Can virtues be taught in the classroom? Or must they simply be learned by example? Do virtues even matter anymore?
In San Antonio, at the all-boys Central Catholic High School, the answers to those questions are Yes, Yes and Yes. There, virtue training takes place through a curriculum called "Men of Integrity." It was the inspiration of Central Catholic’s principal, Ed Ybarra.
"Several years ago, I was inspired by the book A Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood by Jeffery Marx," says Ybarra.
The book tells the tale of former NFL football star Joe Ehrmann, who is today an ordained minister and widely sought-after speaker. His message centers around the theme that sports have the potential to teach boys to be men of empathy and integrity so that they can go out and change the world.
"My focus, as it relates to the book, is on the journey to manhood," Ybarra adds. "I usually try to get into the classroom with the boys every three weeks, and we talk about the book. They love it."
Central Catholic is run by the Society of Mary (Marianists), a religious order of priests and brothers founded in the 19th century. According to Ybarra, one of the order’s key values is community. This teaching, coupled with the Ehrmann story, is what Ybarra hopes will lay the foundation for his high-school students to become men of integrity.
"We emphasis building community by service leadership, being a man for others and moral character," says Ybarra.
At Northridge Prep High School in Northridge, Ill., headmaster Richard Myer sees virtue as the building block of character for the all-boys high school.
"Long after specific classroom content is forgotten, years after graduation, what will remain is the character that has been formed in these young men," Myer says. "This is what education is all about: forming the whole person and helping a young boy to become fully human, so that he understands the importance of intellectual, physical, spiritual and emotional development."
Whether it’s in biology class, on the soccer field or in a meeting with one’s personal adviser, Myer is adamant that the notion of virtue must be weaved throughout. However, that is not always an easy task for his 250 students, given today’s culture.
"One of the challenges for young men today is living in a society that defines success by materialistic measures such as wealth, health and academic pedigree," he observes. "While the whole world tells ‘young me’ to make more money or get into ‘x’ college, they rarely hear why these things are important. A degree from Harvard, for instance, matters only to the extent that one leverages this prestige to make a positive impact on society at large."
As a father of both sons and daughters, Myer is not one to restrict specific virtues to either gender. But he has observed that boys tend to naturally gravitate to fortitude, perseverance and courage, as it speaks to a young man’s adventurous soul.
Ybarra agrees. He adds that virtue isn’t limited to heroic deeds. It could mean simply saying, "Have a great day. Do you need some help? Or: Can I get that for you?"
In fact, one of his favorite virtue-related stories is one about his incoming junior Trey Gonzalez. Gonzalez invited a fellow student who was sitting alone at lunch to come eat at his table with him and his friends.
"When the boys act like Trey, then they have done what they have been asked to do," says Ybarra. "That is virtue. That is living a life of integrity."
Virtue in the Family
In a 1978 general audience, Pope John Paul II spoke at length on the importance of virtues. "When we speak of virtues, we must always have in mind the real man, the actual man. Virtue is not something abstract, detached from life; but, on the contrary, it has deep roots in life itself," said the late Pope.
For Nate and Jen Raiche of Iron Mountain, Mich., these words of the Holy Father really hit home. The Raiches have four boys, ages 10 and under, and a 1-year-old daughter. They are a home-schooling family who focus on virtue as part of their curriculum.
"I think it takes a combination of learning from the Catechism and the lives of the saints, discussion of everyday dilemmas and difficulties, and modeling done by us, their parents," Jen Raiche explains. "Each one feeds the other. Without example, the text-book lessons would be hollow. Without instruction, the everyday dilemmas may seem unimportant. And without their parents’ example, the virtues could become simply stories found in books."
Jen, who often blogs her adventures with a house full of boys at BoxFullofBlessings.blogspot.com, says that both she and Nate can see their instructions paying off, particularly in their oldest son, Kolbe.
"Our oldest son has always been a good ‘big brother.’ He knows he’s the oldest and works to share and sacrifice for his younger siblings," Jen relates. "His model behavior has been a profound example for his brothers. It is truly rewarding to see moments when the younger children will follow his example and do the same for their siblings."
The boys learn virtues through the lives of the saints.
"Each of our boys is named after patron saints. We work to teach them the important stories from the lives of those saints, and, when they are facing a difficult situation, we remind them of the difficulties their namesakes went through," shares Jen.
St. Joseph’s Virtue
While Catholic tradition has suggested that there are particular saints for boys and others for girls, one saint that is universal as a perfect model of virtue is St. Joseph, says Father Gary Coulter from the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
"St. Joseph is a wondrous model of virtue because he was a man of action, not just words. Like all the saints, he gives us an example of being open to and responding to God’s call. Of course, he is also a model of purity, protecting the virginity of the Virgin Mary," he says.
Father Joe Kempf, the longtime pastor of Assumption Parish in O’Fallon, Mo., adds that while virtues are virtues, how they take shape in the lives of men and women is often different.
"For instance, the temptations against purity are the same for all. However, males typically struggle more with this one," he says. "On the other hand, women typically have a struggle against the virtue of modesty. All of this has to do with one’s age, temperament and situation in life."
In the end, virtues haven’t gone out of style. In fact, Father Coulter stresses their development is necessary now more than ever.
"Not only are the virtues still important, but even more necessary today, when our faith is being tested, and we live in a society that is increasingly secular and promotes non-Christian values. Virtue is what allows us to be strong and consistent in living our faith on a daily basis."
Eddie O’Neill writes from
New Castle, Colorado.