Joe Biden wants to make this election about character. And why not? Even The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently opined that “Mr. Trump can’t win a character contest with Mr. Biden.”
Character has been a hallmark of national elections ever since 1800 when a newspaper editor supporting Thomas Jefferson attacked the “hideous hermaphroditical character” of President John Adams. Yet this year feels different. Never in our nation’s history has there been a presidential election where the virtues of honesty, empathy, taking responsibility, and norms of conduct are such hot-button issues for voters.
Character is having its moment.
But not when it comes to either party’s platform. While the preamble in the Democratic platform repeats Biden’s refrain, “Character is on the ballot in this election,” there is nothing in the party’s platform about character or how schools and communities can foster the character strengths of honesty, compassion, or decency. The platform does mention the mental-health needs of students and support for SEL (social and emotional learning), but if Democrats believe character is critical, why isn’t character development—the moral, behavioral, civic, and intellectual aspects of who we are and how we grow—part of their platform?
Collectively, we're devaluing the virtues of kindness, fairness, honesty, and respect at a rapid pace.
The Republicans fare no better. The party punted on publishing a 2020 platform, choosing instead to release a set of core priorities. One of those priorities includes a statement that our nation’s schools should teach “American Exceptionalism.” Inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of American society in the 1830s, this term has traditionally included the animating idea of self-rule, the notion that the best form of government is that which teaches us to govern ourselves. Or as Benjamin Franklin put it, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” But again, the Republicans do not explicitly mention character development.
A pox on both their houses. Collectively, we’re devaluing the virtues of kindness, fairness, honesty, and respect at a rapid pace, and individuals are no longer striving for them.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently argued that these character strengths, among others, are in danger of being replaced by “mean world values.” He asks us to imagine a future where our leaders, media, and cultural influencers have convinced us that all people are inherently manipulative, selfish, and petty. Acts of compassion are for losers. And worst of all, a nation where fellow citizens do not trust each other because we have been taught that everyone is an unscrupulous liar or cheat who cares only about themselves. While it sometimes feels like we are on the path Brooks describes, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Most schools, in ways large and small, serve as bulwarks against this trend. Teachers and school leaders have always believed their professional mission extends far beyond teaching a child to write a sentence or multiply. My own children, now adults, have recently shared with me that so many of their teachers tried their best to model and foster honesty, caring, and curiosity in their classrooms.
But let’s not kid ourselves. By the time most students get to high school, they have learned that getting good grades (or just getting by) is far more important than goodness-in-action. Recent research on academic dishonesty reflects a disturbing “it’s all about me” youth culture. It’s OK to lie, steal, or cheat to get a good grade or stay out of trouble. It’s just how the game is played. Moreover, this level of dishonest behavior doesn’t end when students graduate from high school or college. Lying, stealing, and cheating in the workplace is also a rampant problem.
Character education is not easy. First, we can never forget that parents and families are a child’s first character educator. Children learn about kindness, taking responsibility, and fairness within the context of their family. Second, unlike social-emotional learning, the character strengths are not just tools and skills teachers can easily teach. There is growing research suggesting that during the teen years, young people need to form their own moral compass, a set of principles that transcend religious, cultural, or ethnic differences. At some point, students need to answer the question “why be good” in a way that gets beyond the fear of getting in trouble or letting their parents down. High school students need to “own” their character.
My own research focuses on moral courage during adolescence. I study the dynamics that enable a teenager to stand up and speak out when everyone else is sitting down or staying silent. Courage is what Winston Churchill called the “first of human qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all the others.” The courage to live our values (such as fairness and justice) fuels our civic character. The courage our kids need today to resist the increasing pressure to be cynical about our democracy, or worse, a nihilist.
Our nation needs to invest more in the character development of our children and teenagers. We need leadership at the federal, state, and local levels. Every school should identify a set of core values that reflects the school’s highest priorities and establishes a common language to teach, model, and integrate these character strengths into all aspects of school life. We need civic leaders who encourage coaches to focus more on the virtues of sportsmanship and teamwork than wins and losses. We also need employers and workplace leaders who embrace the expression: “Hire for character. Train for skill.”
I agree with Joe Biden that character should be on the ballot. But I wonder whether both candidates believe, as I do, that the soul of our nation reflects the collective character of our citizens. If so, both parties need to tell the nation how they will serve as a fierce advocate for character development in our schools and communities.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as What the Election Says About Character Education