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In his campus newspaper at Morehouse College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”1 In elevating character as central to “the purpose of education,” King identified an important but often neglected thread in the history of American higher education. From their beginnings, many U.S. colleges and universities have included the formation of character among their central educational aims.2 While the emphasis on character diminished in the latter half of the twentieth century, many colleges and universities are now seeking to recover an emphasis on character while honoring the diversity and pluralism that characterize American life. This focus has become particularly urgent as the lack of good character in the public and private sectors has become more conspicuous and as persistent social and political divisions, the rise of new technology, and increasing costs have caused many to question higher education’s value. Many who might have been uninterested or skeptical of character now see its vital importance, both for forming students to use their knowledge, skills, and capacities to serve humanity and for highlighting the distinctive value of higher education in contemporary life. As a result, an increasing number of institutions are now elevating the importance of character. 

This shift aligns with a sense among many faculty that shaping character is part of their role. In the most recent faculty survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 85% of 20,000 faculty across 143 four-year institutions said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that it is important for faculty to “develop students’ moral character” and “help students develop personal values.”3 Across several fields scholars are advancing more sophisticated and practically relevant accounts of character, and experts have illuminated why educating good character can be a valuable purpose for institutions of higher education. Intentional efforts to educate character can support student wellbeing and flourishing, sustain academic excellence and integrity, promote equitable and inclusive community, foster good leadership and citizenship, advance career preparation and vocational discernment, and encourage the responsible use of technology. In many cases, educating character can also support an institution’s efforts to fulfill its distinctive educational mission, values, and aspirations.4

Yet, even if many colleges and universities desire to integrate character into their cultures and curricula, many do not know how to do so effectively. This work is especially complex given the diversity and pluralism of American society; the increasing demands placed on universities by students, parents, employers, and the general public; and the lack of a common vocabulary and institutional structure that can overcome silos of specialization that characterize many disciplines and institutions.5 These challenges, among others, make it difficult for many institutions to imagine, much less implement, meaningful efforts to educate character in their contexts. Faculty trained to do research in specialized disciplines often do not know how to educate character effectively in the classroom, and the pressure to publish research and fulfill increasing service demands makes it difficult to devote time and energy to learning a new field or designing new courses that address questions of character. Meanwhile, administrators trying to cut costs and satisfy a diverse range of stakeholders––from faculty, staff, and trustees to students, parents, and alumni––often lack the funding, time, and capacity to focus on educating character across their institutions.6 As a result, even colleges and universities who want to educate character often do not have the ability to do so at a time when it is both highly desired and desperately needed. The Educating Character Initiative seeks to address this urgent need. 

Increasing Impact by Building Capacity and Community

The mission of the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest is to inspire, educate, and empower leaders of character to serve humanity. Through innovative teaching, creative programming, and cutting-edge research, we aim to transform the lives of students, foster an inclusive culture of leadership and character, and catalyze a broader public conversation that places character at the center of leadership. 

Since 2017, we have been advancing this mission primarily at Wake Forest, but in recent years many colleges and universities have reached out to solicit advice and share ideas about how to educate character in a university context. Inspired by our motto of Pro Humanitate (for humanity) and supported through a generous grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., we have developed the Educating Character Initiative to support a wider community of individuals and institutions to educate character within colleges and universities. Through the creation of a network of interested institutions and educators, the development and dissemination of research and resources, the organization of conferences and convenings, and the direct awarding of grants to individuals and institutions interested in advancing this work in their own contexts, we aspire to nurture a creative, compassionate, and collaborative community of educators who can learn from each other as partners in character education. 

What Do We Mean by “Character”?

The Educating Character Initiative welcomes diverse approaches to moral, civic, and/or intellectual character and encourages proposals motivated to promote character development in each institution’s unique population of faculty, staff, and students in context-sensitive ways. 

For illustrative purposes, the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest understands character generally as “the collection of stable, deep, and enduring dispositions that define who we are and shape how we characteristically think, feel, and act.”7 The aim of the Program is to help students develop good dispositions or “virtues” of character that foster individual and communal flourishing and to avoid “vices” or bad dispositions that inhibit flourishing. The Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest focuses in particular on nurturing students’ sense of purpose and virtues of compassion, courage, gratitude, honesty, hope, humility, integrity, justice, kindness, resilience, temperance, and wisdom, among others. Different faculty, departments, and schools prioritize some virtues more than others and occasionally foster other virtues such as curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

Overall, the Program for Leadership and Character’s approach to educating character is:

To support the development of good character, the Program utilizes a framework anchored in seven evidence-based strategies for character development

These strategies and others are embedded throughout the Program’s curricular and co-curricular programming to support students’ character development. 

We offer the above as an example of how the Program for Leadership and Character understands character education. While other institutions are welcome to adapt what is useful from this approach, we do not expect that other institutions have or will adopt a similar framework or orientation. Character education is not one-size-fits-all. While character education includes a set of widely shared virtues, strategies, and objectives and offers vital resources, frameworks, and examples to support faculty and staff in this work, it must be adapted to an institution’s distinctive history, culture, and context and integrated in organic ways that align with an institution’s core mission. Given the relational, institutional, and intercultural dynamics involved, the process of discerning and achieving such alignment is more time-consuming than any simple “plug-and-play” approach, but it also promises more potential for success and sustainability. Through the Educating Character Initiative, we hope to catalyze long-term change. 

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Purpose of Education,” in Maroon Tiger (January – February 1947), 10, reprinted in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 1: Called to Serve, January 1929 – June 1951, ed. Clayborne Carson, Ralph E. Luker, and Penny A. Russell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992),122–124, at 124. ↩︎
  2. See, e.g., Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Douglas Sloan, “The Teaching of Ethics in the American Undergraduate Curriculum, 1876–1976,” in Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, ed. Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok (New York: Plenum Press, 1980), 1–57; and Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben, eds., Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). ↩︎
  3. E. B. Stolzenberg, M. K. Eagan, H. B. Zimmerman, J. Berdan Lozano, N. M. Cesar-Davis, M. C. Aragon, and C. Rios-Aguilar, Undergraduate Teaching Faculty: The HERI Faculty Survey 2016-2017 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2019), 33 ↩︎
  4. These reasons were addressed in Michael Lamb, “Why Character?”, Educating Character Across the University Conference, Wake Forest University (December 2, 2022). ↩︎
  5. On institutional barriers to educating character in colleges and universities, see Michael Lamb, Edward Brooks, and Jonathan Brant, “Character Education in the University: Opportunities and Challenges,” in Cultivating Virtue in the University, ed. Jonathan Brant, Edward Brooks, and Michael Lamb (Oxford University Press, 2022), 253—277, esp. 258–263. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. See Michael Lamb, Jonathan Brant, and Edward Brooks, “Seven Strategies for Cultivating Virtue in the University” in Cultivating Virtue in the University, ed. Jonathan Brant, Edward Brooks, and Michael Lamb, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 115–156 ↩︎
  8. Michael Lamb and Kenneth Townsend, “Wake Forest University’s Program for Leadership and
    Character: A Case Study,” in Multidisciplinary Handbook of Character Development, ed. Richard M. Lerner and Michael D. Matthews (Taylor & Francis, forthcoming). ↩︎
  9. Lamb, Brant, and Brooks, “Seven Strategies for Cultivating Virtue in the University.” ↩︎