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Forming Students for Freedom

On January 7, Catholic educators, like educators across the country, faced a daunting task: figuring out what to say to students in the wake of the previous day’s horrific attack on the U.S. Capitol and on the Constitutional process underway there. Because we believe we have a role to play in preparing students to shape a far different America than what we saw last week, our work is only beginning.

Our work in this moment may be more complicated than that of our colleagues in non-Christian schools—in part because perceptive students no doubt noticed flags with “Jesus” written on them carried by members of the violent mob as they broke into the Capitol. So we feel an added obligation to ensure that our students emphatically embrace the truth of God, who is love, while helping them reject a version of Christianity distorted for cynical political ends.

While we may have this added work to do, Catholic educators are asking ourselves the same questions all teachers are asking: what tools can we use to inoculate our students against such virulent hysteria? Certainly, critical thinking skills, deep knowledge of history and government, practices for disagreeing respectfully, and the will to find common ground are all crucial. Yet these capacities, necessary though they are for our future citizens, are insufficient.

Cultivating virtues does not need to be the domain of Catholic or even religious schools.


In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, a key text of Catholic social teaching, St. John Paul II warns of the consequences of a “democracy without virtues.” The pope speaks of virtues and civic life not just as a religious leader, but as a Polish citizen who lived through Naziism, Stalinism, and a shaky transition to democracy. As my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee has discussed, all American schools teach values, if only implicitly, through the behaviors they accept or reject among both students and adults. Now might be a good time for schools in our democracy to more explicitly pursue virtues—”habitual and firm dispositions do the good”—particularly ones that most of us can agree on.

Cultivating virtues does not need to be the domain of Catholic or even religious schools. Classical charter schools and both public and private Montessori schools, for example, employ instructional approaches that vary greatly from each other, and yet their curricula and school cultures often place the study and development of virtues at the center of their work.

The road to failed character education at all kinds of schools is paved with good assemblies.


Catholic schools’ faith tradition provides a framework of cardinal, or moral, virtues. But those virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—or any others must be made new in the daily practices of our schools if students are to embrace them as their own. After all, teaching virtues is not the same as preaching about them. The Partnership’s Christian Dallavis has written in a previous Post about the steps schools must take in order for students to live what we invite them to believe. The road to failed character education at all kinds of schools is paved with good assemblies and little meaningful follow-up in kids’ and adults routines.

The norms Christian talks about for schools can be far more joyful than the kind of moralizing virtues education that makes me and most pre-teens roll our eyes. As former Notre Dame president Ted Hesburgh said, “All of us are experts at practicing virtue at a distance.” Cultivating our personal capacities for goodness day by day can be a courageous adventure if we share more of the effort and fewer judgments.

Students cannot learn temperance from adults who lose their tempers, or fortitude from those who give up easily. Adult hypocrisy has never been much help in forming meaningful habits in children. So as many people raising or educating kids have discovered, the work of helping them form virtuous habits can also have the benefit of helping us all become our better selves too.

For Catholics, meaningful work on virtues anchors itself in freedom. Freedom is intrinsic to our humanity. It is our free will—our free choices to do good—that bring us closest to our fullest selves, to others, and to God. Americans share a bipartisan reverence for freedom, and perhaps our culture could benefit from reflecting on this Catholic take on it: freedom does not exist for its own sake. It has a purpose—facilitating our ability to do good. As a result, freedom from any particular restriction matters only in its ability to free us to contribute to the common good. And we need virtues if we are to use freedom this way.

In this moment, the virtue that perhaps we and our students need the most is hope.


John Adams asserted that “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” Cultivating personal virtue is not the only key to making America better right now. But the hard work of creating more just systems will take all the public and private virtue we can muster.

We are a nation committed to self-improvement. Non-sectarian efforts like those of the Character Lab are an example of how we can graft that zeal shared by everyone from Puritans to fitness buffs to the needs of this moment. We have done great things collectively before, and we can support each other and our children now in community-wide quests for virtue.

In this moment, the virtue that perhaps we and our students need the most is hope—which along with faith and love is what Catholic tradition calls a spiritual virtue. It took years of cynicism to produce the mob that tore through the Capitol. It will take widespread, disciplined hope to rebuild the shared civic life that keeps such insidiousness at bay.

While we cannot wind the tape back a week, months, or years and inject more virtue into the rioters or the politicians who egged them on, we can look to the fortitude and prudence of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who pulled rioters away from the Senate at great personal risk. We can lift up models of justice in our cities and nation; we can heed President Biden’s call for more temperate rhetoric; and then we can, together, do the hard, beautiful work of cultivating the habits that we and our children need to create “more perfect union”—one virtuous act at a time.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Affairs at Partnership Schools.