The proposition on which every society functions is that good character doesn’t just happen. It is learned, and tested as we communicate. In short we believe in Virtue. What are the characteristics that foster trusting relationships so fundamental to working with others?
Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing summarized learning character in five dimensions that should be learned in college if not earlier and that are then applied to work and citizenship:
1. Love of truth. Love truth to be good students.
2. Honesty. Students need to be honest because it enables them to face the limits of what they themselves know, encourages them to confront their mistakes, and helps them acknowledge uncongenial truths about the world.
3. Courage. Students need courage to stand up for what they believe is true, sometimes in the face of mass disagreement from others, including people in authority, like their professors.
4. Fairness. Students also need to be fair-minded in evaluating the arguments of others.
5. Wisdom. Most important, students need what Aristotle called practical wisdom. Wisdom is what enables us to find the balance between timidity and recklessness, between carelessness and obsessiveness, between flightiness and stubbornness, between speaking up and listening up, between trust and skepticism, between empathy and detachment.
These are the kind of virtues that pay off. They foster trust and treatment of others as you want to be treated. These were spelled out in codes of conduct, and they can be learned if taught. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools teach thousands of elementary-school children in dozens of poor, inner-city neighborhoods. The heart of that instruction is to teach good character:
KIPP has found that developing academic skills demands developing character. With virtues like perseverance and honesty and some of the other intellectual virtues we've described as essential parts of the curriculum, it's been possible for KIPP students to achieve high levels of proficiency in mathematics, English, and science. And these intellectual virtues aren't simply values that are preached. The teachers work hard, and consciously, at figuring out how to incorporate them in what they model in their everyday behavior. For example, in teaching first graders the importance of good listening, and how to listen well, KIPP teachers look intently at a student who is talking, and nod vigorously at what is being said.
It also is taught in a community hospital program in Boston. Harvard Medical School doctors Barbara Ogur and David Hirsch redesigned their third-year program at a community hospital in Cambridge, Mass., in order to better develop character. Combating the common erosion of empathy among medical students was one concern; teaching judgment another. Instead of changing course material, they changed the way students, teachers, and patients interacted. Instead of relying on rushed, impersonal encounters in frenetic hospital wards, each student was assigned to work in clinics every morning in close relationships with their doctor-mentors, and each student was assigned 15 patients to work with for the whole year. The aim was to structure learning experiences that simultaneously taught technical skills and encouraged the development of empathy, humility, courage, perseverance, perceptiveness, and reflectiveness. –See Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues by Barry Schwartz & Kenneth Sharpe. (February 19, 2012). Barry Schwartz is a professor of social theory and social action and Kenneth Sharpe is a professor of political science, both at Swarthmore College. They are the authors of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (Riverhead Press, 2010).
Can character be learned? Yes, that is a proposition in which both those of faith and doubt can believe.