Character Education as the Neglected Gift of Past Generations

For the past several years, I’ve designed online digital literacy courses for community college students. One of the first concepts my students learn is the difference between hardware and software technology. Hardware is essentially the technology you can touch and feel, like computer monitors, keyboards, printers, wireless routers, and microchips. Software, on the other hand, is the computer code or electronic instructions that tell the hardware what to do. While you can see the results of these instructions on a screen or on a printed page, you can’t see or touch the software itself. But the unseen software breathes functional life into the computer hardware.

In a similar way, our material world of houses, vehicles, furniture, and physical bodies would be lifeless without the intangible world of human character, values, and relationships.

In a 1960 address to college educators, my great-grandfather P.A. Christensen conveyed his gratitude for the animating presence of light and truth in human society. The classic works of literature and the enduring truth inspired by nature were for him “unearned” gifts that found their expression in the lives of ordinary people. These gifts impact the quality of our lives within the immaterial “realm of human growth and transcendence,” leading to character development and social harmony.

One of Professor Christensen’s purposes was to challenge his students’ unthinking embrace of what he termed the “gospel of work,” the philosophy that we get nothing in life that we haven’t earned, nothing that we haven’t paid for. From his perspective, such a materialistic philosophy leaves little room for appreciating the gifts that are graciously given by our fellow human travelers.

The intangible gifts of wisdom, generosity, and other human virtues constitute what I call character education. The core curriculum for this education is the overflowing beauty of nature, the abundant wealth of literature, and the supernal gifts of family and friendship.

As I reflect on my great-grandfather’s nearly 60-year-old message, my thoughts turn to the vast inequality in today’s society; for so many people, the gifts I take for granted are neither free nor readily available. Domestic violence, impoverished neighborhoods, and failing schools often substitute cruelty for compassion and overindulgence for self-mastery. This awareness periodically disturbs my sense of satisfaction as I read Aristotle in the comfort of my happy home.

Of course, I’m digressing and missing my grandfather’s point here. The more aware and grateful I am for my unearned gifts, the more likely I am to share those gifts with the less experienced or the less fortunate, those who don’t enjoy unfettered access to light and truth. I’m also more likely to drink them in deeply myself, living the timeless principles of truth in the present.

As Jesus said to his disciples, “freely ye have received, freely give.” This response is a natural flow of goods from the original source, through me, to others. I consequently have no time to feel guilty about the privileges of my life. Understanding that “where much is given, much is required,” I am more determined to share.

As a parent and educator, I approach my teaching responsibilities with a degree of humility. My eagerness to enlighten others feels presumptuous. But we give and take with an open mind and a willingness to be corrected. We engage in the conversation because of our conviction that character development and moral education are needed today—perhaps more than ever.

Character education is not a panacea that will solve all our societal problems. But any serious effort to address our problems must include it. We need principles of truth that draw upon a shared moral vocabulary. We need to be inspired by real-world examples of courage and wisdom. We need to recognize moral failure and learn how to recover from it.

In promoting this conversation, we can and should turn to the latest social scientific research. But we also need to engage with the voices of the past—our unearned inheritance from faithful, rational minds. These poets and teachers, scientists and philosophers, didn’t always get things right. They had their own blind spots and occasions of moral failure. We can refuse, for this reason, to consider their professed insights. Disillusioned with the past, we can rely exclusively on our own experience and intuition to change the future. But the foundation of such a response is both arrogance and ingratitude.

Reconciling the voices of the past with the realities of the present undoubtedly calls for a venture in faith, a precarious journey into the spiritual realm of human growth and transcendence. As I continue my own journey, I’m grateful for faithful companions—past and present—who inspire me to be better than I am.