence and hope?
The virtues are habits of the heart that ensure quality scholarship. An increasing number of studies affirm that schools with an emphasis on character yield higher academic results. And most recently, the focus of Positive Psychology, the study of how/why human beings come to flourish, has trained its focus specifically on character strength and virtues—such as grit, service, gratitude, forgiveness.
The task of virtues education is three-fold: teaching students to know, to love, and do the good. Aristotle placed strong emphasis (rightly so) on the latter, on habit formation as the key. We become courageous by doing courageous acts repeatedly. But FIRST comes knowledge and LOVE of virtue, attraction to that which is praiseworthy.
The Core Virtues approach cultivates virtue principally by helping young children identify and fall in love with the good. Our literature-based approach showcases worthy exemplars of virtue in action and helps populate the theaters of kids’ imaginations with compelling and heroic guides. It helps children learn not just what they should aspire to, but which individuals (real and fictional) they might be like. And that is key. For there is not a child on the planet, who wakes up in the morning and says: “How shall I behave today?” His or her first thought is: “Who shall I be like?” And they’ve got fifteen dramas in their heads before breakfast. Am I Pink Ranger? Elsa? Spiderman? Spongebob Squarepants? But why not Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, Johnny Appleseed, Abe Lincoln, or Neil Armstrong?
Plato said: “the core of education is a correct nurture, one which as much as possible draws the soul of the child at play toward an erotic attachment to what he must do when he becomes a man.” He got it exactly right. Although in the twenty-first century, let's be expansive: we should work on drawing the souls of children at play to the heroic dramas they can aspire to when they become adults.
Mary Beth Klee