Character in the Basic School - Making a Commitment to Character

Schools have a critical role to play in helping to shape and reinforce basic values.

Dr. Ernest L. Boyer
President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, NJ

Principal Magazine, NAESP
September, 1995

Once, the focus of education was on body, mind, and spirit. Values, taught at home and during worship, were reinforced at school. In 1837, Horace Mann, the father of the common school, insisted that public schools should help students develop what he called "reason and conscience."

"The highest and noblest office of education," Mann said, "...pertains to our moral nature. The common school should teach virtue before knowledge, for...knowledge without virtue poses its own dangers..." (Amundson 1991).

Today, not only has this commitment to teach "virtue before knowledge" dramatically declined, but educators often feel uncomfortable even talking about such matters. What's especially disturbing is the way this void is being filled for children by media messages that glorify evil actions. We have heard teachers express deep concern about the decline in ethical standards among children. When we asked nine- to eleven-year olds in 12 countries about problems at their schools, 45 percent of U.S. students cited cheating; 38 percent identified stealing; and 67 percent agreed that "students making noise and disrupting class" was a serious problem (Carnegie 1994).

Building Character

Given these realities, the conclusion is clear: Schools must not only help students become literate and well informed, they must also help them develop the capacity to live responsibly and to judge wisely in matters of life and conduct. But where do we begin? Whose responsibility is it, anyway?

First, the family. Clearly, when it comes to character building, the family is the key. There is simply no substitute for a mother and father who form a loving and supportive circle around the child, presenting, by word and deed, the precepts of good living, the virtues of a well-directed life.

Second, places of worship. Traditionally, religious institutions have played a consequential role in the spiritual guidance of children, setting a high moral standard. While direct religious instruction is not allowed in public education, some schools may wish to adopt a released-time arrangement in which students leave school, with parent consent, for religious training. School policies in Fort Wayne, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis, for example, grant public schools up to two or three hours every week to attend instructional programs sponsored by religious organizations (Ashford 1994). Finally, the schools. Schools have a supportive role to play in character building, to enrich learning. According to a national poll, nearly 90 percent of the American people believe that emphasizing "habits of discipline" in school would make "a great deal of difference" in student achievement.

It's true, of course, that schools are always teaching values. A commitment to education rather than ignorance is a value. Setting goals, getting to school on time, completing assignments are all values that go to the very heart of education. But virtues in schools must be consciously affirmed.

Author William Kilpatrick makes this point very powerfully: "Children need courage to tackle difficult assignments. They need self-discipline if they are going to devote their time to homework rather than television....If they don't acquire virtues such as commitment to learning, objectivity, respect for the truth, and humility in the face of facts, then critical thinking strategies will only amount to one more gimmick in the curriculum" (Kilpatrick 1992).

Whose Values?

Almost everyone seems to acknowledge the importance of character building. The real problem we face is deciding which values should be taught. There is widespread feeling that with all the diversity in America today, no consensus can be reached. Yet, after visiting schools, talking with teachers, principals, and parents, and reviewing the literature, we conclude that there is, in fact, a core of virtues on which practically everyone might agree.

In 1993, Kae E. Keister, principal of Banneker Elementary School in Milford, Delaware, organized a "values committee" composed of parents, teachers, school board members, and clergy from various faiths to see what agreement could be reached on "time-honored understandings."

After lively conversations and public hearings, this citizens' group unanimously affirmed six values that they concluded were appropriate for all students. These were: compassion, integrity, perseverance, respect, responsibility, and self-control.

We believe other schools can reach consensus, too. In fact, we believe that every school should seek to define, through wide community consultation, those virtues most appropriate for its students and others. The lists will surely vary from one school to the next. But, as a starting point, we suggest seven virtues which draw heavily on the Banneker School experience.

The Basic Virtues

Honesty. Each person carries out his or her responsibilities carefully and with integrity, never claiming credit for someone else's work and being willing to acknowledge wrongdoing. Students and staff share their ideas openly, in a climate of trust.

