Character Education: An Ethical Choice for Higher Education

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.

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 character.

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 Character Education

Pressures from Within the Academy and from Without

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 character.

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. 8-9):

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 concerns.

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. 21).

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 education.

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.