Student Well-Being Opinion

Values, Views, or Virtues?

By Kevin Ryan — March 03, 1999 9 min read
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People are making the connection between the nightly news and discouraging reports on American students. We are regularly bombarded both with scandalous news about our public figures’ unsavory acts and hypocrisies and with depressing reports of our students’ cheating, lack of self-discipline, and lackluster approach to schoolwork. But things are changing, too. People have again begun to talk about the importance of character and personal integrity. Stephen R. Covey, the author of one of the decade’s most widely read books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, claims that Americans are shifting paradigms--from a concern for our personalities to a concern for our characters and questions of who we are and the kinds of persons we are becoming. We have grown dissatisfied with the mere social savvy of “winning friends and influencing people.” We are bringing back into focus the personal need for something deeper and more stable.

Voices from within and beyond our schools are calling for “character education,” something that has been missing-in-action from many schools since the late ‘60s. The reasons for this renewed interest in what has been called the “schools’ latest fad and oldest mission” are many, varying from the high levels of youth pathologies (violent crimes and suicides), drug use, and promiscuity, to the inability of many young people to fulfill their responsibilities as students. Teachers complain that, on the one hand, a small percentage of high-achieving students exude a “me-first-at-all-cost” approach to school and life, and that, on the other hand, by high school a much larger percentage come to school with a sense of “life-sucks-and-then-you-die” defeatism.

These social problems and self-destructive student attitudes are making the teaching career and life in classrooms increasingly more difficult. Nevertheless, they also are driving an awakening of the conviction that the institution of schools, along with family, church, and community, has an important role to play in helping children develop good consciences and ethical behavior. Often, as a result of the prompting of parents, teachers are rediscovering that they, de facto, are moral authorities and role models. However, being told that they are “character educators” does not tell teachers what they ought to do.

As educators reach out to re-engage this age-old mission, they are discovering that three very different approaches to character education are being advocated. These approaches have as their central focus values, views, or virtues. These “three V’s” represent different roads, each claiming to lead to good character. Each purports to provide students with a moral compass to make good choices, keep commitments, and live honorable lives. In effect, though, each of the “three V’s” represents not only a different approach, but also a different conception of what good character is:

  • The Values Approach. This is clearly the most popular approach to character education in American schools. It is based on the psychological concept of “value,” what an individual wants or desires or ascribes worth to. One’s values can be good or bad, and this approach intends to give children opportunities to learn how to value in order to be clear about their desires and, ideally, to make good choices. In subject-matter discussions and in special exercises, students are urged to make their own choices on a range of moral and nonmoral issues and be ready to articulate them.

The popularity of the values approach, unfortunately, rests on its weaknesses. Students like it because they have the opportunity to focus on themselves and what they like and do not like. Many teachers like it because they can deal with fascinating material, from political scandals to the latest trends in pop culture, and not have to take a stand. “And how do you feel about bombing civilians in wartime?” One of the primary premises of the values approach is that teachers and schools should not indoctrinate or impose their values on students. Therefore, the best and the appropriate approach of the school is to give children practice at sorting out their own values.

There are many problems with this approach, which grew out of the moral controversies and confusions of the late 1960s. Its advocates have badly distorted an important purpose of schools. That is, to indoctrinate, or “teach into,” the young our society’s best ideas about what a good life and a good society are and how to build and strengthen both. A school that does not share with students the hard-earned moral principles and ideas that serve as our social glue, and instead leaves children to discover them on their own, is clearly miseducating. Besides the fact that this values approach itself indoctrinates students with value relativity (I’m OK and you’re OK, and different strokes for different folks, and that’s OK), it has very little to do with character development.

  • The Views Approach. Views are the intellectual positions we hold on a range of issues, from politics and the economy to religious practice. Views, like values, can be good, bad, or morally indifferent. Acquiring strong views and attitudes on important moral issues is an integral part of becoming a mature person. We must be careful, nevertheless, about the dangers of launching our character education effort from the platform of multiple views.

