The Problem with Character Education

The Problem with Character Education
May 20, 2014

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)

School Choice Weekly #38

To what extent should government be involved in shaping citizens’ character? America’s founders long recognized that governing is not morally neutral. As John Adams wrote in a 1776 pamphlet, “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government. … All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. … If there is a form of government then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?”

In other words, if government exists to foster human happiness, and humans are truly happy when virtuous, good government must therefore promote virtue. It really cannot do otherwise, as every law sets forth what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what is unacceptable. That’s not a very complicated set of ideas, except in a time when so many believe government exists to perpetuate comfort rather than courage, legalized theft rather than industry.

What does this have to do with education? A lot. Nowadays, people tend to push education as a means to higher salaries and less welfare. The state constitutions that created our system of public education, however, typically echo Adams in setting forth the purpose of public education as promoting something far deeper: the intellectual and moral virtues necessary to undergird our republic. Some schools appear to be returning to this idea when instilling character and personality traits researchers say correlate with high incomes, but in The New Republic, professor Jeffrey Aaron Snyder argues such initiatives are more materialistic than idealistic:

KIPP [charter schools] and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character. It is also a bet without precedent, as there has never been a character education program so relentlessly focused on individual achievement and “objective accomplishments.” Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves--a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.

His thoughts are worth digesting in full. And here’s another aspect. Parents nowadays are growing weary of government attempts to indoctrinate and condition their children according to statist principles. Endless class recycling initiatives, writing assignments on “social justice,” and even collective homework projects all aim to shape children in the progressive mold. In reaction, some insist they want schools just teaching knowledge and not delving into character, habits, and so forth.

Those are worthy sentiments, but they ignore the impossibility of teaching knowledge in a vacuum. What these parents really mean is that they want their children taught values that correspond with their own. The real question is whether an education system they no longer control will secure that on their behalf. Doubtful.



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Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)