Character Formation as a Goal of Education
John Brownridge Ed.D.
Since the implementation of formal, free, and compulsory education in western societies in the 19th Century, the concept of education itself has widened and developed enormously. At its initial, humble beginnings, a formal education system was expected to teach reading, writing, and basic arithmetic, and this was deemed to be sufficient to allow graduates to participate in and contribute to the society of the time.
Curriculum content soon expanded to include history, geography, science and social studies and later still, sports and physical education found their place as well. In more recent times, however, educators have come to see their primary role in terms of character formation by teaching children in a manner that will help them develop as personal and social beings. This is sometimes referred to as character education.
It would be a mistake to imagine that character education is something over and above normal expectations. Most formal education systems in North America today identify a dozen or more aims and objectives, which usually reflect legal requirements mandated by the state or provincial jurisdiction. Typically, only about half of these educational goals refer to academic matters, while the rest identify such things as moral and ethical reasoning, justice, and citizenship. Children need to learn societal values in order to make their way in the world and it is the responsibility of educators to help them to do so.
Successful schools tend to develop a tangible culture of equality and respect within their own walls in order to create an environment where the common goals of character education can be reached. If the objective is to assist youth in becoming community-oriented, self-disciplined adults, then the school culture must be one which allows students to adopt these values and apply them in their daily interactions. But such a culture requires the conviction and participation of all professionals and all others in the school community who are in regular contact with students.
Some have suggested that character education is the responsibility of specialists such as guidance counselors or career consultants while regular teachers focus on other areas of the curriculum. Professional educators see this as a fundamental error. All educators are expected to foster social and emotional learning and to ensure that societal values are reflected in their teaching. But a school culture based on sound values depends upon the practice of those values by all adults in the school. Maintenance staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others, must be carefully selected. These employees must be principled people who are capable of reflecting and modeling the values we want to teach our youth.
Discussion and debate about what literature should be available in a school library frequently takes place between educators and the parent community. This is quite appropriate because there is no doubt that young people are greatly influenced by what they read. Stories that illustrate examples of courage, honesty and integrity can contribute greatly to the goals of character education and students should be encouraged to read them. But this is not to say that controversial books should be removed. Self discipline is one of the primary objectives of character development and students must be given the opportunity to evaluate and assess all points of view.
Character education is an integral part of formal education in North America today. Through their training and experience, professional educators are committed to this reality which is reflected in all areas of the curriculum.