"Character” is one of those words that makes everybody happy. At the school where I teach, we say that we emphasize character development, and parents nod vigorously; that is what they want for their children, for them to grow up brave and strong and sensible, for them to do well in their lives and not just in school.

The education policy people like this idea as well—from both sides of the political spectrum, but for different reasons. On the conservative side, it is tempting to see the successes of our students as triumphs of personal responsibility. If our kids—most of whom are nonwhite, most of whom grow up in poverty—can study hard, do well on standardized tests, graduate from college, and get decent jobs, they seem to falsify the argument that larger systems of racial and economic oppression are responsible for the inequalities that persist in other kids’ lives. In other words, if some children can succeed within the system, then what’s wrong isn’t the system; it is the kids who fail.

From this perspective, it is convenient to think that the missing ingredient for those kids might be character—not academic opportunity, freedom from oppression, access to privilege, or liberation from the legacy of centuries of white supremacy, but personal attributes under each individual’s control. Character education comes to seem like a magic wand. Working kid by kid and school by school, we can fix what is wrong with our historically struggling student populations while implicitly laying the blame on the students or their parents or their communities. We can call out our students for some inferiority inherent in their character while insisting that their inferiority has nothing to do with the color of their skin and therefore that our judgment of it has nothing to do with racism. If those struggling students would only show a little more character, they’d do just fine.

But proponents of this vision usually aren’t invested in character education for all kids, as a standard component of schooling. They are more likely to align themselves with people such as Ruby Payne, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty (2013, fifth edition), who catalogs “characteristics of generational poverty” such as noisiness, disorganization, and an inability to consider the future implications of present actions. Payne suggests that in order to help poor students, we have to coach them in the superior traits of the better off. Like missionaries, predominantly white, predominantly middle-class teachers will impart to students the strength of character that will make them more successful—because it will make them more like us.

The educators on the ground—the ones lining up the rows and nagging every kid to tuck her shirt in—mostly believe themselves to be engaged in a more radical project. By and large, we tend to think the system is inherently and historically and intentionally unfair, and we identify ourselves with the cause of social justice.

Some of the 'soft skills' we teach are not about character at all—just the appearance of it.

That leftist perspective lends its own reasons for enthusiasm about character education. We know that injustice in our educational and economic systems will continue to place our students at a disadvantage, and we are eager to give our kids the tools they’ll need to overcome it. We are not trying to fix them so they are more like middle-class kids. We are trying to get them ready to compete from behind—to be twice as good as the next guy, just like their parents and grandparents have been telling them their whole lives.They need to know how to prioritize their assignments, advocate for a better grade, ask for financial aid, ace a job interview­. How to get people in positions of power and privilege on their side.These are the “soft skills” that education policy experts such as Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth advocate.

Some of that is about strength of character—about being more independent, assertive, and persistent than kids who enter school with greater advantages.But some of it isn’t about character at all, only the appearance of it. When we teach a kid to give a firm formal handshake, we are not strengthening his character. We are teaching him how to translate his strength into a language that people in power will understand. The deficit in this case is theirs, not his.

In principle this liberationist approach to character education is appealing. The trouble is that, in practice, it loses a little of its clarity. We start out wanting our kids to be heroes and revolutionaries, to beat the system from the inside and then challenge its premises. But while they are with us, our school represents the system; if they assert their independence, we are the authority they defy.

In pursuit of character education, our schools have convened research groups to identify the most important character strengths, taught special courses on character alongside electives such as music and art, and assembled “character report cards” with separate ratings from each teacher for each trait. The favored buzzwords are “dual-purpose instruction,” infusing ordinary lessons about fractions or paying attention with the language of character. “Make it the air we breathe,” one administrator told us. “Put it into everything.” When kids misbehave, we urge them to show more character; students who do well win character awards at special assemblies; we start giving points for integrity, and then integrity starts to mean following directions, and then we start taking integrity points away. Instead of teaching these strong and simple values, we muddy and diminish them until they are just another set of arbitrary rules, or new names for the same old rules we’ve always had. Character starts to look a little more like compliance. The lapse in integrity is our own.

For my part, I’ve given up on character education as such, on pre-planned lessons pushing abstract nouns. I won’t set out to repair some deficit in my kids that can be blamed for the trouble they encounter. Nor do I favor reframing our everyday conversations to match the jargon of the day.

But I am passionately in favor of character in education. It has nothing to do with compliance and it is probably not something you can measure or grade. It is more like what parents have in mind when they talk about the character of their children. It is what my own parents worked to teach me. And it is not just about the traits that will help you get ahead but what is best for everybody. It is first and foremost about kindness, which doesn’t even make the soft skills list.

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We do character education not because our children are disadvantaged but because they are children. It belongs within our school building not because nobody else is doing it, but because everyone does it. Our school is a part of our community and so we share in its responsibilities.

Last year character education happened on the first day of school, in the first hour, when 29 of the children in my fifth-grade homeroom noticed that the 30th child was different. We talked about differences, about our friends and family members who stick out in one way or another and the times when we ourselves have felt conspicuous, about how we want to be treated and how to treat one another. We wrote a script for what we would say when someone was being mean, and we practiced saying it to one another in a strong voice. The next day we talked about what it was like to speak up in that way. Hard, one student said. And interesting.

By winter, a rotation of students, mostly girls, were helping that 30th student take her coat off every morning and writing her homework assignment in her notebook. They asked permission to sit next to her during reading time to help herfollow along in her book. One morning I noticed a flurry of whispers around her desk, and then one helper gave me a gesture that was half hand-raise, half fist-pump. She wanted to read her answer out loud, for the first time ever. When she did, the whole class bubbled over in excitement. At lunch, I heard two students telling friends from other classes about her big moment, as proud as if she were their own beloved sister, as if they’d taught her themselves­—which they had. That was the end of their tolerance for even a hint of coldness toward her. For us, that was character education.

Character education means we talk about how to react when a teacher is unfair and how to handle our own frustrations when we know we are in the wrong. We practice apologizing like we mean it and picking ourselves up to try again. We work together in groups, even when we are assigned to somebody we don’t like, and we learn to argue a little without getting upset. We write thank-you notes and goodbye letters and condolence cards. We band together to fight injustice. This is character education as it has always been done, in classrooms and kitchens and playgrounds everywhere.

• • •

In the character education lexicon, the single hottest word is “grit.” (A recent article described one school network as “doubling down” on it, like financiers preparing for a gold rush.) It is a deliciously vivid and old-fashioned term, evoking pluck and fortitude and a Boy Scout’s sense of clean hard work and pride—of a valorous struggle sure to be rewarded. It is, in fact, an essential quality for any student who hopes to make sense of calculus, or Toni Morrison, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and all the more for those who face considerable personal, social, and economic obstacles.

But as every parent and teacher knows, grit can’t be taught in the abstract. Nobody ever works hard because we tell them to, still less because we praise them for it. People work hard when and because they believe their hard work will pay off.

We do character education not because our children are disadvantaged but because they are children.

I have watched an eleven-year-old with a history of school failure spanning half his lifetime wrestle his way through a plastic bin full of kindergarten readers—starting at the front, working his way to the back, and then starting over again—repeating the process with successive bins until he taught himself to read. I’ve seen twelve-year-olds take six hours to finish an untimed standardized test because they read every story two or three times to make sure they understood. Our high school students wake themselves up, get themselves to school, grind through their assignments, follow up with their teachers, and often care for their siblings as well, relying on their own motivation while their parents work a second or third job to make ends meet. On average the adolescents I teach work harder than any group of adults I’ve ever known. They don’t need us to teach them grit, much less to bribe them into it. All they need is an environment in which grit is sustainable, in which success is possible and celebrated.

That also means acknowledging the times when grit isn’t enough, when they’ve struggled and struggled and the obstacles still seem too great. That is when students give up, talk back, shut down, ball up their papers and throw them on the floor. That is when those responses make sense.

Casting those moments as failures of character does grievous wrong to our students. We are all entitled to anger and pain and even despair. And if we respect and love one another, we honor those moments of truth as well. We say to our children, “I know it’s hard, I know it doesn’t seem fair.” And we draw on the long view, on our experience, to teach that there is still a way.

If they believe us, they’ll pick up the paper. They’ll take a deep breath, and go back to the desk, and turn to a fresh page to try again.

That is character, and the development of character, and maybe even character education. But it is wrong to claim that we are teaching it to them. We are living it, all of us, day after day.

Photograph: Chris Campbell