The Problem with Character-Based Education

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) teaches — and grades — character:

Inspired by the field of positive psychology, character education at KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. These seven strengths are presented as positive predictors of success in “college and life.” Grit, for example—a term Angela Duckworth used to mean “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”—has been shown to correlate with grade point averages and graduation rates. Levin envisions that character education will be woven into “the DNA” of KIPP’s classrooms and schools, especially via “dual purpose” instruction that is intended to explicitly teach both academic and character aims.

There are three major problems with the new character education. The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder’s first complaint is that there may be an increasingly cogent science of character, but there’s not science of teaching character — which may be true, but we’ve been unscientifically teaching character for centuries, up until the past few decades, when character fell out of fashion.

The second problem with this new character education is that it promotes an “amoral” and “careerist” form of character:

Never before has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values, and ethics. From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives. Why is this distinction important? While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber. When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw. Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.


The decision to avoid overt references to values was no doubt intended to avoid the potential minefields of the “culture wars.” The trouble is that values have a way of intruding on territory that is meant to be value-free. What happens when your list of character strengths excludes empathy, justice, and service? The basic principle of individual achievement rushes to the forefront, as if filling a vacuum. This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails. Life is narrowed into an endless competition for money, status, and the next merit badge.

I don’t think the KIPP schools are targeting the “tiger mother” demographic. As Steve Sailer points out, “KIPP is intended to counteract the morally disastrous culture propagated by hip-hop.”

The third and final problem with the new character education, according to Snyder, is that it limits the purposes of education to preparation for college and career:

If you click on the video at the top of the “Character” page on the KIPP website, you can watch a poignant clip of a parent describing how she wants her kids “to succeed” and to “have a better life.” KIPP and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character. It is also a bet without precedent, as there has never been a character education program so relentlessly focused on individual achievement and “objective accomplishments.” Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves — a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is an assistant professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College — a world apart from inner-city schools.


  1. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    Permit me to quote Too Much College (1939):

    Fifty years ago people learned to read out of a spelling-book at six years old, went to high school at twelve, and taught school (for money) on a third-class certificate at sixteen. After that, two years in a saw-mill and two at a medical school made them doctors, or one year in a saw-mill and one in divinity fitted them for the church. For law they needed no college at all, just three summers on a farm and three winters in an office.

    All our great men in North America got this education. Pragmatically, it worked. They began their real life still young. With the money they didn’t spend they bought a wife. By the age of thirty they had got somewhere, or nowhere. It is true that for five years of married life, they carried, instead of a higher degree, bills for groceries, coal, doctors and babies’ medicine. Then they broke out of the woods, into the sunlight, established men — at an age when their successors are still demonstrating, interning, or writing an advanced thesis on social impetus.

    Now it is all changed. Children in school at six years old cut up paper dolls and make patterns. They are still in high school till eighteen, learning civics and social statistics — studies for old men. They enter college at about nineteen or twenty, take prerequisites and post-requisites in various faculties for nearly ten years, then become demonstrators, invigilators, researchers, or cling to a graduate scholarship like a man on a raft.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Boy, if this guy thought that there was too much college in 1939, what would he say about today’s situation? He’d be Charles Murray on steroids…

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