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Character-Centered Families and Schools

Interview With Psychologist Tom Lickona

CORTLAND, New York, APRIL 20, 2006 (Zenit) - The goal of Catholic character education is to form children in the character of Christ, says a developmental psychologist.

Tom Lickona is a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he is the founding director of the for the 4th and 5th Rs (respect and responsibility).

He is the author of seven books on character development in the family and school, including the co-authored "Smart and Good High Schools."

In this interview with us, Lickona speaks about the role of parents and educators in helping children to flourish and become persons of character.

Q: What is the reason for the growing awareness of the need for character-education programs for children?

Lickona: I think there are at least six factors that have driven the current character education movement:

One, the weakening of the family; as families do less character formation, more kids arrive at school without social skills and a sense of right and wrong, and schools have to take up the slack;

Two, the rise of the mass media and the popular and marketplace culture as a powerful, largely negative influence on the values and character of youth;

Three, the perception of widespread moral breakdown in society; in one recent poll, for example, nearly three of four American adults said they believe people in general "lead less honest and moral lives than they used to";

Four, troubling youth trends suggesting that societal moral breakdown is particularly reflected in the values and attitudes of the young;

Five, the conviction that non-directive, relativistic approaches to values education -- notably "values clarification" -- have been part of the problem instead of part of the solution; and

Six, the recovery of the belief that there is common ethical ground even in our intensely pluralistic society -- that there are basic qualities of character such as honesty, hard work, justice and caring that virtually all people agree we should teach in our schools, families and communities.

Without the recovery of shared ethical wisdom, the first five factors would not have been sufficient to bring about the renewal of character education.

Q: What are the most important strengths that you suggest forming in children and adolescents?

Lickona: One of my recent books, "Character Matters," identifies 10 "essential virtues" that are affirmed by nearly all philosophical, cultural and religious traditions: wisdom; justice; fortitude; self-control; love; positive attitude, including hope and humor; hard work; integrity; gratitude; and humility, which motivates us to strive to be a better person.

In a recent report, "Smart and Good High Schools," Matt Davidson and I suggest that it's helpful to think of two big parts of character: performance character -- those qualities such as self-discipline and perseverance that enable us to give our best effort and do our best work in any performance context; and moral character -- those qualities such as honesty, justice and caring that enable us to have successful relationships, live and work in community, and assume the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Bringing performance character into the picture helps schools see that character development is essential for academic achievement.

Q: What are some ways that the Catholic faith shapes our ideal of character education?

Lickona: Our Catholic faith would say that to be a good person, we need to develop the 10 essential virtues such as wisdom, justice, fortitude and so on.

These human virtues then give us a foundation for seeking to become not only good but holy.

As St. Gregory reminded us, the ultimate goal of a virtuous life is "to become like God." At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

The goal of Catholic character education is not simply "good character" but the character of Christ.

That means developing not only the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, etc., but also the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the supporting spiritual virtues of prayer, frequenting the sacraments, and a radical obedience, in imitation of Christ, that surrenders our will to God.

These theological and spiritual virtues are essential for our transformation in Christ -- our life's purpose as Christians.

As we become transformed in Christ, our task is to transform the world -- into what John Paul II called "the civilization of truth and love," God's Kingdom on earth, as we pray in the Our Father.

In a Catholic school, that begins with creating a moral and spiritual community in the school that is a living ...

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