Moral Character

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By Anthony Holter | Darcia Narvaez
Every society is concerned about fostering moral character in children and forming responsible citizens. Controversy often accompanies these interests because adults do not always agree about what moral character is or how to cultivate it. Does a person with moral character support societal traditions; much like a tribal leader does, or challenges them, as did Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.? What exactly do children need to learn in order to be engaged citizens? Further, do children develop moral character through exhortation or through lived experience? Questions like these are debated. The debate over defining moral education is often pitched between two seemingly opposed perspectives: traditional character education, focused on the development of specific kinds of virtuous traits and habits (Narvaez, 2006) and rational moral education, which focuses on moral judgment and reasoning regarding justice and fairness. The integrative ethical education model (IEE) described below embraces both traditions. IEE defines moral education as the development of moral expertise, which requires both virtue, as intuitions and skills, and moral cognition, as reasoning, imagination, and understanding. History of Moral Education 

The practices of contemporary moral character education can be traced to ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2006; Nucci & Narvaez, in press). The Socratic emphasis on virtue emphasized the mind, particularly philosophical thinking and reasoning. Socrates's own pedagogy—known as the Socratic method—used successive questions to guide students from ignorance to understanding. Knowing what is good was considered the sufficient condition for individuals to be considered good and virtuous. The Socratic emphasis on right thinking and reasoning echoes throughout the philosophy of his student, Plato, in his The Republic in which Plato seeks to define justice. Aristotle's teachings and philosophy emphasized the practice of good actions, not only reason, as a means to living a life of virtue. With the tutelage of mentors and moral exemplars, Aristotle came to believe that the virtuous life is attainable through the practice of specific habits and virtues. Aristotle's philosophy of virtue laid the foundation for contemporary paradigms of character education. The moral philosophy of early Greek thinkers, coupled with Christian theology, morality, and practice, provided a social and educational foundation in European and American societies from the Middle Ages to modern times. The intersection of moral philosophy and religion was especially evident in colonial U.S. schools; indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, U.S. schools aimed to develop students with good character through reading Bible stories and exhortations, what is considered traditional character education. In the twentieth century, the explicit Protestant Christian theology of education became less congruous with the religious identity of many new immigrant citizens. Teachers could no longer rely on the assumption of a single universal religious identity as the foundation of moral formation. At the same time, theoretical and empirical challenges were levied against moral character education in general. Among many provocative findings, the early work of Hartshorne and May, in Studies in the Nature of Character (1928–1930), concluded pessimistically that little if any universality or transfer of character existed across situations and general incongruence was demonstrated between moral knowledge and moral action. Empirical challenges to moral character education and a changing social landscape precipitated a general decline in the interest and application of traditional character education in schools in the mid-twentieth century. The study of moral character education in many ways shifted to the psychological arena as issues of personality or values. Values...
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