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September 14, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Christiana Hoff Summers on Character Education and Virtue Ethics

Public intellectual, thought leader, and former professor of philosophy at Clark University, Christiana Hoff Sommers argues for the existence of “plain moral facts” which generally transcend situation and cultures. Sommers points out:
“It is wrong to mistreat a child, to humiliate someone, to torment an animal. To think only of yourself, to steal, to lie, to break promises. And on the positive side: It is right to be considerate of others, to be charitable and generous.”

She continues:
“To pretend we know nothing about basic decency, about human rights, about vice and virtue, is fatuous or disingenuous. Of course we know that gratuitous cruelty and political repression are wrong, that kindness and political freedom are right and good. Why should we be the first society in history that find itself hamstrung in the vital task of passing along its moral traditions to the next generation?”

She continues:
“It is perversely misleading to say that helping children to develop habits of truth telling and fair play threatens their ability to make reasoned choices. Quite the contrary: Good moral habits enhance one’s capacity for rational judgements.”

She continues:
“To understand King Lear, Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn, or Middlemarch requires the reader to have some understanding of (and sympathy with) what the author is saying about the moral ties that bind the characters and that hold in place the social fabric in which they play their roles. Take something like filial obligation. One moral of King Lear is that society cannot survive when filial contempt becomes the norm. Literary figures can thus provide students with the moral paradigms that Aristotle thought were essential to moral education”

Hoff Sommer concludes:
“I am suggesting that virtue can be taught, and that effective moral education appeals to the emotions as well as to the mind. The best moral teaching inspires students by making them keenly aware that their own character is at stake.”

I would further make the argument that literary, movie, and oral storytelling simply doesn’t make sense without the back drop of good and evil. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dead Man Walking, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or almost any other notable story in history gets back to an issue of character, virtue, and right and wrong. (Even the gurus of storytelling admit this to be at the core of great storytelling). Its a detachment of the most extreme degree to say these films have a message and yet I don’t think ethics, character, or virtue are meaningful. You simply can’t have it both ways.

* The above quotations are from Christina Hoff Sommers, “Teaching the Virtues” from The Public Interest, p. 3 to 13.


Leave a Comment
  1. Hifi / Sep 14 2011 3:53 pm

    Could Ms. Hoffs have more simplistic view of character, life, and relationships? It’s all just black and white? We’re the good guys and those who are different or who are opposed to our interests our bad. Is that it? Please take an introductory course in cultural anthropology.

    Also take a look a
    It’s not so simple.

  2. goliah / Sep 14 2011 5:49 pm

    “the existence of “plain moral facts” which generally transcend situation and cultures.” may have been postulated but never agreed upon. Yet a new conception in virtue-ethics is now being tested that may change all that, but it won’t be welcomed by many!

    The first wholly new interpretation of the moral teachings of Christ for two thousand years is spreading on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new ‘claim’ is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” Like it of no, a new religious claim, a single moral law, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment, evidential criteria now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution appears to be getting under way. I’m testing the material now myself! More info at

  3. Michael J. Kerrigan / Sep 14 2011 5:56 pm

    Thank you Dr Sommers for echoing Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, that is the fact that good character can indeed be taught. My humble effort to do the same is reflected at The Character Building Project. I look forward to your next posts for your reviews on how best to teach character. Presently, I am studying how our military academies have been and continue to be world class institutions in teaching good character.

    • Hifi / Sep 14 2011 8:25 pm

      Your approach typifies what is wrong with character education. A military education is all about controlling the many by the few, with rewards and penalties. That’s not character. On the battlefield it’s mutual cooperation for survival at the basest level. Seems like you could also model Iran, China or North Korea.

      Fortunately, regardless how draconian anyone’s version of character education, it doesn’t do anything. October 2010, a federal study, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that schoolwide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

      It’s no surprise, Just take a look at the lists of values and goals of the dozens of competing CE offerings. The lack of agreement between the lists is one of the most damning aspects of character education! It also is rather obvious that the majority of the values are concerned with conformity, submitting to authority, not making a fuss… a blatantly conservative program.

      One thing all these programs do agree on is what values are NOT included on their lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the history and success of our nation are such quintessentially American values as independence, inventiveness, curiosity, critical thinking, skepticism, and even moderation. “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” the famous saying by Ms. Frizzle on the much celebrated TV show, The Magic School Bus, embodies values are antithetical to those found in today’s character education.

      • Michael J. Kerrigan / Sep 14 2011 8:40 pm

        I neither affirm nor deny your opinion but I would distinguish your view of military education from mine by suggestion you read, for example, The Warriors Character, Moral Precepts from the cadet prayer. To align this Republic’s Military academies with that of Iran, China or North Korea is neither charitable nor correct.

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