Tenley Study Center

This article was used in a small group discussion session of one of our student conferences. It provides an easy to understand introduction on the need to form one’s character. It forms part of a series of brochures provided to the students who go to Tenley Center in Washington, D.C. Although primarily addressed to young men, its ideas may apply to the youth in general.


We often hear, these days, about the importance of character: the necessity of character in our public servants and business leaders; character formation as a vital aspect of education of youth; even self-help books that advertise “10 easy ways to build character and achieve your goals in life.” But for all the discussion of character, few bother to define what it is, exactly, they are talking about.


Perhaps this is because character is one of the more elusive concepts around. We recognize intuitively its importance, but find it all-but-impossible to grasp in its essentials. Character is- at one and the same time- the most important and the most intangible thing about a person. It makes us what we are, and allows us to become what we aspire to be. We recognize its presence in others, but defining it is a different matter. In common parlance, character usually has the connotation of guts, or the ability to overcome obstacles. These qualities may describe traits that result from a character, but do not really get at its essence. Webster’s gives us several meanings that are closer to the mark: “moral constitution,” “strongly developed moral quality,” moral “capacity.” Interestingly, each of these dictionary definitions- unlike the more contemporary usage- emphasizes that the notion of character is intimately bound up with morality, one’s sensitivity to and conformity with an objective moral law. Still, these more complete definitions remain deficient, for they imply that character is a quality inherited at birth, rather than the product of prolonged struggle. Clearly, a sufficient definition of character would include both the moral dimension (consisting in objective moral norms imposed from without), and the element of habitual personal effort (consisting in the interior struggle of conforming one’s actions with the moral demands of the moment in a consistent manner). Character, then, might best be termed “the ability to commit oneself to the pursuit of noble goals.”


Let’s look at a little more closely at that definition. First of all, we should note that it is not dependent on success; although character certainly helps one to persevere through adversity in the pursuit of one’s goals, it does not assure their attainment. Much of the time, success in achieving what one sets out to do depends in large part on outside forces over which one has little control. At the same time, standard measurements of achievement are often unreliable gauges of character; a gifted student may receive high marks in class with relatively little effort or study, while another student who finds the material more challenging may very well have to make an extraordinary effort- requiring a good deal more character- to get the identical grade. Character consists in pushing on despite adverse circumstances, in living up to commitments made- even when things get difficult. It does not depend on variables such as feeling or moods, much less native ability, brains, talents, or temperament. It depends on good judgment in determining what goals are worth pursuing, and then the fortitude to follow through in the attempt to attain those goals.


Secondly, “noble goals” would exclude ambitions based on selfishness. Many people are willing to sacrifice a lot in pursuit of goals that it would be difficult to define as noble: vanity, desire to have power or dominion over others, lust after wealth or status. For a high school student, the ambition to attend a top-flight university might be based on the desire to impress one’s peers, on the belief that it would enhance one’s sense of self-worth, or simply vanity; on the other hand, it might be based on the noble ambition of preparing oneself to better serve one’s family and society in the future. Whether the motivation behind one’s ambition is other-oriented or self-oriented has much to do with whether it can be classified as noble.


Character is also about the capacity for commitment to other people rather than the short-term commitment characteristic of a yearning for material goods, for pleasure, or for the approval of peers. When you get down to it, most of the social problems of our society faces are due to the fact that this capacity for commitment to individuals has diminished substantially in recent years. All good things worth pursuing require long-term commitment: professional excellence, marriage and parenting- even lasting friendship. The reason that character is so vital to maintaining these commitments is clear: long-term commitments require character strengths that last for the haul. But in popular culture that equates personal freedom with the evasion of responsibility and the refusal to be constrained by decisions made, the whole concept of commitment becomes utterly foreign, and marriages, professional obligations, and social institutions become impossible to maintain as a result.


Unfortunately, young people today imbibe a good deal of that cultural atmosphere, the effects of which are apparent to anyone who deals with them on a regular basis, particularly their parents. The unwillingness or inability to make commitments can be clearly seen in the responses one normally hears when asking a young man in high school to participate in an educational, religious, or charitable activity: “Let me see what else is happening on that day,” “I like to keep that night free for myself,” or even “yes, I will be there”- followed by a failure to appear. The guiding principle seems to be: don’t let yourself get tied down with obligations when something better, or more entertaining, may always come along. “Freedom” is jealously protected, while the capacity to exercise that freedom (in taking on commitments and following through on those commitments) dies on the vine. In such an environment, it becomes all the more important to transmit to young men the elements of good character, and to inculcate the habits by which it may be attained. Adolescence is, really, the last stop on the journey to mature adulthood- and the beginning of the self-chosen path. Young men between the ages of 12 and 21 are at a crucial stage of their character development, and their ability to acquire the habits of which character is made up- and to adjust their way of behaving to the model they aspire to – is never more acute. In other words, their character is largely determined at this formative age, and patterns of a lifetime are set for good or ill. On the choices that young men make in this regard and the habits they acquire literally depend the future of society. In this task of character education and formation, parents are the ones who have the most profound and lasting effect, both by their example and by the moral principle they pass down to their children to guide them through the often rough shoals of adolescence and young adulthood.


But the formation of the youth does not stop at home; the influences they absorb from teachers, peers, and friends also go a long way toward shaping their way of looking at the world and reacting to it. Humans are social animals largely formed by their interaction with others: that’s a truth even more important to bear in mind at the stage of adolescence. When the parents’ efforts to produce young men of high character are reinforced by these influences outside the family, they invariably find that their job has become remarkably easier as a result of the fact that they are no longer fighting the battle alone. Now, more than ever before, there is a great need for a healthy and natural environment outside of the home where young men can develop through interaction with their peers and through the instruction and example of positive adult role models who can be relied upon as guides and confidants. This is precisely what Tenley Study Center attempts to provide and has done so with great success for over thirty years…


Reprinted by permission from Tenley Study Center, Washington, D.C., www.tenley.org. 

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