Character development: Why the virtues matter

Sept. 17, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Opinions Page

Character development: Why the virtues matter

Teenagers rioting in London, bloody mob attacks at Wisconsin State Fair and shopping malls where teenagers create havoc. Every day, we are bombarded with stories that make us sick. We read about a school district changing test scores for money and that 65% of American students think it is all right to cheat on tests. Something is disappearing from our culture, causing all of us to feel unsettled about the future.

Many believe that something is character development. What is meant by character? And why must we insist on inserting the concept into the local, state and national agendas?

A person of character exhibits these virtues: justice, fortitude, self-control, love, a positive attitude, hard work, integrity, gratitude, humility and wisdom. A person of character does the right thing no matter the personal cost. The decisions of people of character are driven not by instant gratification but by communal good. They do not need constant supervision because virtues inform their every move.

(Please note: Character education is not a religious program. People of all religions and races have character, because we share universal values.)

What structures are in place to help kids develop character?

Character Education Partnership, based in Washington D.C., is working at the national level and Wisconsin Character Education Partnership at the state level. Everyone involved with these organizations is determined to make the discussion of virtues as fashionable as our obsession with movie stars.

Children became the focus of those concerned about declining character because children suffer the most when it is missing. Character education is not another program; it is not a set of textbooks. The preparation is inexpensive, and the results are manifold. It is understood most teachers feel overwhelmed, our districts have limited budgets and parents need help, so here’s how character education functions in Wisconsin.

The Leadership Academy for Character Education prepares teachers and administrators at Alverno College. LACE is made up of two two-day workshops, then class work one day a month for an academic year.

After training, attendees engage their school’s stakeholders: teachers, administrators, parents, community leaders and employers to explore innovative ways to create a positive, caring, peaceful environment.

You want to stop bullying, disrespect for teachers, cheating, low self-esteem and lack of initiative? What if I tossed in an increase in academic performance, which happens in a school emphasizing character development? I think you’d petition your nearest school tomorrow clamoring to join this movement.

Award ceremonies are held annually at the state and national levels for high-achieving schools that incorporate methods of character development and solve a problem specific to their situation. Winners of the state and national Schools of Character Award share their best practices with others, and everyone is the richer.

In 2010, the Dieringer Research Group examined the attitudes of school stakeholders about what they want from Wisconsin schools. Across the board in overwhelming numbers, they want, in addition to excellent academic performance, students with initiative, who act responsibly, collaboratively and are emotionally stable.

Experts in character development know students need opportunities to perform moral actions. For example, kids don’t really want their academic programs dumbed down. If taught the value of hard work, they’ll rise to the occasion and stop misbehaving.

Character is a serious subject. A house can be brought down starting with a small crack in the basement. Before they wrote the Declaration of Independence and our Bill or Rights, America’s Founding Fathers studied city states in Greece and Rome. They concluded the primary cause for their demise was a lack of virtue. If we are not a virtuous society, we may cease to be a free one.

The children we see in the streets need to be in schools incorporating virtuous behaviors. We adults need to be vigilant about our own character in order to be role models for children. Who could possibly be opposed to a community that values character development?

Richard R. Pieper Sr. is chairman of PPC Partners Inc., a Milwaukee-based service/construction contractor, the past president of the Character Education Partnership and one of the founding members of Wisconsin Character Education Partnership.

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