The views-driven classroom regularly engages students in discussions of controversial issues. The teacher’s job is to help the students, subtly or not, identify with and eventually adopt correct views. While stimulating and engaging, the views-driven approach to character education thrives on controversy, which can sometimes spill out of control into anger and contentiousness.

There is nothing wrong with generating controversy in the careful pursuit of truth, but views-driven character education doesn’t usually take this tack. Moral values and principles get muddled in fierce debates over such thorny issues as abortion, homosexual marriage, prayer in school, and whether or not school uniforms should be mandated. An overemphasis on controversial points of view often can generate more heat than light. At worst, it can leave students with the impression that some issues are just “too complicated” or “ultimately, just a matter of opinion.” Too often, the moral significance of an issue is reduced to claims and counterclaims, and the moral principles that underlie those claims remain unexamined. Dialogue and inquiry are essential to solid character education. Posturing and politicking, however, are not sound character education. What works for Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer may be stimulating, but it has little to do with character development.

In the views approach, character is somehow equated with being aligned with approved views, whether they are on race or the environment or how the genders ought to relate to each other. What matters is not one’s personal behavior or the way in which one lives his life, but rather the “isms” he is for and against. This leads to character-by-identification rather than true character education.

  • The Virtues Approach. By focusing on values, we evoke students’ emotional responses. By focusing on views, we stir up a variety of positions on controversial issues. But neither values nor views secure an internal commitment to lead a good life or behaviors consistent with that commitment. We are all too familiar with the intellectual moral theorist who can cite Aristotle, Kant, Confucius, and the Bible, chapter and verse, but is too consumed by his own views to console a sobbing 3-year-old by reading a bedtime story or notice that a colleague is overworked and needs a hand. We may also have met the bleeding-heart moralist, who sees injustice and victimization at every turn, but is too paralyzed by the dark side of humanity to take the first step to do anything about it.

Then there are those who only mechanically fulfill moral obligations. Some students candidly admit that they do community service to beef up their r‚sum‚s. Others fulfill a community-service “requirement,” yet fail to help a classmate whose illness forced him to miss school. Good character demands more from us than an intellectual commitment, heartfelt desire, or mechanical fulfillment of responsibilities. It requires virtues, those habits of the head, heart, and hand that enable us to know the good, love the good, and do the good.

What distinguishes virtues from views and values, then, is that virtues are habits cultivated from within the individual and actually improve character and intelligence. The word virtue itself comes from the Latin vir, which has a root meaning of “force” or “agency.” In Latin, the expression virtus moralis became the established equivalent of the Greek expression arete ethike, “moral virtue” or “character excellence.” Virtues--habits such as diligence, sincerity, personal accountability, courage, and perseverance--actually enable us to do our work better and to enjoy it more as a consequence. It is our virtues, not our views or our values, that enable us to become better students, better parents, better spouses, better teachers, better friends, better citizens.

Self-esteem and the satisfaction that accompanies achievement are the fruits, not the roots, of virtue. Virtue needs to be cultivated first. Moreover, virtue serves as a means to human happiness. Martha Washington sums up the connection between virtue and happiness nicely: “The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions [our virtues], and not on our circumstances. We carry the seeds of one or the other about with us in our minds wherever we go.” Teachers and schools have a place in bringing those seeds of virtue to fruition.

Without a conception of what it may mean for a person to live in an honorable or contemptible way, the views one holds, no matter how well they may be defended, are empty. Without a clear sense of the good, personal values and the ability to show empathy remain hollow. Views are simply intellectual positions, and values evoke neither a moral commitment nor the promise of leading a good life. Virtues, on the other hand, enable us to give shape to and lead worthy lives. Education in virtues--those good dispositions of the heart and mind that are regularly put into actions--is the foundation to solid character development. As Heraclitus put it, “Character is destiny.”

Our success or failure at instilling in our students those virtues, which are the backbone of good character, will determine their destinies--and that of our nation.


Kevin Ryan is the director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. Karen Bohlin is the center’s assistant director. They are the authors of Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways To Bring Moral Instruction to Life.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Values, Views, or Virtues?


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