Character and Higher Education

    “It is during the post high school years that the most substantial shifts to principled moral thinking are likely to take place, and the greatest shifts to behavior governed by reflective conscious planning.” James Rest (1980) in Evaluating Moral Development.

    Students age 18-30 are the most at-risk population morally. More moral errors are made during the freshman year of college, than any other part of the lifespan. The first six weeks of the freshman year are the peak for immoral behavior.

    Will this year’s entering students graduate as individuals of character more sensitive to the needs of the community, more competent in their ability to contribute to society, and more civil in their habits of thought, speech, and action?

    From the founding of the first American colleges three hundred years ago, higher education viewed the development of student character and the transmission of the values supporting that character as an essential responsibility of faculty and administration. The importance of higher education’s role in the transmission of values is, if anything, even greater today than it was three hundred or even fifty years ago. Higher education will be degraded if our colleges and universities lose their moral compass and moral vocation.

    The critical importance of honesty, decency, integrity, compassion and personal responsibility cannot be underestimated in a democratic society. Matters of the spirit have a far more important role to play in institutions of higher education than has been encouraged in recent years. Faith and deep moral conviction matter in human affairs.

    It is fair to ask how well our educational institutions are transmitting an understanding of good and bad, right and wrong, and the compelling core values any society needs to sustain itself. The concept of value-free education is a profoundly misleading contradiction in terms, a blind alley with very high costs to personal life, community, and even the workplace.

    The question is not whether we choose to educate for values, but rather whether we choose to do so with awareness and intentionality.

    Is there character education across the curriculum in all disciplines, and in all areas of campus life? Admissions, Financial Aid, Orientation, Parent Weekend, Student Life, and Co-curricular groups, are but a few of the places that character education can be emphasized.

(Excerpts from An American Imperative (1993) Wingspread Group on Higher Education; and Kirby, D. (1990). Ambitious Dreams: The Values Program at LeMoyne college. Sheed & Ward)

For a faculty/staff workshop in Character Education, click here.

For a consultant or mentor, click here.

To see a syllabus for a course in Character Education, click here.

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