The meaning of the word “character” has been a topic of debate primarily in the context of Character education in the school system. To some people, helping children become adults with strong, upright moral and ethical characters is a big part of what education is about. Children need guidance, say proponents of character education. As we help our children grow into productive, upstanding citizens, it is imperative that we complement factual and skills-based education with instruction and activities that exemplify and promote ethical behavior. 

Others claim that while this all sounds like a good idea, it is impossible to choose one universal standard for the qualities and behaviors that constitute a “good” character. Some complain that the concept has been used as an excuse to impose particular beliefs on children - beliefs that their parents (and some other citizens) may not agree with. For example, to what extent should a person of good character tolerate other views on morality? Is open acceptance or respect for other beliefs and worldviews a mark of good character, or is it a sign of moral weakness? In other words, is moral relativism a sign of character or the lack thereof? And if adults cannot agree on the answers to these questions, how can we present one answer to all of our children? In light of such disagreements, say critics, character education should be left to parents and religious institutions chosen by parents.

A second group of critics is concerned with the simplistic and potentially coercive nature of character education. These people claim that in practice, character education is used primarily to turn children into docile, unthinking workers who do as they are told. Instead of being encouraged to explore complex moral dilemmas to which even adults have no solution, children are given simplified formulas that have no long-term effects on behavior - other than dampening their natural curiosity and motivation to explore. Some go as far as to say that the entire premise of character education is invalid, because character cannot be taught. To these critics, no curriculum, no matter how well intended, can replace the life experiences that form the characters of adults; and to try to “package” character education into an educational curriculum may do more harm than good.


-Ask ten people to list some qualities that make up a good character. How much agreement do you find? Did anyone surprise you?

-If you created your own character education course, what would it be like? Can you think of any parents who would be glad to enroll their children in it? Can you think of any parents who would avoid it? What would their course be like?

-It’s 2418, and the world has been transformed into a utopia. Many events have taken place, but historians agree that a particular character education course played a pivotal role in the transformation. What was in that course? Would anyone you know today avoid that course? What would the world look like if their course was the turning point?