Respect. Each person responds sensitively to the ideas and needs of others without dismissing or degrading them. Differences among people are celebrated, and all members of the community are able to accept both praise and criticism from others.

Responsibility. Each person has a sense of duty to fulfill willingly the tasks he or she has accepted or has been assigned. All work is conscientiously performed. Members of the community agree that they must be held accountable for their behavior.

Compassion. Each person is considerate and caring. There is a recognition that everyone, from time to time, feels hurt, confused, or sad. Instead of ignoring such conditions, people reach out to one another.

Self-discipline. Each person agrees to live within limits, not only the ones mutually agreed upon but, above all, those established personally. Self-discipline is exercised in relationships with other, especially in the way people speak to one another.

Perseverance. Each person is diligent, with the inner strength and determination to pursue well-defined goals. It does matter that a task is completed once begun, and everyone acknowledges that to persevere not only teaches discipline, but brings rewards as well.

Giving. Each person discovers that one of life's greatest satisfactions comes from kindness to others. Members of the community look for opportunities to contribute positively to others, without expectation of reward.

Teaching the Basic Virtues

How can virtues be taught in school? Different approaches have been tried. Some schools identify character as a subject to be taught. Others give students case studies to work through and solve. After reflecting on how character might be emphasized in the elementary school, we conclude that it should be taught in three ways:

Curriculum. In the Basic School, teaching virtues is not a separate course in character education, nor an exercise in "values clarification." It is discovering lessons in virtues across the whole curriculum. For example, in Hopewell, Virginia, students study heroes and heroines in history who exemplify virtue. They learn from Cochise about truth and trust; from Jane Addams, friendship; from Frederick Douglass, freedom; and from Thomas Edison, creativity and persistence.

Climate. A school's greatest impact occurs not in the formal lessons taught, but in creating a climate in which virtues are learned by example. At Captain Elementary School in St. Louis, teachers, students, and parents enter into a "caring contract" that establishes clear, mutual expectations for conduct. Children at the Orchard School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, end each day by publicly thanking fellow students as well as teachers for the help they've received that day.

Service. Ultimately, virtues take on meaning when they are lived. But civic duty doesn't just emerge. It must begin early. We recommend, therefore, that every student begin learning to serve, with chores at home and school; with projects at a church, mosque, or synagogue; and by giving a hand to older people, to younger children, and to other students.

"Service is a life-long commitment," is the mission statement at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon, Washington. Every year, each classroom plans its own service project. One year the kindergartners organized a Trash Patrol; first graders had a Japanese Friendship Exchange; second graders made a quilt for a homeless shelter; third graders planted flowers for a school beautification project; fourth graders organized a senior citizen partnership; and fifth graders started a bird sanctuary on the school grounds.

When all is said and done, the school's goal is not only to prepare students for careers, but also to enable them to live with dignity and purpose; not only to give knowledge to the student, but also to channel that knowledge to humane ends. Imagine what would happen if families, and places of worship, and schools–joined by television writers and radio talk show hosts, recording artists, athletes, movie stars, business executives, and politicians–would agree to create a climate in which these core values would become, for all of us, a way of life?


Amundson, Kristen J. Teaching Values and Ethics: Problems and Solutions. Arlington, Va.: American Association of School Administrators, 1991.

Ashford, Ellie. "Interest Grows for Weekday Religious Education Programs." School Board News (National School Boards Association), Dec. 27, 1994: 1-5.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and George H. Gallup International Institute.

The International Schooling Project. Princeton, N.J.: The Foundation, 1994.

Kilpatrick, William. Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Woodward, Kenneth L. "What Is Virtue?" Newsweek, June 13, 1994: 39.

For Further Information Contact:

Mary Ellen Bafumo, The Basic School Network, James Madison University, 101 Roop Hall, Harrisonburg, VA 22807,
phone (540) 568-7098, fax (540)-568-3803, or

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