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Character matters: how to help our children develop good judgment, integrity, and other essential virtues

Character Matters Author: Thomas Lickona Published by: Simon and Schuster, 2004

One of the foremost authorities in the character education movement has made another important contribution. Thomas Lickona, author of the best-selling Educating for Character, addresses the erosion of moral precepts in families and communities as the ultimate reason for the dearth of character in schools. His critical message to parents and teachers proceeds from his life's work as a developmental psychologist and educator at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (respect and responsibility).

His thesis in his most recent book is persuasive and clear: Irresponsible and destructive behaviours in children and adolescents can be traced to the absence of good character and the essential virtues necessary to attain it – wisdom, justice, fortitude, self-control, love, a positive attitude, hard work, integrity, gratitude and humility.

But Lickona does not merely list the problems and bemoan the current state of moral rectitude in schools. This highly readable book is presented as an excellent guide for parents and educators who share Martin Luther King's opinion that the goal of education must be intelligence plus character.

Organized in five parts, the book leads the reader through a cogent discussion of the elements of character development that are necessary in homes and schools to ensure lifelong success as productive and contributing citizens. Lickona is careful to respect issues of faith-based moral education by setting forth those essential virtues affirmed by nearly all philosophical, cultural and religious traditions.

Part 1 focuses on how character profoundly affects the quality of our individual and collective lives. It is a succinct examination of the transformative nature of character and moral behaviour.

Of particular note to parents and educators (many of whom are parents themselves), Part 2 addresses the broader theme of what is required to create families of character and strong home-school partnerships. Lickona's affirmation of parents as the most important and best influences on a child's character is explicit. He provides several excellent suggestions of how to capitalize on the talents of parents in developing initiatives of school-wide character programs. Schools must strive to "get the program to the parents" in mutually respectful and committed ways.

The creation of compacts and protocols for communication and accountability are at the heart of Lickona's recommendation, including an honest and serious look at the media's role in creating and sustaining the toxic environment that is so hostile to the family and its efforts to inculcate for character.

Parts 3 and 4 explore the creation of classrooms and schools of character through the building of bonds of character in the schoolhouse. By teaching academics and character at the same time, Lickona challenges educators to help to transform or improve schools. He provides insight into the management of simple manners and the prevention of peer cruelty, which can be a problem in the most "effective" schools. All of this, Lickona reminds us, must have a committed and systematic approach by school leaders, faculty, staff, parents and students.

To be effective in creating the conditions for character to flourish, schools must analyze their moral and intellectual cultures to ensure they are honest reflections of their mottos and missions. "In the long run," he states, "the quality of a school's character education effort will be a function of the quality of the adult community (therein)."

Lickona ends with an invitation in Part 5 to commit to building communities of character by reaching out to businesses, churches, community agencies, neighbourhoods and institutions. He concludes by reminding readers that "the most important measure of a nation is not its economic wealth, its technological genius or its military might. It is the character of its people."

While the traditions of the majority of our independent schools are built on the very foundations for which Lickona advocates, this book challenges us to re-examine the tacit value we place on educating for character in our families and schools and beyond.

—Ric Anderson
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