Character Education in a Secular School

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2006
Reproduced with Permission

On my way home from work the other day, I drove past a public school with a billboard bearing the legend: Character Matters. Below it was written "courage", exhibited as the character trait of the month. I had to wonder exactly what a public school teacher would say constitutes courage and how he would distinguish it from its fraudulent counterparts, for the school is not far from a new development of expensive houses, and it's likely that some students could find the "courage" to skip school and rob one of them during the day. In light of the fact that teaching something definitive on the over all meaning of human life is a monumental faux pas within the public school system, the problem is genuine; for one cannot so much as put up a small Christmas tree in a classroom without someone coming down hard and forbidding it.

But without an understanding of the overall meaning of human life, without a single ultimate end towards which human persons ought to direct their choices, virtues like courage, justice, self-control, patience, affability, self-sacrifice, chastity, fidelity, etc., will mean not only different things to different people, but more often than not, contradictory things.

Consider how many people in Canada deem Robert Latimer a courageous man for putting his daughter out of her misery and facing the judicial system for doing so. Some universities have honored abortionist Henry Morgentaller as a man of exemplary virtue, a man of justice and courage who was willing to suffer through lawsuits and jail time so that "women could have justice". Fairness to the devoted socialist often amounts to serious human rights violations for the capitalist, and vice versa. Chastity for one student might mean having sex with one girl only -- his girlfriend --, while to someone else, it might mean not having sex at all until marriage.

What exactly is the criterion by which a teacher can help students determine what in fact constitutes a truly brave, just, temperate, in short, virtuous character? For the Catholic teacher, there is no dilemma. There is one ultimate end for which human persons have been created: "Oh, Lord, you made us for yourselves, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" (St. Augustine). In this light, it isnŐt entirely foolhardy to give your life for another. Why? Because death no longer has the final word over our lives, for Christ is risen. And a Catholic teacher can stand up and proclaim that "the man without love has known nothing of God, for God is love… Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and has sent his Son as an offering for our sins. Beloved, if God has loved us so, we must have the same love for one another" (1 Jn 4, 8-11). In short, those choices inconsistent with love of the Supreme Good and thus an integral love of human goods are not virtuous.

But public schools donŐt have the luxury of quoting the scriptures or speaking about God. And the problem is even more pronounced in light of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. US Supreme Court Justice O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter wrote: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State."

Such sentiments have been at the heart of Canadian liberalism for decades now. Hence, there can be no shared vision on what constitutes a virtuous existence. As a free citizen, I have the right to decide that I am the ultimate meaning of my own existence, and that everyone else is a means to be used for that end. And since virtues are means whose meaning is determined by an end, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance and all their parts will mean completely and utterly different things to different people.

In this light, Character education in a post-modern culture is akin to urging a person to drive, but without saying where, or providing shoes for a person with no legs, or sailing without a compass. We are spinning our wheels, but with a semblance of moral respectability, convincing ourselves that we are actually making people better without permitting anyone to establish for students just what the criterion for "good", "better" and "best" really is, leaving the question of the ultimate end entirely to the whims of each student.

It has been argued that Character education does not require the religious principle of an afterlife in order to be successful. And that might be true, but it does require a single common end. It requires at least an understanding of the common good of the civil community. But the very notion of a common good implies a common or shared meaning, that is, an end that is common.

Consider the common good of a hockey team. Victory is the end intended by the whole team, and every member of the team is working in conjunction with every other member to achieve that end, to be possessed by everyone as common property. A good scoring record (a means) is only good in view of the single and common end to be possessed by every member of the team, namely victory. A record with a high number of goals is good, because scoring many is necessary to realize the end. If there is a single end held in common that is larger than an individual good, then anyone who loves that common good over his own private good, such as his private scoring record, is a good and unselfish player.

Nevertheless, we have accepted the principle that at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence and of meaning. My concept of existence might not include a common good, rooted as it is in a common human nature and a common vision of that nature. With Sartre, I might choose to regard myself as a "pour-soi" without a nature, except the one I determine for myself by my absolutely free choices.

And if every player is allowed to decide what is the ultimate end without the franchise taking any definitive stand on what it is, then there is no common good to speak of, no criterion to determine what constitutes a good record, and thus no way to distinguish a good player from a bad one. A player who enters the rink without a stick and begins to perform quads and triple axles is just as good a player as one who plants himself on the blue line and shoots pucks into the seats, or one who stick handles by himself while skating backwards.

Character education might be a good idea, or it might very well be an insidious project that hides a Nihilism that is too afraid or ashamed to rear its ugly head. It can do some good as long as the teacher has the good sense to ignore the Nihilism lurking behind the post-modern liberalism that denies the very existence of universal truth and is willing to take a solid and realistic stand on what life is ultimately about and role model it for students.

As a final point, Catholic educators can be thankful for not having to take on the absurd posture of having to teach the virtues in the hopes that students will have chosen the right end which alone makes them genuine virtues, but not being able to say what that end really is -- not to mention that they are not to be called virtues, but "attributes". And perhaps we can give up the illusion that Character education can bridge the gap between religious and non-religious schools, as if there is now a common ground for a single system. There is no common ground if there is no shared vision, especially if such a moral and/or religious vision is forbidden from the start.