Moral and Character Education: The Connection

It is not surprising that character development of children and youth is about educating them in moral and ethical matters.  Nothing new here.  From Colonial times through the 20th Century, moral education “was deep in the very fabric of our schools.”

Following WWII, a variety of cultural and social changes caused the public to question moral education initiatives because of religious connotations.  A shift began in the late sixties amid the widespread concern over students’ poor academic achievement, anti-social behaviors, and other cultural factors – a shift from moral education to character education.

Character development of the young expanded to include the teaching and learning of moral and civic virtues, the formation of good habits and eliminating poor ones, the beginning of interest in children’s social and emotional skill development, and greater attention to the culture of schools and the climates of classrooms.

Even with the name change from moral to character education, moral and ethical content retain its place under the character education “umbrella” as the following quotes illustrate.

Edward Wynne, a professor at the University of Illinois wrote:

We can assume that renewed attention to character development will be good for pupils, their families, educators, and the nation. For, in the end, the welfare and the very existence of our society does not so much depend on the IQs of its inhabitants, as on their character.

Professor Larry Nucci (Handbook of Moral and Character Education) says:

If we don’t teach kids moral reasoning skills, including how to challenge appropriately (non-moral) conventional issues, we may be engaging in immoral education.

Thomas Lickona, developmental psychologist and a professor of education, reports:

If schools wish to maximize their moral clout, making a lasting difference in students’ character…they need a comprehensive, holistic approach (one where schools) look at themselves through a moral lens and consider how virtually everything that goes on there affects the values and character of students.

Many ethicist remind us that “school is unavoidable a moral enterprise” infused in school codes, regulations, requirements, traditions, expected behaviors, styles of teaching, with curricula and extra-curricular offerings.

Moral (character) education, then, encompasses deliberate efforts to help the young learn, practice, and apply moral virtues and character habits that will help them individually live good lives – and at the same time become productive, contributing citizens.

In this view, moral education should contribute not only to the students as individuals, but also to the social cohesion of a community. (

In our first book on character education (2001), Mary Williams and I wrote:

The public has come to appreciate the importance of the young learning about human achievement, ethical principles, and the moral values that underpin democratic, civilized life….

Paraphrasing our colleague, Professor Kevin Ryan, we continued:
Character education has reintroduced one important aspect of moral development…namely, socialization—helping the young learn how to live cooperatively, caringly, and civilly.
This is a good place for a reminder and a conclusion that calls for further study.

Lickona and Davidson have made the case that there are two types of character—“moral character” and “performance character.”

They write that “moral character [values/virtues and ethics] is necessary for successful interpersonal relationships and ethical behavior.”  The characteristics of moral character encompass such virtues as integrity, caring, respect, generosity, responsibility, cooperation, and the like.

The companion to moral character is “performance character – a needed characteristic for reaching one’s potential in school, the workplace, or any area of endeavor.”  Performance virtues include diligence, perseverance, ingenuity, self -discipline, grit, optimism, and more.

American Journalist Sydney J. Harris once noted that “the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”


Contact us: