Vocabulary of Virtue

Virtues have been likened to vocabulary — the vehicle by which character is presented to be learned. Most popular campaigns established to promote character use the vocabulary of virtue as an effective method: Virtue of the Month, essays on particular virtues, books enumerating specific virtues in the vocabulary. Supporters of this approach demonstrate it by showing videos of children in classrooms happily reciting text about particular virtues.

Virtues must be pretty hard to teach as vocabulary if school districts regularly take a month on each virtue; if cities of character put up thousands of posters and billboards and run ads promoting selected virtues. Virtues must be different from other vocabulary words given to a class in sets of ten or 20 words per week.

Perhaps teaching virtues as vocabulary isn’t complete.

A dictionary is the ultimate source of vocabulary. If someone moved to a different country that person could buy a dictionary, reference it regulary and thoroughly, and still not master the language. Language would not be mastered because a dictionary definition is only a pointer to other definitions in the dictionary. Each entry is only a pointer to pointers pointing to other pointers. It is static. Words are only a shorthand for ideas. Ideas are only the raw material upon which other processes have to work.

However well smiling children may recite for the video camera, character education that teaches vocabulary hasn’t instilled character. It has, as Richard Mitchell pointed out, only created clever children who can recite jingles, who will likey grow up to continue to be clever children, rather than thoughtful adults.

Adults and children learn most effectively when something can be demonstrtated to be important to them. As they master process, it masters them — it becomes integral to their soul. Character education effectively inoculates someone when it can be appreciated as in their long-term self-interest, and when it can be integrated into their decision-making. Then it becomes irresistably compelling.

Successful character education invokes the secret art of great teaching: to know enough about a student to see where they are headed, and then to ask the question that challenges the student to consider why one decided to go there. It is simple: To figure out why generates unstoppable strength and courage.

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