The Six Pillars of Character
Credit: www.charactercounts.org
ir John Templeton was a great believer in the impact of the sorts of universal truths, or laws for life, contained in timeless proverbs, aphorisms and wise sayings,” observes Michael Josephson, reflecting on the origins of the program of character development he has brought to millions of youngsters. “In collaboration with the Templeton Foundation, the Josephson Institute of Ethics and its Character Counts! program created “Foundations for Life,” a comprehensive critical thinking and character development program based on profound quotations.”
Josephson reports that Character Counts! now involves more than 7 million students and their families—the largest such program in America. It would be difficult to cite any enterprise that better represents Sir John’s ideals for the inculcation of values among young people. Character Counts! is actually part of the “Laws of Life” enterprise, though retaining its own distinctive brand name. The essay writing contest it promotes, entitled “Foundations for Life,” is identical in its aspirations to the “Laws of Life” competitions, though it retains certain rubrics of its own to guide the young writers.
Most notable of these is the theme of the “Six Pillars of Character,” dividing the issues students address under half a dozen headings: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship. Each of these is sub-divided into more specific topics, ensuring that students have a wide variety of themes to choose from.
The genesis of this massive initiative goes back to 1992, just five years after Michael Josephson had sold his successful law school exam preparatory company and set up the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in honor of his parents. The Institute hosted a conference at Aspen, Colorado, attended by experts in ethics and character development, whose findings were incorporated in the Aspen Declaration on Character Education. That was the document which launched the now famous Six Pillars.
The following year, 1993, the Institute put these principles into practical operation by launching Character Counts! which was supported by a coalition of just a few national organizations. Today the coalition includes thousands of schools, school districts, youth service groups, and even whole communities. Even in its first decade, the practical results were dramatic.
A study of participants in South Dakota showed break-ins to property had dropped by 50 percent, vandalism by 46 percent, and drug abuse by 32 percent between 1998 and 2000. In St Johns County, Florida, the Character Counts! program resulted in drug offenses falling to 49 percent of their previous level, cases of battery to 18 percent, and property offenses to 17 percent in 2002-2003. The program recorded similar improvements in California, Maryland, Michigan, and New Mexico.
As these achievements demonstrate, there is much more to Character Counts! than simply sitting young people down at a desk and telling them to write an essay. But that is the basic exercise on which it all hinges. Just as Sir John Templeton frequently used an established axiom as the starting point for creative reflection, as Josephson points out, the program’s essays are all based on a maxim relating to character. Josephson is on record as saying that his favorite maxim is, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” It is through such maxims that youngsters explore their own insights into issues of character development.
“Through Character Counts! and its partners,” explains Josephson, “the quotations carefully selected for different grade levels have been exposed to millions of students, not only through the essay contest but through various other spin-offs, including posters.” The maxims set as essay topics have proved to have a more extensive usefulness, as he describes, “In addition to the essays submitted, many teachers have used the selected quotations and the support materials, helping teachers enhance the comprehension of the quotations and internalize the messages to integrate the profound truths into their lives.”
The program is supported by the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The essays conducted under the Foundations for Life brand are designed to improve literacy as well as character. Although the actual composition of the essay is an individual and highly personalized endeavor, it is complemented by discussions and classroom assignments, giving it a community dimension.
It is the wider community that will ultimately benefit from this extensive and ambitious initiative that, as the figures already cited demonstrate, has already had a very beneficial effect on American youth and society. The Foundation’s collaboration with this outstandingly fruitful program is an enduring testimonial to the ideals of Sir John Templeton and, even more significant, a thriving example of the practical application of his vision for character development among the citizens of the future.