A Grander Vision: Character-Building and Our Young People

February 22, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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If you are the parent of a child under the age of 18, before reading this article take a moment and ask yourself this question: “What do you want most in life for your son or daughter?”

In her online articleGeorge Washington’s Character,” Katherine Kersten compares the education and upbringing of Washington and his peers to that of today’s Americans, and wonders whether we “have largely forgotten the importance of character.”

During her children’s early years, Kersten tells us, she belonged to a mothers group, where every year the discussion leader would ask, “What do you want most in life for your son or daughter?” She noticed that women in the group seemed baffled and a little embarrassed by the question, with most of them replying, “I just want them to be happy.”

“I could see from their faces,” Kersten writes, “that these mothers had nobler aspirations for their children. But they weren’t sure how to express them. For in our society, the ideal of ‘happiness’—of personal well-being and security—is driving out the ideal, and vocabulary, of character-building.”

Kersten goes on to remind us that George Washington “laboriously copied 110 ‘Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior’ into his exercise book.” What is more, he tried to live by those rules. Benjamin Franklin “drew up a list of 13 virtues he wished to acquire,” and like Washington, pursued that list of desires with some success.

The Emperor’s Self-Help Manual

For centuries, human beings have turned to literature for character-building instruction. “Meditations” by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121–180) is an outstanding example of such a means of emulation. This ancient handbook of stoicism has inspired the practice of virtue in uncounted numbers of readers, including some of our Founding Fathers. The emperor’s manual on how to live remains in print today and enjoys a wide readership.

Marcus Aurelius full-length statue in the Louvre
Marcus Aurelius wrote a handbook on building character. A late second-century statue of Marcus Aurelius, originally from Gabii (Italy), now in the Louvre. (Sailko/CC BY 2.5)

In the opening of “Meditations,” translated by George Long, Marcus Aurelius thanks everyone who has contributed to his moral and educational development, much like those prolonged messages of appreciation by trophy winners during the Academy Awards. From his grandfather, he learned “good morals and the government of my temper”; from his father, “modesty and a manly character”; and from his mother, “piety and beneficence.” He thanks his great-grandfather for keeping him from public schools and spending liberally on his home education. He goes on to tell the reader of his other tutors and relatives, all of whom he names in appreciation for lessons learned: “undeviating steadiness of purpose,” “to love truth, and to love justice,” “self-government,” “to look carefully after the interests of friends,” “the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.”

These family members and teachers prepared Marcus Aurelius to govern both himself and an empire. They taught him to strive for goodness and truth, and only then would he find their byproduct: happiness.

Meditations by MarcusAurelius 1811
Title page of an 1811 edition of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves. (Public Domain)

Teaching Virtue

Like Marcus Aurelius, young Americans once received an education in character-building more common and more evident than today. They tended to live in closer proximity to their extended family, their grandparents, their uncles and aunts, and in communities where the inhabitants knew each other well, and so witnessed firsthand models for virtuous behavior. Many attended a church on Sundays, where ministers would exhort them to live moral lives, or else they would read the Old Book in their homes.

In addition, young people learned traditional values in their schools. Primers, copybooks, stories, and history texts frequently stressed the importance of virtue and morality, seeking to instill in their readers such principles as courage, prudence, kindness, and justice.

Character-Building in the Classroom

In my family’s homeschooling days, I once purchased and frequently employed an eight-volume boxed set of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, a series used throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries by 10s of millions of American schoolchildren. Though the tone and content of these readers changed over time, steering away from religion to a more secular viewpoint, the McGuffey Readers continued to advocate morality and middle-class values.

Even as recently as the 1960s, textbooks like the Open Court Basic Readers exposed school children to that footstool of values on which our civilization rests—truth, goodness, and beauty.  The set I own, which I purchased used many years ago, boosts Western culture and the stories and history of the United States. In “A Trip Through Wonderland,” literature aimed at first-semester second graders, readers come to know such stories as “Androcles and the Lion” and “The Camel’s Nose,” and poems by the likes of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. In the next volume, they learn about Native Americans, Pocahontas, the Pilgrims, Lewis and Clark, Johnny Appleseed, and Betsy Ross. Skipping ahead two years to “What Joy Awaits You,” we find a wonderful mélange of stories, history, and poetry: tales from “The Arabian Nights” and the Brothers Grimm, accounts of Michelangelo’s boyhood and Theodore Roosevelt’s struggles for health, ancient myths, and “America Today.”

The editors of the Open Court Basic Readers clearly had two goals in mind when they made their selections. The first was to create in students what E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls “cultural literary,” stories and allusions Americans once held in common. The selections also aimed to instill in students a nobility of character and to acquaint them with truth, goodness, and beauty.

Bad News and Good

Unfortunately, in the last century we have dismantled that ancient triad. Relativity diminished the idea of Truth—“My truths are different than your truths” is in common usage, without any acknowledgment that “truth is truth.” Beauty gave way to sensationalism in the plastic arts, to function over form in architecture, and to tattoos, piercings, and sloppy dress in the public square. Faced with a culture of pornography, family breakdown, government corruption, and the overall abandonment of values, poor Goodness drew a veil over her eyes and hid her face out of shame for her abandonment.

That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news: Neither our culture nor we ourselves have to continue down this path.

Let’s Hit the Road

C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road….”

We can take the right road. We have the provisions for such a journey at our fingertips—literature, art and music, manuals of instruction, exemplars of character. We needn’t depend on our present culture or on our schools to set out on this journey. All we have to do is take the first step.

Like those people so highly praised by Marcus Aurelius, we grandparents, parents, mentors, teachers, and coaches can help build character in our young people and point them to a grander vision of life.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.