In the current educational climate of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, education has become narrow in scope and disconnected from its history. We have forgotten why we educate our youth, and we have become fixated on the idea of schools—even elementary schools—as college preparatory institutions. But experienced educators know that education has multiple purposes, and academic learning is only one of them.
Dating back to the classical Greeks, it has been recognized that a self-governing society cannot endure if its citizens are not virtuous. This was repeatedly and resoundingly reinforced by the shapers of our great experiment in democracy, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe. They knew that the survival of the United States of America depended on the nature of its citizens, and they further recognized that education was a critical force in shaping that nature.
Productive citizens are not simply smart people who know lots of facts and can reason in abstract and impressive ways. They also have the skills and mindset necessary for democratic citizenship. In other words, they have civic character. This includes a commitment to the common good, a willingness to enter the public sphere and debate political and ethical issues, and the skills necessary for learning about, intellectually digesting, and responding publicly to societal issues and challenges.
So schools are supposed to promote at least academic learning and civic character. But that is still not all. The traits of civic character, as important as they are, are not all that makes one a good person. All societies ultimately rise or fall on the moral character of their citizens. So a third and related purpose of education is the general moral and character development of students. The job of socializing all citizens must begin in childhood and is the responsibility of all societal institutions, including the schools.
Knowledge and Integrity
You may be tempted to prioritize the three purposes of academics, civic character, and moral character. If you are, let me give you something to ponder. Samuel Johnson once wrote that "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful." In fact, if you had to choose between living in a world of ignorant but caring, ethical people and world of educated and brilliant but selfish and antisocial people, which would you choose? I think it is a no-brainer. As Johnson noted, it is dangerous to educate people without a moral compass, or as former President Teddy Roosevelt once said, "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."
As we watch the escalation of interpersonal and global violence, we need to think deeply about the kind of people we raise and educate. We need to recognize that there are multiple purposes of education and that educating for character is paramount among them. After all, there is no future without children, but there is no moral future without children of character. And it is up to schools to contribute to this critical mission.
By Dr. Marvin W. Berkowitz
Professor of Character Education
University of Missouri, St. Louis
Dr. Berkowitz, a developmental psychologist, is the inaugural Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character Education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Among his many publications are his recent book Parenting for Good and his research review for the Character Education Partnership, What Works in Character Education.