Role-modelling, especially of the kind that moral philosophers, moral psychologists and moral educationists define as learning from moral exemplars or exemplarity, has been achieving renewed prominence.

The reasons for this development are probably varied, but it seems likely that they stem from declining trust in the ability of pure reasoning principles to enact lasting changes in the moral make-up of young people. The most sustained and enduring interest in the topic can perhaps be seen among character educationists, especially of the Aristotelian kind (Kristjánsson, 2007; Annas, 2011; Sanderse, 2013), as moral role-modelling constitutes a time-honoured staple of Aristotelian methods for cultivating character.

Furthermore, psychologists such as Bill Damon and Anne Colby are reviving what they call “exemplar methodology” (2015), and philosopher Linda Zagzebski is developing a whole new moral theory of exemplarism (2013). Even a recent self-help bestseller (Brooks, 2015) draws on the lives of high moral achievers in the past and encourages moderns to follow suit.

The dark side of this interest in “exemplarism” is the continued fear of parents and educators that young people are (increasingly) identifying with, idolising and emulating the “wrong” sort of role models. A recent poll highlights Miley Cyrus as the latest bane of parents.

Academics keep producing findings indicating that these fears are unfounded; most young people nowadays, as ever, cite – admittedly not Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela – their parents and relatives as role models (see Kristjánsson, 2007, chap. 7; Sanderse, 2013). Nevertheless, it might be unwise to rule out this concern completely.

Another worry is that little if any consensus has been reached on how best exemplar methodology works in classroom contexts; there is simply insufficient empirical evidence available on the effectiveness of different strategies.

Apart from those concerns about how exemplar methodology might be abused, or not optimally used, more general misgivings exist about its shortcomings. Those misgivings come in three different types.

One concerns the way in which exemplar learning stands in danger of degenerating into mere hero-worship and uncritical grovelling at the feet of the presumed exemplars. Contemporary character educationists agree that an imitation–conditioning model is not the ideal to aim at, except perhaps with very young children, and that it must gradually be replaced with critical reason-informed and reason-guided engagement (Kristjánsson, 2007, chap. 7; Annas, 2011; Sanderse, 2013).

For even if the immediate source of motivation remains as the admiration for a particular exemplar (be it the student’s current teacher/parent/mentor, or a sage from the past), the ultimate source must be something other than simply a desire to “imitate a hero”. It is up to character educationists, however, to explain how this shift of motivation can be elicited and sustained in students.

The second objection concerns the threat of moral inertia, where the moral exemplars are seen as standing so high above the learner that idolising them becomes disempowering and dispiriting, rather than empowering and uplifting. Sports psychology is replete with stories of people who gave up because they realised that they could never reach the same heights as Olympic winners; how can we avoid the same effect taking hold in moral education?

The third objection concerns moral over-stretching, where the learner tries to follow in the footsteps of a role model, but not being as sure-footed, may end up in unfamiliar circumstances where, rather than virtue progressing, vice breaks forth with redoubled ardour because the learner falls to temptations that the advanced role model (such as a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Teresa) could overcome.

As said before, too little is known about the best ways to stimulate proper role modelling in classroom contexts. In the Jubilee Centre, we have one PhD student working on this issue and other researchers are giving it serious thought. We will keep you updated on our progress, but any comments from readers would be much appreciated at this stage.

Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Further readings:

Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. London: Allen Lane.

Damon, W., & Colby, A. (2015). The power of ideals: The real story of moral choice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kristjánsson, K. (2007). Aristotle, emotions and education. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Sanderse, W. (2013). The meaning of role modelling in moral and character education. Journal of Moral Education, 42(1), 28–42.

Zagzebski, L. (2013). Moral exemplars in theory and practice. Theory and Research in Education, 11(2), 193–206.