The Fresh ‘Old School’ of Character Education

A look at the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University.

At Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character (CAEC), presenters can turn to folks like Abraham, Aristotle, Lincoln and Anne Frank for lessons on virtue and character.

“There’s a wealth of wisdom in literature, in history, in poetry and art, in film that can be mined for lessons in character,” says Bernice Lerner, director of the center, which is on BU’s campus.

Biographies of those in the past are just one approach the center takes in teaching teachers to live and teach character in the classroom. Founding director Kevin Ryan feels that teachers are to be moral exemplars for students to look up to and learn from.

“A major focus of the CAEC’s activity is to remind teachers, administrators, students, and school board members that developing good character and helping the young acquire the powers of ethical thinking are legitimate and expected aspects of a school’s mission,” states Ryan in a promotional brochure.

Current Programs

Ryan, who serves on the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences, was the leading figure in establishing the center in 1989. With degrees from St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, Columbia and Stanford, plus 10 years of lessons gained in the Navy, Ryan had been involved with moral and character education for 15 years at BU.

In the mid- to late-’80s, the term “character” was also being used more and more in educational circles and Ryan wanted to provide an answer for the pluralism in secular schools. He recalled lessons learned from Aristotle and the idea of building virtue through practice.

At the time, Peter Greer, the new dean of the BU School of Education, took an interest in the topic and was able to secure a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The center was born.

Today it offers a variety of curricula to those involved with education. The idea is to integrate the lessons of character and virtue into their existing programs instead of presenting another schema to often weary teachers.

Bernice Lerner makes note of the fact that children pick up on the example of adults regardless of whether those adults have training in character education.

“Everyone is doing character education anyway. It’s happening. It’s happening from the minute the kids are picked up by the school bus, it’s happening in the halls of the school, it’s happening on the playgrounds, so it might as well be done consciously and well,” says Lerner.

Lerner, who has degrees from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the Jewish Theological Seminary and BU, has written a book called The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivor’s Lives. She believes there are stories of heroism from ordinary, unknown folks.

Today, the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character offers multiple programs, one of which is the weeklong Teacher’s Academy. Presentations offered in this mobile academy have included such titles as Hearing the Call: The Hero’s Journey in Life and Literature, Aristotle on Awareness, Thinking, and Doing, and Vision and Virtue: Educating the Whole Person.

Teachers get to discuss the topics with each other and how the lessons can be adapted into the framework of their given school.

The center also gives a one-or two-day workshop on ethics and character. These “institutes” are geared for leadership personnel at a school or district influential in shaping culture or initiatives.

Bleeding for the Cause

Harry Lynch is the director of The Newman School, a college preparatory school in Boston that is run by lay Catholics. He has attended a program at the center and liked their approach with virtues. In turn, he has sent administrators and new teachers to the center to build up the character ethos in his own school. He related an example of how students are attracted to real-life examples of heroism.

In the 2004 American League Championship Series, the Boston Red Sox came from a 0-3 game deficit to defeat the New York Yankees. In Game 6 of the series, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling won the game playing on an injured ankle that had been held together with sutures. During the course of the game, the sutures pulled and blood oozed through Schilling’s sock. Unsurprisingly, cameras caught this and the incident has become legendary. Lynch recalls asking his class about it the next day.

“After a few minutes of discussion I asked them: What was it about the bleeding? Doesn’t a hero figuratively, if not literally, bleed, for his or her cause? Wasn’t Schilling’s visible suffering part of our reaction to his effort? Didn’t we feel, that morning, drained of energy ourselves, in part because we realized that we had witnessed something extraordinary, something truly inspirational?”

Lynch agrees with the center’s approach that any school can implement character education into its curriculum.

“It’s simply a way of looking at the student, of seeing their potential, and of calling them to account so that they will push themselves to achieve what is possible for them in life, through sports, activities and academics,” states Lynch. “I actually find that kids respond very well to this approach, because they realize that you are speaking to them as a whole person, as a person with great potential.”

Freedom to Learn

Karen Bohlin directed the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character from 1999-2003 and has written extensively on the topics of character and ethics.

Today, she runs Montrose School in Medfield, Mass., an all-girls private school for grades 6-12, where the students attend daily Mass and receive a rigorous theological curriculum.

Montrose School stresses character, leadership and service and it appears that Bohlin’s leadership of the school draws heavily on her experience with character education.

In this approach, she believes in the education of the whole person. At Montrose, students meet with a female faculty member every two to three weeks. She also believes that young women have much to gain from a single-sex environment.

“What is most valuable about an all-girls environment is the freedom our students enjoy to take learning seriously. They flourish in an all-girls environment. We watch them become confident, happy and mature leaders grounded in a strong sense of who they are,” states Bohlin. 

Though Lynch and Bohlin run private schools, the center has had participants from both public and private schools — educators from urban, suburban and rural areas who teach students ranging from pre-kindergarten to seniors in high school.

When Lerner is asked why she is excited about being director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, she replies, “It’s a very exciting place to be. Because it’s always changing, there’s always something new. … You can never learn enough, there’s always more to learn, there’s always more to explore.” She mentions her upcoming address on citizenship and work on a sports-themed class.

She would very much like the center to become an even more elite training ground for professional educators. She would like to have people take a year off from their current positions and dedicate it to further study at the center.

Though the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character is tied to Boston University, it secures its own funding, and Lerner admits the center is struggling. Ryan also alludes to this challenge.

“It is somewhat discouraging that something as fundamental as character education, both to the lives of students and our social health, has to work so hard to eke out an existence,” he states. “However, we are used to that kind of existence. Perhaps, living on scraps has kept us lean and hungry. Still, if we are going to survive, we could use help.”

Justin Bell is based in

Cambridge, Massachusetts.