In one of my favourite moments from the television show The West Wing (and there are many!) Rob Lowe’s character Sam Seaborn describes education as “the silver bullet”: in terms of public policy, Sam sees the provision of a high-quality education for all Americans as the key way in which the government can achieve its objectives of improving the life circumstances of its citizens.

As someone involved in education for many years, both at the secondary and tertiary levels, I, too, am inclined to place a high value on education as a means of bringing about positive change in our culture and in our world. Yet this begs the question – what approach to education will make the most significant difference? For education is not some monolithic entity which, at its core, has some identifiable moral valency. There are good and bad approaches to education – some approaches, for example, have buttressed dictatorships, while others have contributed to the flourishing of humanity on this planet. The more important question remains – how might we approach the activity of educating young people in a manner which supports the flourishing of all people across the globe?

Two weeks ago, I attended a conference on character education in which numerous approaches were presented for the development of moral and virtuous character. The unchallenged assumption of the conference was that educating for character development should be our principal task as educators. Beyond knowledge, skills or even dispositions, sits this more significant goal. I couldn’t agree more.

Focusing on character more broadly, and on learning character more specifically, will require us to consider the messages that we communicate, implicitly and explicitly, in relation to character. Do we commend competition or co-operation through our structures and messaging? Are students encouraged to develop their own understanding, or do we encourage them to take responsibility for the learning of all students as well as their own? Are students developing the quality of humility which prompts them to ask questions and seek to learn more, or do we reinforce a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance through our praise of those who experience academic success?

If we are to venture down this path, our starting point will be the defining of which character traits we are seeking to develop and being intentional and explicit in our focus on these traits. We find lists of such traits throughout the New Testament which provide us with a clear focus as a school seeking to teach from a Christian foundation. Whether our students are Christian or not, we hope that they might engage in their learning in such a manner that they not only grow in understanding but also grow in patience, humility, perseverance, self-control, gentleness and, above all else, love. To achieve this goal, however, will require us to be intentional in our language and in our actions, consciously reflecting on the messages about character that we are communicating in the classroom. And, if we are to succeed, it will require us to work in partnership with parents so that the messages they hear at school align with those they hear at home.

It would be far easier if our goal was something more straightforward like simply teaching facts and knowledge which students are then required to reproduce in an exam. But then, the activity of education would lose its potential to be the silver bullet that Sam Seaborn was looking for. If we want to change the world, we need to focus on more than just knowledge and what our young people can do – we need to also focus on who our young people are becoming.

Dr James Pietsch