In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Character Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Defining Character Education
  • Areas of Practice
  • Psychological Approaches
  • Communitarian Approaches
  • Neoclassical Approaches
  • Modern Character Programs
  • Character Education and Public Policy
  • Empirical Research
  • New Contexts of Sociobiology and Neuroscience
  • New Contexts of Globalization and Cosmopolitanism

Education Character Education
Ryan S. Olson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0052


The story of character education is a complex one, deeply involved with the intellectual, cultural, and institutional narratives of particular historical contexts. Some argue character does not exist; others claim character is (or should be) the cardinal concern of central societal institutions such as schooling. In general, character education or moral education is a field of endeavor that attempts to produce the kinds of persons who pursue the goods toward which a culture is directed. Character education broadly defined can claim a long history, beginning perhaps in ancient Greece some 2,800 years ago when middling farmers took responsibility for handing down—through hard work and freedom—a cultivated piece of private property to their next generations and fostered a culture from which arose a polis dedicated to the flourishing of as many citizens as possible. Character is a Greek word connoting features deeply etched. Though character has usually been considered to be more social in its constitution—reflecting the ideas, institutions, and individuals who constitute a moral culture—it has in modernity come to be considered as almost exclusively psychological in nature, reflecting the personal choices, brain functioning, preferences, and/or “values” of autonomous individuals. However, one cannot separate philosophical anthropology or epistemology from character formation. Acknowledged or not, such assumptions define the ends toward which character education is aimed. What are goods one ought to pursue with one’s life? How can one be worthy of such goods? Why are others worth treating with respect in a society? Answering these questions with educational efforts is problematized by the shifting sources of character—formerly religious texts, commonly revered stories, symbols, practices and ideas—no longer shared in societies within which relations are made increasingly complex by the interaction of multiple cultures. Many character curricula exist today, taking such diverse approaches as the instilling of moral habits, learning of decision-making techniques, practice of service, creation of caring communities, clarification of one’s values, inculcation through public policy fiat, reading of religious texts and catechisms, exercise of social democratic practices and the like. This sprawling field will surely continue to grow. The integration of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience have yet to deeply exert influence. Similarly, globalization is leading to cosmopolitan ideas of character and citizenship that are relatively recent avenues of exploration, and countries continue to wrestle with how to educate for character within increasingly multicultural societies where moral education is contested.

General Overviews

Overviews of character education vary widely in their scope and perspective. Three encyclopedia articles offer short summaries: Ryan 2002 is more inclusive than Hotter and Narvaez 2009, while Huitt and Vessels 2003 is more expansive historically. The book-length Arthur 2003 is more comprehensive with reference to geography and academic disciplines. Many emphasize thoroughly psychological approaches to character education, and Peterson and Seligman 2004 complement the deficit-focused model with positive psychology. Doris 2002 argues against the existence of character altogether while situating the polemic in the context of moral psychology. Offering a strong critique of psychological approaches, Hunter 2000 articulates an interdisciplinary perspective on the cultural conditions necessary to foster good character: particularity that fosters discipline, attachment and autonomy. The ideas and practices summarized here occur in a long intellectual history and are especially influenced by modern and late modern notions of identity, which Taylor 1989 masterfully explores.

  • Arthur, James. 2003. Education with character: The moral economy of schooling. London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203220139

    The leading British character education researcher provides nearly comprehensive background and history of character education in primary and secondary schooling: excellent introductory resource that offers much bibliography for the reader’s deeper research.

  • Doris, John M. 2002. Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Overview of moral psychology and character in a book that argues that character relies on a conception, “globalism,” that entails untenable arguments, Doris contends, regarding consistency of behavior, stability of traits and evaluative integration that would make one trait predictive of similar ones. Hence character does not exist.

  • Hotter, Anthony C., and Darcia Narvaez. 2009. Moral development and education. In Encyclopedia of the life course and human development. Vol. 1. Edited by Deborah Carr, 312–316. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

    Provides a brief overview; emphasis is mostly on developmental psychological approaches to character, especially Piaget, Kohlberg, and their intellectual descendants.

  • Huitt, William G., and Gordon G. Vessels. 2003. Character development. In Encyclopedia of education. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by James W. Guthrie, 259–263. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

    Brief overview of character education, including history (from 1640), current curricula, and outlook for character in schools.

  • Hunter, James Davison. 2000. The death of character: Moral education in an age without good and evil. New York: Basic Books.

    Gives a thorough overview of the dominant approaches to character education and notes their aims, pedagogies, and results. The book also very helpfully articulates the often inexplicit philosophical and sociological underpinnings of modern and late-modern character education.

  • Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A taxonomy of traditional and progressive strengths and/or virtues in six groups: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Working within the framework of positive psychology, scholars chose twenty-five separate strengths and summarized consensual definitions, research, bibliographies, and developmental techniques for each.

  • Ryan, Kevin. 2002. Moral education. In Encyclopedia of education. 2d ed. Vol. 5. Edited by James W. Guthrie, 1683–1688. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

    One of the foremost researchers in the field gives a concise history of moral and character education, explains a few of the approaches (infusionist, service learning, value of the month), notes concern about the influence of religion but the hope, in his view, that “character” offers over “moral” to overcome such worries.

  • Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the self: The making of modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Breathtaking in its scope and range, the book traces changes in human identity from “porous selves” to “buffered selves” detached from the world through instrumental reason, developing toward exclusive humanism; Taylor highlights the accompanying stances toward the self that set the stage for contemporary character education approaches.

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