What do we mean by Character?

Character Matters

Educational journalist Paul Tough has written an important book on education, early childhood, and character called How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. It appears on my recommended reading list. Tough makes a compelling case for the role of early experiences in forming character, which in turn powerfully shapes children’s educational and vocational prospects. When talking about children, education, and character, it is always important to define terms.

What do we mean by ‘character’?

In this interview, Paul Tough clarifies what Angela Duckworth and her colleagues mean by ‘character.’ The video starts at the 3 minute mark, and the following 30 seconds provide a good sense for the way that Tough uses ‘character’ in his writing, following the lead of those whose work he is reporting.


In short, ‘character’, as it is used here, is separated from its moral dimensions, and framed in terms of skills that make for success in modern society. That’s important.

Why does this matter?

If we define character narrowly as skills that make for success, then we have effectively – and drastically – narrowed the definition of the good such that a child could have all the skills of learning (self-control, perseverance, creativity, etc.) and entirely lack wisdom, kindness, honesty and integrity. At the family and classroom level, this is a recipe for disaster. The only way that any person can know how to apply self-control, perseverance and creativity is through a strong moral compass that is “morally loaded.” It says: “This is good and worthy,” and “That is reprehensible.”

Irony and Tragedy

The irony is that a definition of character that attempts to avoid being ‘morally loaded’ fails. It has a distinct moral compass. It points toward success, achievement, and earning as its telos or goal. Moreover, children who are guided by this moral compass internalize the ethic of success and achievement, as Harvard’s Making Caring Common Report makes painfully clear.

We asked youth to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others. Almost 80% of youth picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while roughly 20% selected caring for others.

The tragedy is that the narrowing of character undermines the very qualities of character that can and should give purpose and focus to the skills of self-control and perseverance. Without a strong and true moral compass, those skills can just as easily be turned to ambivalent or evil ends as too good. In C.S. Lewis’ words, “Education with out values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

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