Michele C. Murray
Student affairs professionals are reassessing their approach to educating the whole student. Out of concern for the decreasing ethical standards among students, student affairs professionals are renewing their interest in character education which assists students to understand, desire and act on what is ethically right (Blimling, 1990, Lickona, 1993). Research shows that purposeful programming toward educating students for character is the most effective means of helping students develop sound ethical behavior.
In 1993, William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, published The Book of Virtues in response to the ever-sinking level of moral literacy in this nation. The difficulty with ethical reasoning among our youth sounds an alarm signaling the need for purposeful character education in our homes and schools. In an interview, Amitai Etzioni states that if we do not earnestly pursue character education, "we will find that adults [will not] have the character and the values needed to be decent members of the community" (Berreth & Scherer, 1993, p. 12).
Since 1937, student affairs professionals have emphasized educating the whole student as a primary goal of the profession (A Plan for a New Century Committee, 1987). As bigotry, assault and sexual harassment persist on college campuses, student affairs professionals are reassessing their approach to education of the whole student. Currently, a purposeful approach to character education, "the training of heart and mind toward the good" (Bennett, 1993, p. 11), is re-emerging as an effective way to develop higher ethical standards in our students.
In this manuscript, the author will give an
overview of the meaning and history of character education as
well as explore some of the trends that are bringing character
education to the forefront. This manuscript will also suggest
exemplary programs and theories that help direct efforts toward
Character Education Then and Now: Meaning and History
Character and Character Education
Educators, academicians and student affairs
professionals alike, widely understand character to mean a
cognitive and behavioral conception of what is right (Blimling,
1990; Lickona, 1993; Whiteley, 1985). Good character, according
to Lickona, has the distinction of "knowing the good,
desiring the good, and doing the good" (p. 9). In desiring
good, a student is able to reach a level of commitment to what is
right in order to cement himself or herself to the ideals of good
Assisting a student to understand, desire, and
act on what is right is the essence of educating for character. A
fundamental part of attending to the whole student, character
education is "the development of ethical conduct in students
as well as ethical reasoning and understanding" (Dalton,
1985, p. ii). Furthermore, character education aims to
"enhance the capacity to defer impulses and. . . make the
right judgment" (Berreth & Scherer, 1993, p. 14).
Schweingruber (1985) suggested seven ways in which student affairs professionals can promote and facilitate character education:
1. Create an environment of trust and mutual respect on campus.
2. Staff should be free to share their own values with students; while they cannot impose their values, they also should not appear to be value-less by adopting a value-neutral position.
3. Be as non-legalistic as possible while still working within the confines of the law. Moral development is hampered by an overly legalistic environment.
4. Do not protect students from the consequences of criminal behavior.
5. Allow students to solve the problems they face; practice the art of selective negligence.
6. Support disciplinary processes and sanctions as significant contributors to moral growth.
7. Take advantage of one-on-one time with students.
Schweingruber concludes by saying: "If we challenge our students, if we are willing to take risks, if we are willing to take positions on issues, if we are willing to share our values-then [we are] promoting the moral development of our students" (p. 23).
As educators, student affairs practitioners have an obligation to provide sound character education if they are to be true to the mission of the profession. Educating the whole person inherently means educating each student for character, fostering within him or her the abilities to assess and act on what is good. Sandeen (1985) observed that "whether values are taught formally in the curriculum or not, the attitudes, conduct, and beliefs of students have always been influenced by their colleges" (p. 2). The central question surrounding character education today is: is an informal approach to character education enough to guide students toward sound ethical behavior? Comparative studies throughout history of the prominence of character education within higher education suggest that it is not.
An Historical View
For over a century and a half, educating for
character was a primary mission of higher education in the United
States. In 1643, Harvard College, this country's oldest
educational institution, opened its doors for the purpose of
training clergymen and civil servants. Modeled after England's
Oxford and Cambridge Universities and English Puritanism, the
early colonial colleges sought to "train the schoolmasters,
the divines, the rulers, the cultured ornaments of society-the
men who would spell the difference between civilization and
barbarism" (Rudolph, 1962, p. 6). The Puritanical idea of
character was an absolutely essential aspect of education for the
men who would lead the colonial communities in their churches,
schools and governing bodies.
