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Thinking and Thoughtlessness in Character Education

by Hannah Spector & Marie Prendergast - December 07, 2015

This commentary critiques top-down, instrumental approaches to character education. We argue that a pedagogical move from teacher instruction to student construction of what it means to be a socially responsible, politically engaged citizen in a democracy requires a thought-driven approach to character education. We draw from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s analysis of thinking and moral considerations to guide our review of a widely promoted character education program: Character Counts!

Character education has been taught in schools in the United States since the dawn of public education. It has roots in the religious doctrines promoted by early French educator Charles-Bernard Renouvier and Enlightenment-inspired secular approaches embraced by Horace Mann and Benjamin Franklin. More recently, programs integrated into school curricula across the country such as Character Counts!, 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, and KIPP’s Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms illustrate the belief that character education is needed in schools. Indeed, the perception in American society that youth lack character and a sense of responsibility, and are susceptible to the vagaries of negative influences is as old as character education itself.

One can trace the pendulum of character education swinging from religious to secular to religious and secular teachings in its current form. While methods of teaching character have shifted over time, the current approach in schools tends to favor a conventional teacher-driven model both in the way that it is taught and within the content itself, which overtly promotes conformity to prescribed rules. There is a tendency in both religious and secular approaches to teach character as codes of behavior that are disconnected from the lived experiences of youth. In this commentary, we suggest that a pedagogical move from teacher instruction to student construction of what it means to be a socially responsible, politically engaged citizen in a democracy requires a thought-driven approach to this work. We argue that teaching youth to obey, without question or consideration, the principles of good behavior in character education curricula eclipses the thinking process that is crucial to formulating practical judgments and reflecting on moral problems, both of which are central processes for cultivating responsible citizenship. In the context of developing character in young people, a mind that is asked only to function at the lowest end of the cognitive scale by memorizing and adhering to codes of conduct becomes a set mind, unable to adapt to unpredictable circumstances or moral quandaries, instead of a mindset that is flexible, analytical, and responsible. A thought-driven approach to character education is particularly urgent today as society has become increasingly diverse and faces a hydra-headed array of challenges and opportunities in response to dramatic increases in globalization and technological advances.

To add perspective to the problem of teaching character education, we draw from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s essay on the critical connection between “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” Arendt (2003) asks: “Is our ability to judge, to tell right from wrong…dependent upon our faculty of thought? (p. 160). We used Arendt’s inquiry to guide our review of a widely promoted curricular example, Character Counts!, which is outfitted in secular garb but leans heavily on the indoctrination techniques promoted in religious teachings. In Character Counts!, students are taught the “Six Pillars of Character”—i.e., Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship (TRRFCC)—along with a selection of pithy explanations regarding what these terms are meant to teach. In part, trustworthiness means to “stand by your family, friends, and country”; responsibility means to “do what you are supposed to do”; citizenship means to “obey laws and rules.” This particular program also provides mnemonic devices to help youth to recall the pillars. As a case in point, the acronym TRRFCC provides a clever way for youth to “remember that people with good character are terrific” (Josephson Institute, 2015). In effect, these pillars function as axioms that young people are expected to abide by without questioning the content of the axioms themselves. For Arendt, adhering to doctrines goes precisely against the thinking process that is needed when engaging in moral considerations. Arendt (2003) suggests when writing about the “thinking activity, the performance [of thinking] itself…means that we have to trace experiences rather than doctrines” (p.167) in order to activate critical judgment. It is through the process of learning from experiences rather than memorizing codes of behavior that one can truly hold oneself accountable and learn from one’s lived life in hindsight.

Arendt’s emphasis on the thinking experience provides us with a way to recast character education as it is currently construed in many schools. Her belief that “evil comes from a failure to think” (Arendt, 2006, p. xiv) arose when writing her report on the Adolph Eichmann trial and what she termed the “banality of evil.” In the report, she suggests that it is the sheer thoughtlessness of bureaucrats like Eichmann who provide conditions for evil to take place. Eichmann was not a monster, but simply “did his duty…he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law” (p.135). Eichmann’s failure was his “authentic inability to think” (Arendt, 2003, p. 159), which reflected a wider scale of thoughtlessness that created a moral vacuum for crimes against humanity to take place. Our justification for this commentary is to think with Arendt and the deep connection she makes between thinking and morality in our sampling of the Character Counts! curriculum and to illuminate Arendt’s ideas in relation to the approach that this curricula takes in its instrumental implementation.

If students are to think their way to understanding right from wrong, they must first dismiss and dismantle—down to its foundation—the time-honored values that comprise the curriculum that they are expected to know and follow. As Arendt suggests, the act of thinking does not serve at the behest of knowledge and is thus not guided by practical purposes—in this case, imparting values and codes of behavior that are vested in the content of character education. However, asking youth to think in the way Arendt articulates the thinking process requires the questioning of authority, which is an altogether radical idea under an educational paradigm driven by instrumental rationality. Arendt (2003) seemed to understand this all too well when she famously stated, “There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous” (p. 177). Following Arendt, questioning the character of character education undermines what code-driven character education aims to do: getting youth to develop a set mind that tells them how to be good members of society but never to question if societal norms are, in themselves, good.

Arendt’s concern with the relationship between thinking and moral considerations is also prefigured in the writings of our earliest educational leaders. Like Arendt, Horace Mann and Benjamin Franklin were influenced by Enlightenment thinkers and advocated for students to be given multiple opportunities to think their way through moral issues under the moral compass of teachers who were expected to model and conceptually understand the essence and tangible components of character building. While the precepts of morality were clearly defined in this early approach, Mann and Franklin understood that students needed to arrive at their own understanding of morality through thinking processes such as perspective-taking, situational learning, case studies, and reflection. They also placed great emphasis on the moral fitness of teachers entrusted with this role. Mann and Franklin knew enough about human development to understand the insidious impact that adult hypocrisy has on young, developing minds—the potential for cynicism and nihilism when the standard bearer of moral teaching becomes unreliable. As Arendt (2003) states: “Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism” (p.177) when the process of learning is corrupted by so-called exemplars of convention.

If we are to rise above the platitudes and dictates found in our curricular sample and genuinely participate in the complex work of teaching character, then we must work towards engaging youth in experiences and activities that empower them to think independently and cohesively about the moral situations they are expected to respond to. External pressures and variables such as geography, socio-economic status, discipline codes, and political agendas can be drawn up to be deconstructed and examined by students. Educators continue to be at a critical impasse as our world becomes increasingly media-centric, mechanized, and impersonalized.

What has not changed is that young people will continue to look for a sense of belonging and desire for finding their place in the world. Today, social media has proven to be a powerful, self-governing venue for their search. If character education is to be meaningful for youth, then it ought to engage students in examining the particulars of their lived experiences. Following Arendt (2003), “If the ability to tell right from wrong should have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to demand its exercise in every sane person no matter how erudite or ignorant” (p. 164). We suggest that youth in all their distractedness have the capacity to rise to the occasion to think morally if they are afforded opportunities to do so, especially in classroom settings. It is up to us as educators to provide such opportunities.


Arendt, H. (2003). Responsibility and judgment. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

Josephson Institute. (2015). Character counts! and the six pillars of character. Retrieved from https://charactercounts.org/sixpillars.html


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 07, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18775, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 1:42:15 PM

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About the Author
  • Hannah Spector
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    HANNAH SPECTOR is an Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State Harrisburg.
  • Marie Prendergast
    High School for Youth and Community Development
    E-mail Author
    MARIE PRENDERGAST is the founding Principal of the High School for Youth and Community Development.
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