Why Character Education Matters

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” It is a teaching philosophy that I believe should be at the heart of all educational institutions. Teaching should not only be about passing on knowledge and developing critical thinking. The role of education must include the cultivation of character, so that we can have more holistic and decent human beings in society.


Young people are facing a tough journey ahead. They will need to navigate their way through a global skills crisis and a global health crisis, as well as avoid becoming a victim of a looming youth unemployment crisis. Our education systems are struggling to keep pace with the changes of the 21st century. And many young people are not properly taught desirable character traits such as integrity, resilience, perseverance, optimism, a growth mindset and (emotional) self-control, among others.


The Importance of Character Education

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Character education can play an important role in helping young people get through these troubling times. It’s something that has already proven to be successful in different parts of the globe. This article explores the nature of character and it elaborates on why it is so important to teach it.


What is character?

Character is not the same thing as personality. However, it forms part of it. At a basic level, personality concerns our outer self – those behaviours that people typically notice (and judge) during almost all interactions. It’s things that are easier to read in people, like whether or not someone is optimistic, introverted or extroverted, or lazy for example. Character, on the other hand, is about our moral beliefs and virtues. It’s the deeper inner self that takes relatively longer to identify in someone. It includes aspects such as integrity, resilience, perseverance, a growth mindset, (emotional) self-control, respect and compassion.


The mistake that people often make is that they think moral beliefs and virtues are exclusively religious notions. This is simply not true. These aspects can be taught outside of religious institutions and, in some respects, they actually should be. Philosophers have debated secular morality and what constitutes good character for millennia. Today, there are many non-religious frameworks that can be used to nurture decent human beings and good characters – Immanuel Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative is a case in point. Character is something that cannot be developed in a vacuum. Parents, teachers, friends, mentors, the media and the rest of society all influence the development of both our personalities and character. It is our inner character that ultimately influences our outer personality.


Character education at university

The Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham (UK) is an example of an institution that regularly publishes interdisciplinary research on character education. More recently, they’ve partnered with the Oxford Character Project in 2020 to develop a character education framework that universities can use. In their own words, their framework is designed “to help universities articulate and structure their mission to further the flourishing of their students and the holistic character development that is central to it.” Their framework sets things out according to the following building blocks of character:


Moral virtues – Those that relate to an ethical awareness in academic work and wider university life, coupled with a sense of purpose that places ambition within a commitment to the common good. Examples include honesty, courage, compassion and justice.


Intellectual virtues – Those that relate to the pursuit of knowledge, truth and understanding. Examples include curiosity, open-mindedness and patience.


Civic virtues – Those that relate to the engagement of institutions and individual students in their local, national and global contexts. Examples include civility, service and charity.


Performance strengths – Character traits that have an instrumental value in enabling intellectual, moral and civic virtues. Examples include confidence, determination, motivation, perseverance, resilience and teamwork.


An interesting thing to note is that the U.K. government aims to be a global leader in teaching character. There are many elected officials that recognise its importance and the UK’s Department of Education recently produced non-statutory guidance for schools. According to the UK government’s proposed “five foundations of character education”, they also assign importance to aspects such as perseverance, resilience, grit, optimism, motivation, neighbourliness, respect, honesty, and many other character traits.

Why is character education so important?

The Importance of Character Education (2)

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As a point of departure, character education is important because it helps to nurture more decent human beings in society. Building on this moral foundation, evidence also shows (see below) that character education creates the kinds of conditions that typically lead to more benefits for society and more opportunities for individual success. This includes, but is not limited to, achieving academic performance, entrepreneurial success, making more effective decisions, having less violence in society, or simply having a society that’s happier and more optimistic. In this section, I expand on two important reasons why character education is important.


(1) Character education nurtures a “growth mindset” that has a positive attitude towards failure.


If you cannot embrace failure, then you cannot become resilient or develop perseverance. These are desirable character traits that help you to re-frame disappointment and avoid giving up when things get tough. Attitude is everything, and (young) people can be taught how to have a positive attitude towards failure.


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Founder & Co-Creator,

GiLE Foundation

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The opinions expressed in this article/publication are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of GiLE or its members.

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