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Acton Commentary

Why we need virtue education

Since time immemorial, the Western tradition has considered true education to encompass not just instruction in a given subject matter but the cultivation of students’ virtue. Aristotle considered the acquisition of virtue to be a life’s goal which, if achieved, would result in the greatest happiness. The virtuous man, he wrote, “is his own best friend … whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy.”

The biblical tradition instructs parents to “train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Even American pragmatic educational philosopher John Dewey had room for some level of virtue; since the factory worker must obey, students must learn the virtue of obedience.

The wider culture needs virtue education, because a free society relies on certain bedrock moral principles being inculcated and incarnated. We need business men, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, and grocers who act with the honesty which allows the free market to thrive. Virtue, character, ethics - these things matter profoundly, and it is one of the tasks of education to transfer the system of values from one generation to the next.

We need business men, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, and grocers who act with the honesty which allows the free market to thrive. 

And yet, students – and often their teachers – hold to a reflexive moral relativism that makes teaching moral norms difficult. Couching the demand for honesty in the ninth commandment given to Moses is no longer a universally recognizable way to teach the next generation. In the aftermath of postmodernism’s questioning of the metanarratives that give character traits their substance, it is more difficult than ever to uphold moral standards of conduct as normative.

Charles Taylor best articulated the challenges of late modernity in A Secular Age, where he wrote of the need to advance traditional principles in a way that conforms to “the public sphere,” the arena of common opinion suffused with “secularity.” In this context, classical education has the ability to draw upon sources that mainstream public education lacks or neglects.

Classical education turns to the Great Tradition as one source of character formation. Through the study of history and literature, the student’s mind is filled with moral examples. Horatius at the bridge teaches him to love his home and protect it. Virgil and Socrates teach the reverence owed from young to old. The story of the American founding is one of seeking freedom, and then determining how to use it wisely. In all of these ways, virtue and character are inherent to the classical project. Part of the effort to cultivate “the whole child” involves engaging reason to discern the moral fabric of reality, and the ways in which human choices matter.

Such character emphases, however, require some explicit framework enabling teachers to draw out moral principles in a way that students can apply. When I first joined the faculty of Thales Academy in July 2013, I learned about a set of principles then called the “Luddy Outcomes,” named for the school’s founder Robert L. Luddy, the CEO of Captiveaire. They were later renamed the Thales Outcomes, and they lay at the center of our school’s culture. We employ academic instruction and exercises to achieve them, but our ultimate reason for existing as a school lies in realizing these outcomes.

As a secular school attempting to bring our brand of classical education to the broadest possible market, Thales Academy does not speak the typical language of “character education.” We do not often study or memorize the list of classical virtues, Christian or pagan. We may or may not cover the role of the Ten Commandments in forming a common moral code. Instead, we make use of what is known in contemporary parlance as “non-cognitive learning.” While we focus on “cognitive learning” (academic knowledge and the ways to acquire and apply it), our administration and faculty maintain a conviction that human flourishing is about far more than test scores, facts, and head knowledge. To flourish as a human being, the student must also have strong non-cognitive skills which include a mix of traditional character emphases which anyone can support: integrity, a strong work ethic, truth-seeking, gratitude, and self-reliance. Intermingled with these are a set of skills which enable strong emotional intelligence and interpersonal relations. Read the 15  Thales Outcomes to see how they are expressed in concrete terms.

Human flourishing is about far more than test scores, facts, and head knowledge.

At our school, all teachers must align each lesson plan with at least one of these outcomes. This exercise forced me as an educator to make character connections the forefront of my pedagogical aims. A concrete aide was placed in every classroom in the form of a poster, listing all these outcomes, which I use on a daily basis. As a humanities instructor, I have recurring opportunities to highlight failures of integrity, moments where someone’s work ethic surpassed his natural genius, and when individuals or societies demonstrated a willingness to collaborate effectively. When we encounter them, the poster allows me to quickly direct students to note the way in which virtue operated in the specific example.

In the last two years, these changes have moved the Thales Outcomes into the heart of our student culture. Our students know them, and they allow us as teachers to assert that our students must meet those expectations if they want to remain our students. This kind of character education allows teachers to ask students existentialist questions: “Who are you choosing to become: a person of integrity or a person who seeks only his own momentary advantage? Are you becoming a person who loves others and seeks their good, or are you focused merely on a limited sense of your own good?”

As a secular academy, we do not focus on the wrath of God poured out upon sin. When students make misguided choices, our response involves seeking a new beginning in that student’s integrity, and to move forward in the long game of cultivating wisdom. These 15 principles constitute the skills we desire all graduates to embody. We expect students to live by this code of conduct while within our walls, and we hope that years of doing so forms strong moral habits that will contribute to their overall happiness and flourishing as human beings.

Character education is vitally important for Western culture, or any culture, to continue.


Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.