Through the early 1800s, character training in
the form of ethics and values remained central to the core
curriculum. The commitment to character education was evident in
the mission statements of colleges and universities across the
nation which emphasized "the development of the capacity to
think clearly about moral issues and to act accordingly"
(Whiteley, 1988, p. 11). Educating for character was, at this
time, a purposeful venture teaching students the fundamentals of
moral reasoning through regular academic course work.
By the late 1800s, however, the focus of higher
education in the United States began to shift. Character
education moved to the background as universities began to
emulate the research habits of German institutions. Development
of students' ethical and moral reasoning virtually disappeared in
the shadow of scientific research. Manipulation of facts and
objects became the end of academic life; mastery of the world
took precedence over mastery of self (Schwehn, 1993). Faculty
abandoned character education in favor of scholarly research, and
student affairs professionals emerged to bridge this gap for
students (A Plan for a New Century Committee, 1987).
Although the focus of student affairs has been on the student as a whole person since 1937, directed efforts to educate for character have been harshly affected by the rise of relativism in recent years. Lickona (1993) asserted that values have become mere expressions of feeling and personal judgment in the face of relativism. He further asserted that relativism has "delegitimized moral authority, eroded belief in objective moral norms, turned people inward toward self-fulfillment, [and] weakened social commitments" (p. 6).
In the age of relativism, researchers have "reject[ed] the idea that there is a set of socially defined behavioral traits, or a bag of virtues, that can be used to determine which actions are moral . . . " (Kohlberg as cited in Blimling, 1990, p. 267). In a society that puts a high premium on a value-less approach, efforts toward character education have suffered greatly. In order to avoid transmitting or promoting a particular set of values or ethics, student affairs professionals have assumed a non-directive, value-neutral role with students (Dalton, 1985).
Sadly, college life reflects this mistaken
premise. Hedonism has become a moral norm on college campuses and
is accepted by student affairs professionals as a
"transitional period . . . between relativity of moral
principles and a commitment to such principles" (Blimling,
1990). Blimling (1990), argues that hedonism on campus is the
chaos and disorder of students struggling to internalize moral
principles and to develop sound character. If Blimling is
correct, the ground is fertile for directed efforts toward
character education among college students.
The Urgency for
Pressures from Within the Academy and from
Critics inside and outside of the academy are
demanding that educators reverse their hands-off, value-neutral
approach to character education. Bok (1988), former president of
Harvard University, insisted that the cultivation of virtue is
inherent to university education. He argued that universities are
"obliged to help students learn how to lead ethical and
fulfilling lives" (p. B4). Bok recommended that universities
adhere more purposefully to their original mission statements
which expressed a clear commitment to the development of
Out of general concern for the decrease in
ethical standards among students, student affairs professionals
are renewing their interest in character education as well.
Dalton (1985) observed that student affairs professionals must
take a more proactive role in educating students for character.
He noted that "helping students to struggle with issues of
responsibility, consideration, and fairness . . . is a role and
responsibility which is at the heart of the professional work of
college student personnel staff" (p. 21). The only way to
counteract moral passivity on college campuses is to promote
sound character development in an intentional manner.
The emergence of organizations such as
Character Counts Coalition (CCC), demonstrates that educators are
not the only people who are worried by the current moral climate
of college campuses. Michael Josephson, founder of CCC,
established this partnership of individuals and national
organizations in order to improve the character of American
youth. In an interview with columnist David Ouellette, Josephson
expressed CCC's position best when he said, "We have seen a
value-neutrality that has gone too far . . ." (Ouellette,
1994). Organizations, such as CCC, and educators alike are now
seeking to re-establish standards of character in a society whose
moral and ethical values have eroded beyond recognition.
Reasons for Renewed Interest
Lickona (1993) identified three reasons why
there is burgeoning interest in character education today (p.
1. The decline of the family. Lickona observed that the breakdown of the American family has not only left children bereft of strong adult role-models, but it has also destroyed their primary source of ethical teaching. In increasing numbers, children are experiencing a "moral vacuum" due to the absence of moral teaching in the home. As a result, students are entering the educational system, including colleges and universities, without the benefit of character formation. Formal character education, then, has become a crucial element in education at all levels.
