A look at some character educators

Exploring character educators can be transformative and illuminating. I’ve done a bit of reading lately, Lickona, Smith, Montessori… and Peck (1978). I read “The Road Less Traveled”, or at least parts of it (and looking back fairly superficially), when it first came out. I recently profiled the author, Peck, as an exercise. I wanted to push the envelope a bit, look at the man.  What a shock. This man tried to “scientificate” evil. He practiced exorcisms. He walked away from his practice as his patients were “too slow”. That just absolutely stabbed me. His personal life was a shambles.

oh how i bled for this particular piece of art... Thwip! (Formerly Macwagen) via Compfight

I sat back in my chair, absolutely slack jawed. (I seem to have that reaction to things, quite commonly! Really should learn to build up those masseters!) I have always believed, and still do, that it’s “how you walk, not how you talk”. But this man truly had helped many. He had helped me! “Life is difficult”. What simple, beautiful truth! That one line helped me in many a dark time. He is dead! How can I speak truthfully, in a balanced way, that doesn’t attempt to destroy all that he actually accomplished?

Reading some of his later material, I wonder if he had lost his mind, if he was schizotypal, as he was way out there on another planet. Would it be “right” to include such meanderings in a brief review here? It all sounded fairly convincing, even quasi-scientific, but certainly seemed to me to be at least magical ideation. The beliefs he endorsed were certainly eccentric, and he certainly had social impairment. If he was ill, would it be right to cast a glaring light on it? Did his later life muddy his earlier attempt at education, did it make it null and void?

But even early on, those moral ideals he taught seemed warped to try to fit the self improvement ethos of our age. Even the “good parts” weren’t what I thought they were.

Reading about other educators helped, and perhaps helped humanize me a bit. I have always been against relative morality as Lickona teaches (1991), but personally I am fairly rigid, perhaps just a bit much, and can be a little forceful. I have a pretty clear view of what I think is  right and wrong. I want my mentors, and certainly my idols, to have “clean underclothes”. Look hard at some of these character educators. They can give you pause for thought. There’s Dr Montessori, who changed education on this planet. Yes, she sent away her son to be brought up by others. That still is a bitter pill. But am I that unforgiving? Am I that harsh? Look what she accomplished for generations of learners!

I have always thought that character was taught between the lines. It is, but I see now that the lines themselves are important. I once heard a quote (I believe Alice Cooper of all people)  that music is actually felt between the notes, that it’s the interval between the notes that moves us. I feel that the way a person acts is the space here in this clumsy metaphor. The notes do matter though. Lickona (1991) provides evidence, actual statistics, of how his training techniques have changed the incidence of violence, for example. Character educators have made an impact, by what they have taught, and not just by walking the talk. I have a greater appreciation now for the music.

Adam Smith seemed to really fit what I’ve been searching for. This careful man did seem to have clean underwear, and taught us much. Please don’t tell me anything about S Covey! That human being is here in my heart, my soul… and I think I have Adam Smith sitting there now too. And Dr Montessori I think will humanize me. Maybe I can find a place for her.

I have been unforgiving and harsh…

Will my reading change my actions? Adam Smith inspired me. I will try to even more clearly check the facts and will carefully consider before I speak, or write. I really admired this man’s push. The clarity. He actually moved from thought to action.

I have a new interest in challenging my students about the ethical underpinnings of clinic cases. This can make the  whole teaching experience fuller, more real; it’s as if we finally have the fabric in our hands.

How can we, as medical educators, keep ethics foremost in our students’ minds, not a background issue? Can we, as Adam Smith taught, move this from thought to action?




Lickona, T. (1991) Educating for character. New York: Bantam


Peck,M. (1978) The Road Less Traveled. New York:Simon and Schuster


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