Character Psychology and Character Education

reviewed by Ronald B. Jacobson - 2006

coverTitle: Character Psychology and Character Education
Author(s): Daniel K. Lapsley, & F. Clark Power
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN
ISBN: 0268033722, Pages: 352, Year: 2005
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Jake was a popular sixth grader at a local public school.  Jake had plenty of friends and admirers, kept good grades, excelled in music and sports, and had adequate social skills.  Jake was also a bully.  During his sixth-grade year Jake recruited two friends, then more generally a larger population of students, to terrorize a classmate, Matthew.  The devastation of that year sent Matthew’s grades and self-confidence plummeting, eventually causing him to transfer to a new school despite the concerted efforts of staff and parents to stop the onslaught.  The next year, in the absence of Matthew, Jake targeted another student, Trent.  When asked why Jake continued to bully Matthew that sixth-grade year, he matter-of-factly replied, “because I like to make him cry.”

Research tells us that over 80 % of the students in our K–12 schools claim to have been bullied at some point during their school careers (Holt & Keys, 2004).  Research also contends that such bullying is largely intentional (i.e., it is not simply a matter of disregulated aggression in the bully, but is often situated in instrumental aggression aimed toward a weaker student) (Long & Pellegrini, 2003).  Bullying, then, becomes a moral problem:  Aggression used intentionally to harm another; injustice inflicted upon a weaker student in order to illegitimately gain status through such dominance.  Of course, a number of questions immediately arise.  How does such intent to harm another arise?  More precisely, how does one rehabilitate a bully—a student desiring to harm another for personal gain— into a student desiring the best for his or her classmates?  Further, as educators, how might we go about forming students of moral character; that is students who respect, care for, and work for the benefit of their peers?  Broadly, how might we instill within our students civic virtue, that certain character that brings the best kind of leadership to our schools and, later, to our republic— leadership situated in integrity and moral fiber?

Of course these questions are not new.  They have been asked for centuries as philosophers from Plato to Aristotle have wrestled with the nature of the “good” and the processes of inculcation that might raise up citizens of civic character.  Certainly our world is clamoring for such citizens in these times of uncertainly.  And certainly, as the story of Jake and Matthew suggests, understanding the processes of character education is critical to schooling.

In Character Psychology and Character Education, edited by Daniel K. Lapsley and F. Clark Power, we find a further iteration in this long-running inquiry.  This volume, dedicated to what its editors call a “post-Kohlbergian era” of moral psychology, is based upon the central premise that “important insights about character and character education will be forthcoming only when there are adequate advances in character psychology” (p. 1).  Using recent cognitive and social–cognitive literatures, the authors contrast an understanding of moral functioning based in a philosophical or developmental perspective, with character research employing a moral psychology lens.  “It is now evident,” write the editors, “that important new insights about character and character education will only be possible when there is sustained exploration at the interface of [moral psychology and philosophical ethics]" (p. 3).  This volume argues from a “naturalized ethics” stance, grounded in what is known about “human motivation, the nature of the self, the nature of human concepts, how our reason works, how we are socially constituted, and a host of other facts about who we are and how the mind operates” (Johnson, 1996, p. 49).  Hence, as Lapsley and Narvaez argue in chapter 1, “an ethical theory that is naturalized attends to empirical realities, to actual lives and the manner in which they are lived” (p. 28).

This well-researched and carefully argued work blends a number of clarifying chapters, leading us toward a fresh understanding of character development and its practical educational implications.  From Christine McKinnon’s attempt to argue the age-old question of what constitutes the “good” of moral character in chapter 2; to Agusto Blasi’s insightful and complex discussion of willpower, integrity, and moral identity in chapter 3; to Ann Higgins-D’Allesandro and F. Clark Power’s equally engaging discussion of responsibility and the moral self in chapter 4; to discussions of the role of sports in character development, postmodern character development, school reform, and character development among college students; this edited volume provides a thorough, well-grounded account of moral development and character education through a fresh lens.

Although this volume is well crafted, it is not without problems.  Taking on the ancient, perhaps empirically unanswerable, question of what constitutes the “good,” McKinnon boldly argues toward basing it—the good—upon the notion of human flourishing.  Comparing plant, animal, and human flourishing, McKinnon constructs a complicated naturalistic case for what constitutes “good human lives.”  “I have been arguing,” McKinnon writes,

that our evaluative claims about good human lives are grounded in descriptive claims about proper functioning.  These, in turn, appeal to features and capacities of human nature and to the kinds of lives made possible by their exercise.  In particular, the quintessentially human function, good performance of which characterizes the best kinds of human lives, is character construction. . . . Identifying character construction as central to a prototypical human life shows how objective assessments of flourishing grounded in facts of human nature are related to subjective assessments of welfare concerned with how well lives are going from the points of view of the ones living them.  Human welfare is enhanced by performing well the paradigmatic human activity of constructing for oneself a character with which one is justly well pleased. (p. 63)

Although McKinnon argues well toward a “paradigmatic” conception of human flourishing, nailing down exactly what flourishing might mean emotionally, intellectually, morally, and even physically is a daunting task.  Thinkers from the dawn of time have sought to argue precisely what “good” character consists of.  McKinnon’s attempt to tie it to human flourishing, although valiant, left me with as many questions as it answered.  This is not to discount the argument.  It is simply to state that in a pluralistic society what we deem as the “good” of character education will always remain a slippery subject.

Another critique of the work, involves the nature of perfection.  Throughout the volume a thread of certainty seemed to be evident.  If educators, using a variety of important and helpful strategies, can help students construct personal moral identity, then we can rest assured that students will act out of such character.  Here we are reminded of the modern ideal of constructing the “perfect” moral person.  The nature of this volume clearly reveals that its authors grasp the complexity and incremental progress of character development, yet the work as a whole seems to envision a fully integrated person whose character, intellect, and behavior are perfectly consistent.  The underlying belief seems to be that there is such a thing as a fully integrated moral identity; and that individuals with such an identity act autonomously out of such an identity, thus discounting the myriad of forces that might mitigate autonomy and moral congruence.   As a goal this fully integrated moral individual is exemplary.  However, given the propensity for human inconsistency, it must be tempered with realism thus allowing educators the perspective necessary to persevere in their efforts of character education directed toward their students.

How do we develop moral character within Jake so that his desire to harm Matthew is mitigated?  How do we shift this desire to cause harm to another and the satisfaction received from it?   Character Psychology and Character Education offers helpful insights into character identity, its processes, and its educational implications.  This volume is an important read for any educator interested in character education, offering strong food-for-thought as well as practical strategies toward such endeavors.  This volume adds a thorough, thoughtful, and fresh voice to this important topic.  It is an excellent resource for parents, coaches, teachers, para-educators, and administrators, offering an important voice in the critical and ongoing dialogue surrounding character education.


Holt, Melissa K., & Keyes, Melissa A. (2004).  Teachers’ attitudes toward bullying.  In D. L. Espelage & S. M. Swearer (Eds.), Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention. (pp. 121-140).  Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Johnson, M. (1996).  How moral psychology changes moral theory.  In Mind and morals: Essays on cognitive science and ethics. In L. May, M. Friedman, & A.G. Clark (Eds.). (pp. 45-68).  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Long, Jeffrey D., & Pellegrini, Anthony D. (2003).  Studying change in dominance and bullying with linear mixed models.  School Psychology Review, 32, 401–417.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1658-1662 ID Number: 12226, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:33:31 AM

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