2. Troubling trends in youth character. The second reason why character education is moving to the forefront is the glaring evidence of ethical illiteracy among students. Lickona documented several problematic trends in youth culture. According to Lickona, dishonesty, disrespect, violence, bigotry and sexual precocity are on the rise on college campuses today. Together with a decrease in the work ethic among youth, these trends are harsh reminders that students are living in a "hostile moral environment" (p. 9). In order to combat these trends, educators must help students to develop sound ethical and moral reasoning through intentional character education.
3. A recovery of shared, objectively important ethical values. Lickona argued that educators are beginning to reject the value-neutral approach they apply to students due to disturbing trends in youth culture. Lickona remarked that "We are recovering the basic wisdom that we do share a basic morality, essential for survival; that adults must promote this morality by teaching [values to students] directly and indirectly" (p. 9). CCC seconded Lickona's assertion by naming trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship as the Six Pillars of Character. Lickona reasoned that, "these values are not merely subjective preferences but that they have objective worth and a claim on our collective consciences" (p. 9).
The formation of these basic values is
essential to the development of character. Character education
promotes a framework for students to operate successfully and
ethically in the world. Green (1988) explained that, "It is
the mark of people's character whether they take care to perform
. . . everyday actions well" (p. 1). He continued to say
that once this is understood, "[character] education and
conduct become a constant concern" (p. 1) for educators. At
the college level, student affairs professionals are in the
position to be most directly involved with character education as
their mission is to attend to the education of the whole student.
Character Education Theory and Research
Although student affairs professionals have
become increasingly aware of the importance of purposeful
character development, they are uncertain about how character
education should occur and how explicitly involved they should be
(Litwin, 1985). Research, particularly Whiteley's Sierra Project;
student development theories, such as Chickering's seven vectors;
and practical application theories, such as The University of
Vermont's Co-Curriculum (see below), are answering these
Whiteley's Sierra Project
Whiteley (1988, 1985a, 1985b) studied the
impact of residence hall living on character development and
found that students living in a residence hall with a directed
curriculum developed a greater level of moral reasoning than did
their peers. Whiteley's experiment incorporated a curriculum of
nine educational modules into a residence hall for first-year
students, thereby creating a living/learning environment. The
modules covered topics such as race relations, community building
and conflict resolution.
Using a cognitive/developmental approach to
character education, Whiteley sought to blend educational
programs with the developmental opportunities that arise in
residence hall living. He found that the impact of the
educational modules was "influenced profoundly by the fact
that [they] occurred within the context of a residence hall"
(1985, p. 11). Not only did students achieve a greater level of
moral reasoning than their peers in other residence hall
arrangements, but they also developed a greater sense of
community that included the Sierra residents and the professors
who taught them.
Whiteley found, as did Chickering and Reisser (1993), that relationships among students and between students and faculty greatly influence character development. Whiteley asserts that had the students of Sierra Project not had 24-hour contact with the program and with other program participants, their advances in moral reasoning would not have been so significant. Therefore, Whiteley recommends that efforts toward character education in the college setting are best when combined with residential life, thus creating a living/learning environment.
Chickering's Seven Vectors
Chickering and Reisser (1993) proposed that
students develop along seven vectors: developing competence,
managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward
interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships,
establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing
integrity. According to Chickering and Reisser, students develop
along each of the vectors simultaneously and at varying rates.
Each vector has implications for character development, but none
has as direct an influence as developing integrity.
Chickering and Reisser (1993) stated that
"movement toward integrity means not only increased
congruence between behavior and values, but also movement toward
responsibility for self and others and the consistent ability to
apply thoughtfully ethical principles" (p. 236). Movement
along this vector is the crux of developing character, and as
students continue to develop integrity throughout college, they
gain greater appreciation for character education efforts.
According to Chickering and Reisser (1993),
colleges and universities play a key role in the character
education of their students. They recognized the opportunities
for character education that are available to colleges through
"their catalyzing intellectual, cultural, and social
experiences, in fostering principled moral reasoning, in helping
students define goodness, truth, and quality, and in encouraging
them to actualize their highest ideals" (p. 264). Student
affairs professionals, with their commitment to the development
of the whole student, have a special obligation to meet the needs
of students moving along Chickering's integrity vector through
directed, purposeful character education.
