Character Education

Character Education

This week the FPU School of Education will participate once again with CSU Fresno’s annual conference on character and civic education for teachers. This is one of the exciting ways in which we at FPU can share with other institutions who prepare teachers for the complex role they play in our society.

In his “On Ethics” column in The Fresno Bee this last Sunday, Fresno State Professor Andrew Fiala, who has participated in philosophy seminars at FPU and who is a friend in our mutual commitments, wrote about the inherent moral quality of education. Character traits, which are characteristics of deeply embedded moral qualities, like honesty, fairness, respect, hospitality, and others underlie and are central to the educational process. A student’s work must be his or her own, an example of honesty in the process of education. All students must take responsibility for their own learning, otherwise they will not learn. Students must be treated fairly; all must be encouraged, taught energetically and creatively, and where some struggle be given the extra instruction that will help them learn and ultimately succeed in our society. This is not new, but too seldom emphasized, and is a good and well-illustrated reminder by Professor Fiala. (You can find a more complete outline than is possible in an opinion piece at Fresno State’s Bonner Center.)

I might add that another moral quality, or trait of character, must be encouraged as well: the search for truth. We may not be able to know or state the whole, comprehensive, truth with completeness and full accuracy, but we seek it nonetheless. If we did not, it might matter little what we conclude. This is the case with practical studies, as well as theoretical. When we can state truly how a process functions, whether in economics or in a teaching methodology, as a couple of examples, we will be able to better manage these and serve others; when we cannot or do not, we waste our time and energy. False understanding leads to unproductive, and sometimes disastrous, ends. Our modern world has a kind of antipathy to the notion of truth, but however limited our understanding might be, we seek it each time we study. Students learn this from their first experience in kindergarten to their final papers at a university.

Our dean of the School of Education, Gary Gramenz, Ph.D., is an expert and has been publishing studies on the “dispositions” that are required for teaching and learning. The character conference is right up his alley. Students must be encouraged by the example of their teachers in the disposition to pursue honesty and fairness, to take responsibility, exercise tolerance and hospitality and recognize and pursue what is true. In very classical terms, he would add beauty as well. Without these dispositions, acquired by habitual actions and experienced every day at home and in the classroom, the student may not develop the dispositions, or the character traits needed to learn and ultimately to take on healthy future roles as adults.

Fiala reminds us that education has a civic role. It trains and educates citizens in our common roles in society and government. He reminds us that this has ever been the case. Schools are the training academies of our society, where people of different faiths, social status, economic levels, political commitments, and levels of ability mix and learn to live together. He quotes Bonner Center Director Jacques Benninga, Ph.D.: “[schools] have a fundamental role to play in a constitutional, democratic republic.” It seems we need to be reminded about this often.

Christians sometimes have forgotten our roles in the creation of a healthy society, retreating into our churches and enclaves to be a different, separate people. There is a long tradition of Christian understanding of civic responsibility. It exists in multiple forms, Catholic and Reformed the most prominent, but also in a narrower but rich form in Anabaptist/Mennonite teaching. It seems to me that currently there are healthy movements to recover this understanding, and develop some new understandings as well. Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary’s Center for Community Transformation, led by Randy White, D.Min., is a leader in this effort in the local community.

Our School of Education plays a unique role in character education. One of the delights of my year is participating in the school’s celebration of the completion of the teacher credentialing program. This is not a commencement; no degrees are given. It is a celebration of the sending out of 100+ new teachers each year into our schools. We hear consistently about the difference FPU-trained teachers make in their communities and classrooms.

The teacher education department, led by Linda Hoff, Ph.D., has a unique mission statement: “teaching is a calling to redemptive service.” It takes a bit to unpack that statement. The final ritual of the credential celebration illustrates its meaning. Each year the entire audience, families and friends as well as newly credentialed teachers, recite together the “Prayer of St. Francis”:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

This is a mission that is sorely needed in our society, and one of the central ways in which FPU shows its prophetic and servant heart. (Another way is in simply preparing very well-trained teachers!) We are happy to participate with Fresno State’s Bonner Center and other universities in recognizing, honoring and encouraging the development of character education. This shared mission is inspiring, rewarding and a sign of moral health in our society.

Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis