When I was coming onboard with my professional life, an emerging national consensus was building around the educational value of character formation. Lots of educators, sociologists, civic leaders and clergy-types, even business school deans, were coming to realize that personal and corporate character (of the mature and healthy variety) were essential to vital family, community, and national life. Without it, democracy itself would founder. Given the decrepit state of our politics fear is building concerning what seems an alarming character deficit.
In 1992, a distinguished group of moral educators and youth leaders was gathered in Aspen, Colorado to discuss character education and devise programs and curricula that could be used in a wide variety of settings. By the end of their conference, they were able to draft a statement regarding their shared values and goals. Known as The Aspen Declaration, it included a concise presentation of core ethical values and “Six Pillars of Character” including, these: 1) Trustworthiness—integrity, honesty, moral courage, sincerity, candor; 2) Respect—valuing all persons, living by the golden rule, honoring the dignity, privacy and freedom of others, politeness; 3) Fairness—just, impartial, consistent toward others, listening; 4) Responsibility—honorability, doing one’s duty, accountable, pursuing excellence; 5) Caring—compassionate, kind, considerate, generous; and 6) Citizenship—having respect for the laws and customs of one’s country, promoting the common good, duty.
Good list. It has informed character educators ever since. But I’m mindful that a list has no power in and of itself. Consensus on how we ought to live is meaningless if no one lives it. Virtue isn’t something that can be voted in. It really can’t be mandated at all. It must be chosen, one person at a time.
And now is a good time to remember that our politics don’t exist within a vacuum. They’re an organic part of our culture, which suggests our politicians reflect current cultural conditions—a sobering thought!