The case for a balanced approach to moral character

New research shows how to teach moral education and character development that helps individuals find common ground despite their differences, be they religious, political, or otherwise.

By Sally J. Clasen

Is it possible to effectively instill moral character in today’s society? If so, how might one go about it while maintaining a clear separation between church and state and uniting, rather than dividing, disparate parties with deeply opposing perspectives?

If 2020 and 2021 were any measure, given the political and social unrest and associated violence that dominated newsfeeds, the ability for individuals to act morally responsible — and comfortably agree to disagree — seems like a difficult challenge and tall order, to say the very least.

But is it still possible?

Christopher Neck, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship, along with lead researcher, Jordan R. Jensen, founder and CEO of Freedom Focused (a personal leadership training organization) believe it is possible to teach moral education and character development that helps individuals find common ground despite their differences, be they religious, political, or otherwise.

Building moral character

The researchers present a new and holistic, yet practical approach for building moral character in their paper: “Introducing a Self-Leadership-Driven, Action Research-Informed, and Character Education-Based Theoretical Framework for Educational, Ideological, and Administrative Balance in the 21st Century.”

According to Neck,

While moral and character education has traditionally been part of a school’s curriculum, in recent decades it has become increasingly harder to cultivate a moral compass in students.

Says Neck: "In generations past, such subjects were educationally implicit — an indispensable part of a student’s schooling experience. In more recent decades, however, it has become increasingly difficult for schools to provide any kind of moral direction to students. The reason for this is twofold. First, a growing awareness of the necessity of a separation between church and state. And second, a growing cultural divide between extreme factions on the political left and right.”

Continuing, Neck points out, “Initially, the response to both issues was to increasingly abandon personal leadership instruction and character-based education. The thinking behind these policies was to maximize the perceived separation between church and state and to simultaneously avoid offending the growing ideological differences among various stakeholders, such as politicians, policy-makers, educators, and parents. Yet, the need for moral character development still exists.”

Neck and Jensen have responded to these obvious challenges by designing a way to deliver moral instruction while maintaining a clear separation between church and state while seeking to simultaneously foster greater unity among disparate factions by building upon common ground.

In their paper, they outline the Self-Action Leadership (SAL) Theory and Model — a comprehensive approach for moral instruction and character development that meets the personal leadership and educational needs of students while remaining secular and non-partisan in its content and format.

A hybrid of academic and real-life principles, the SAL curriculum is specifically aimed at high school and college students. The material is presented in two traditional textbooks (SAL Volumes I and II) and the SAL Master Challenge, which consists of 25 relevant homework assignments spread throughout both texts.

Aim for the stars

The purpose of the SAL theory is to introduce a student-practitioner to nine different ascending stages of personal and professional growth opportunity. These stages are metaphorically compared to ascending stages of the Earth’s atmosphere up to outer space. Self-action leaders are then likened to a rocket ship that travels through various layers of the atmosphere on its way to the gravity-free zones of deep outer space.

As Neck points out,

Just as a lot of fuel is required and a lot of danger is encountered on a physical journey to transcend gravity, self-action leaders must work hard and overcome a variety of obstacles and challenges to rise to the highest levels of their potential in their lives and careers.

The SAL theory also introduces 13 “Laws” and their accompanying corollaries as a cognitive and behavioral guide to wise personal and professional decision-making throughout their existential (metaphorical) ascent through the various levels of growth.

According to Neck: “By adhering to the philosophy outlined in the laws and corollaries, a self-action leader can, over time, eventually obtain the highest levels of personal and professional growth outlined in the theory.”

The SAL model compliments SAL theory by providing a directly related, although entirely separate, framework for making wise personal and professional decisions using a metaphor that compares a self-action leader’s life and career journey to the construction of a skyscraper. By providing two entirely different ways of looking at the same thing, Jensen and Neck aim to maximize the material’s potential to reach as diverse a range of students as possible.

A balancing act

Neck makes clear that while SAL is ideal for formal school settings, it by no means should be relegated solely to the traditional classroom; nor should it be restricted by age or occupation. Instead, it was designed as a go-to tool for leaders and managers of all kinds — from politicians and parents to employers and educators.

Says Neck,

SAL has no age limits or life-stage boundaries. Anyone and everyone are encouraged to obtain the textbooks and make the material a life- and career-changing exercise. And that includes business staff, from new hires and lower-level employees to mid- and upper-level management-circles — and even on up into executive suites.

SAL offers a unique perspective on moral character because it’s more personal and comprehensive than other theories. According to Neck, “this personalization is rooted in 30 years of autographical experiences — including the good, the bad, and the ugly — of the lead researcher (Jensen). As a result, the entire framework has been consummately (and time consumingly) tested in the laboratory of real life over long periods.”

The combined SAL framework contained in the theory and model provides a template for personal leadership education and character development the authors believe may qualify as that elusive “balanced approach” that moderate voices on all sides of our current socio-political divide may be able to embrace.

In conclusion, Neck reiterates that “the biggest obstacle to SAL’s success remains the current cultural and ideological divisions in the United States and around the globe. In an atmosphere where it seems almost nobody can agree on anything, and where virtually everyone seems resistant to real, authentic change of any kind, it will undoubtedly prove challenging — or at the very least time-consuming — to have SAL embraced by a wide audience. Nevertheless, this obstacle will not keep its authors from giving it their best shot. Time will ultimately tell the tale of its potential.”

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