Classical education seeks to develop the whole person by reconnecting knowledge and virtue. On this model, to become educated is, at least in part, to become a person of good character—to become habituated into recognizable patterns of correct thinking, acting, and feeling so that one is disposed to judge and choose well on the whole, in order to live a purposeful and meaningful life that contributes to the common good. The ancient Greeks called this sort of education paideia; the Germans called it Bildung. In a contemporary U.S. context, it is ordinarily termed classical education, and its principal idea is that education is much more than the transference of specialized knowledge and skills. Education is also character formation—a shaping of minds and hearts to orient them towards what is true, good, and beautiful.
Classical education is currently undergoing exponential growth in the United States at the primary and secondary level. But what are its prospects in higher education? Is it possible to reconnect knowledge and virtue in college? Or does that conflict with “liberal learning,” which aims to cultivate the freedom to think well and for oneself, and the push for more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education? The Oxford Character Project, an initiative founded by Dr. Jonathan Brant and run by Dr. Edward Brooks, proceeds from the conviction that the aims of character education and the aims of higher education ought to be integrated into a unified whole. In their “Framework for Flourishing,” which adopts the basic principles of the framework for character education published by the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham, the authors outline a way to think about the connection between higher learning and the cultivation of character that is worth the reflection of postsecondary leaders in the United States.
Their starting point is to remind readers that character formation is not a new concept in higher education; it was baked into the original vision of the university as a medieval institution. In the twentieth century, however, concerns about character all too often took a backseat to considerations of technological and economic advancement. Renewed attention and commitment to character can help contemporary universities to reconnect to their original missions and to provide a compelling case for the university as a pre-eminent public good, worthy of continued public support in liberal democracies. Framework authors contend that “the cultivation of character is integral to the core research, educational, and civic purpose of universities.”
The authors note, for example, that for research to be done in accordance with the highest standards, students need to develop intellectual virtues such as studiousness and open-mindedness. Furthermore, civic virtues of civility and charity are necessary for students to learn together and from one another, both in the classroom and beyond, and to help them to develop a sense of belonging in the university. Finally, moral virtue also plays a critical role in higher education, since students need humility, compassion, and honesty in their pursuit of learning in order for that pursuit not to become selfish and disordered.
Above all, however, in higher education we should be focused on cultivating practical wisdom, which is defined as “an intellectual meta-virtue that binds together and integrates the intellectual, civic, and moral virtues” so that students are equipped to make good choices in their lives, no matter what career they decide to pursue. Practical wisdom allows a student to “reason well regarding the right thing to do, and to integrate competing emotional, motivational, and situational pressures into an appropriate course of action.” Practical wisdom is the special work of higher education, as students are taking “ownership of their identity and purpose in the world” in a more definitive and autonomous way.
For those who would argue that character education has no place in higher education because it is mere habituation—or worse, “indoctrination”—the authors respond that, within the context of liberal learning, the focus on character development is through the student’s own critical thinking and reflection, not through mere training or rote conformity to a pre-established model. The framework is clear that, while the virtues might be the same, “what is called character education at the university level distinguishes itself sharply from the development of character at earlier stages.” Drawing on a wealth of recent research in philosophy and psychology, the framework notes seven methods of character development that can be applied in university contexts: (1) habituation through experience, (2) reflection on personal experience, (3) engagement with virtuous exemplars, (4) dialogue that increases virtue literacy, (5) conversations about situational variables, (6) moral reminders that make norms salient, and (7) friendships of mutual accountability.
The framework also understands various aspects of university life in which the cultivation of character can be “caught” through examples, “taught” through education and growth in knowledge, and “sought” through opportunities for character building experiences. These aspects include: (1) university culture—looking at practices, incentives, and social expectations; (2) teaching—looking at formal and informal instruction into concepts of character; (3) research—looking at how the ethics of inquiry intersect with character; (4) extracurricular activities—looking at how sports, music, and drama might intersect with character development; (5) student support—looking at how positive character traits intersect with better mental health outcomes; (6) career services—looking at how at how character impacts one’s readiness for certain professions and professional schools. And finally, the admissions process is an excellent way to make clear the sort of character traits they want prospective students to embody in order to be admitted.
The framework notes that education is meaningfully higher not in terms of its costs or standards, but insofar as it prepares students for more than a life of work. It helps them to fashion lives for themselves that are deeply meaningful, fulfilling, and ordered to goods that transcend the self. Even within their professional lives—whether it is business, medicine, engineering, or social work—virtues are necessary for excellent practical performance.
The bottom line is this: A liberal democracy will flourish only when its professional-managerial class possesses wisdom and good character in addition to expert knowledge. Oxford University, in supporting The Oxford Character Project, is leading the way in developing character education in institutions of higher learning, and we can hope that other universities will follow their example.