The role of moral exemplars in character education is often neglected, despite the fact that pointing to models of virtue is an effective way of reminding us of the kind of person we wish to be.

It is common to hear teachers tell pupils to “be yourself, don’t copy anyone!”, making emulation sound like poor behaviour.

Nevertheless, ordinary experience suggests we cannot help but admire some people and we long to imitate them. This is why educating through exemplars has always played a fundamental role in teaching, where the educator refers to historical, mythical or current exemplars to attract the novice’s interest.

Encountering a moral exemplar, in person or through narratives, elicits admiration and can be of the utmost moral significance, capable of changing our lives in significant ways. As philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch would have said, morality is not primarily a matter of struggling to act well, but above all it is about having a strong attachment towards the right people and taking inspiration from them.

Thus, the real point is this: who can we count on as genuine moral exemplars? Is it saints, who are supposed to possess all the virtues? Or is it heroes, who display one or more virtues to an exceptional degree but are imperfect in other respects?

Figures such as St Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Jesus and Mother Teresa are often cited as examples of saintly moral morality; whereas lists of heroes might include Robin Hood, Oskar Schindler, Marie Sklodowska Curie and Leopold Socha. In other words, the question is this: is it legitimate to point a child’s attention to imperfect models, or should we limit ourselves to models of supposed perfection?

Saints are arguably superior to heroes. When faced with heroes, novices risk admiring the non-virtuous traits of say Batman or Sherlock Holmes. Saints, of course, are admirable in all respects.

However, heroes are also fundamental for virtue education. The fact heroes excel in a limited number of virtues makes it easier for novices to identify their exemplar traits. Additionally, this makes novices more likely to imitate them as virtuous heroes come close to our imperfect condition as they exhibit non-virtuous traits. A hero’s possession of moral faults may persuade novices that moral exemplarity is not out of reach, and is “close” to them in a psychological sense.

In both kinds of exemplarity, a good educational strategy points to exemplars who are close to young people in an experiential sense. It highlights ordinary “heroes” and “saints” worthy of imitation among relatives, friends and teachers. The fact they are unlikely to become famous should not prevent us from trying to follow their moral path.

The strategy has its risks. Take the example of a child who improperly admires people close to them in the experiential sense, like the son or daughter who considers the criminal deeds of a mother or father as morally exemplary and tries to imitate the parent.

Exemplar-based accounts of character education can tackle this problem by suggesting the educator presents the pupil with alternatives, i.e. authentic, moral exemplars to admire and imitate. In felicitous cases, an encounter with alternative and worthy-of-emulation exemplars provides the pupil with the motivation they would otherwise lack to revise their objects of admiration.

The path towards admiring virtuous exemplars is not always direct; there may be subtle twists and turns. It is reasonable to expect the pupil will be challenged by the fact that alternative models have been presented to them, and engage in an enriching dialogue with the educator about the differences between these figures and the “vicious” exemplars they admire. The chances of revising an attachment to bad exemplars are much higher if the pupil can engage with the story of virtuous exemplars, rather than simply being told to abandon admiration of vicious models.

Communities that adopt exemplar-based accounts of education can benefit from its sensitivity to “ordinary” exemplars: identifying exemplars in small groups can strengthen personal bonds and enrich mutual trust among members of a community through shared admiration of a particular exemplar. It can also encourage the exemplar’s deeper engagement with the moral goals of those who admire him or her.

  • Moral exemplarity and related issues will be discussed at Aretai – Center on Virtues 2nd annual conference, in Genoa, Italy, October 5-6. For more information, visit the conference website.

Michel Croce is Early Stage Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, and Maria Silvia Vaccarezza is Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Classics, Philosophy and History, University of Genoa.

Michel and Maria are also Fellow Researchers at Aretai – Center on Virtues, a partner centre of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

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