Focus on Character Education

Data from Wake Forest University show that character education helps students develop virtues and think beyond themselves. Now the university is helping develop a character education network across academe.

February 20, 2023
White handwritten text on a green chalkboard asks, "What is the virtue of gratitude?"
Wake Forest University’s Program for Leadership and Character is expanding.
(Wake Forest University)

Explicitly teaching character in college? It’s not a new idea, but it’s not widespread. For that reason (among others), Wake Forest University’s Program for Leadership and Character has attracted interest from other institutions since its founding in 2017.

Building a Network

Now the Lilly Endowment is giving the program $31 million over five years to expand—including by helping build a network of character education programs across academe. The funds allow Wake Forest to oversee a competitive grant-application process for the following, all related to character education in higher education:

  • $50,000 for planning
  • $250,000 to $1 million for program development
  • Funds for researchers
  • Professional development

Lilly’s grant to Wake Forest also enables conferences and summer seminars that explore new ways to measure and develop character, along with workshops and the creation of additional teaching resources.

Educating the Whole Person

“Focusing on character can help many colleges and universities realize their aspirations to educate the whole person and generate the knowledge, capacity and character that our students will need to live and lead well in the 21st century,” says Michael Lamb, program executive, F. M. Kirby Foundation Chair of Leadership and Character, and associate professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Wake Forest.

The Program for Leadership and Character already offers scholarships, courses, seminars, speakers and retreats to Wake Forest students. Some 350 students have participated in extracurricular discussion groups that explore such topics as “What Is College For?” and “The Character of Friendship in a Digital Age.”

Key Virtues

Lamb, who previously served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Oxford Character Project at the University of Oxford, tells Inside Higher Ed that “many colleges hope to teach students how to think well and how to secure meaningful employment.” And while that’s “really important,” he says, “we also think that having key virtues of character, such as humility, empathy, courage, justice and a sense of purpose, can help students direct how they think and live, in ways that not only help them flourish but help their communities flourish.”

Students, Lamb says, “are hungry for this kind of work, and when they engage it thoughtfully and critically, they take those ideas and apply them in their own life. What we care about doing is giving them a very deep intellectual foundation in what character and leadership mean, and also helping them to then extend that and apply that in their own lives in meaningful ways. That translation of intellectual rigor and ideas to practical living is the core of our program.”

Demonstrating Growth

Measurement is key to the character education network Wake Forest is building: Lamb and colleagues will evaluate the impact of character-related courses and programs on students, including their sense of belonging, levels of civic engagement, career readiness and academic interests.

Lamb already has shared some findings to this effect, concerning Wake Forest students. One co-written study published in the Journal of Moral Education found that students in a Wake Forest course called Commencing Character demonstrated growth in seven targeted virtues and several nontargeted virtues, compared to a control group. Another paper by Lamb and colleagues suggests that the course also helped students develop a sense of purpose, including a greater “beyond-the-self” orientation.

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In addition, Lamb has written about seven strategies for cultivating virtue in the university, to inform course design and programs. Strategies include habituation through practice, reflection on personal experience, engagement with virtuous exemplars and friendships of mutual accountability.

Have you or your campus experimented with character education? Tell us about it.

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