The University of Vermont's Co-Curriculum
The Division of Student Affairs at The
University of Vermont created a co-curricular mission for
purposeful student development. The University's Department of
Residential Life incorporates this mission with the best of
Whiteley's research and Chickering's vector theory. The
Co-Curriculum aims to promote the development of all university
resident students through purposeful planning and programs. The
five central aspects of the Co-Curricular mission are: developing
a sense of belonging, acquiring knowledge and skills, developing
critical thinking, making ethical choices, and assuming
self-responsibility (Department of Residential Life of The
University of Vermont, 1994).
Ranging from diversity training to educational
sanctions through the judicial process, programming that meets
the standards of the Co-Curriculum also has the potential to
educate for character. The Co-Curriculum recognizes the character
development that occurs in college students and seeks to guide it
in a purposeful way. As student affairs professionals, members of
The University of Vermont's Department of Residential Life have
created guidelines for intentional education of the whole
student, which includes character development and education.
From Theory to Practice
Theories and research supporting character
education do not prove beneficial until professionals translate
the findings into actual practice. Whiteley, Bertin, et al.
(1985) asserted that character education is the sum total of
planned and unplanned activities that coincide with an
intentional component to educate. Student affairs professionals
can make the most of their opportunities to engage in character
education by taking a "more proactive position with respect
to values education and moral development" (Dalton, 1985, p.
Character education opportunities are plentiful
in student affairs. The residence halls alone offer many
different activities that have the potential to encourage
character development among students. Resident Assistant programs
and community councils offer experience in leadership and ethical
decision-making, both of which help build character. An
adaptation of Whiteley's Sierra Project could include focus
groups within the context of residence halls, converting them
into purposeful living/learning environments.
Advising, whether of student groups or individual students, also provides student affairs professionals with innumerable occasions to direct character development. However, the advisor must have honest and direct communication with students about his or her own values in order to take full advantage of the guidance opportunities. Character education can also include diversity training, relationships with work-study students, and many other day-to-day activities.
As student affairs professionals begin to
understand fully the implications of their work on the character
development of students, different philosophies are called into
question. First, professionals must challenge the mindset of
value-neutrality. There is a balance between the current
value-neutral practices and moral indoctrination; student affairs
professionals must find that balance and begin to operate from it
(Dalton, 1985; Schweingruber, 1985). Otherwise, attempts to
educate deliberately for character will be ineffective.
Further, some professionals operate from the perspective that traditional-aged students are adults by virtue of their enrollment in college. They may have to reconsider their position. The idea of character education views students developmentally as adults in transition (Whiteley, 1988, 1985a, 1985b). This is in direct conflict with the popular idea that students are adults based on the legal status of majority age. Another philosophy that professionals should re-examine is "challenge by choice." This approach allows students the luxury to pick and choose when and to what degree they will challenge their own beliefs and practices. Character education requires a more directed approach; if students are always able to shy away from character development opportunities, growth will be difficult.
If student affairs professionals redefine their
commitment to character education, they will have to consider
carefully how they will learn the techniques of educating for
character so as to remain consistent with the philosophies of
their institutions. All three of these questions, as well as
others, deserve thoughtful study and examination. As character
education practices become more prominent in colleges and
universities, professionals will have to resolve these conflicts.
The need for purposeful character education is
becoming more urgent. Unfortunately, increased efforts presuppose
that students are not receiving sufficient character development
before they reach college level. While this is deflating to the
national ego, there is hope. If college and university personnel
can successfully pass on ethical and moral wisdom to the current
generation of students, they in turn, can educate the next
generation as parents, the original primary source of moral
In order to meet these needs, educational
practices must change. Educators, including student affairs
professionals, do not have to reinvent the programmatic wheel as
much as they have to fine tune it. Student affairs professionals
can convert existing programs into opportunities to educate for
character by shifting their intentions. As Etzioni advocated,
with the right focus in mind, all "education is character
formation" (Berreth & Scherer, 1993, p. 14).
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Michele C. Murray is a 1991 graduate of the University of Virginia with a Bachelor's degree in Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Psychology. Currently Michele is in her first year in the HESA program at the University of Vermont and is a Graduate Assistant in the Student Life Office.