A Collegiate Character Crisis?

You can’t “privilege-check” your character.

Nothing builds perseverance faster than pushing a speed sled loaded with nearly twice your body weight. Nothing molds your attitude towards your fellow man quite like carrying him a few hundred yards on your back. Nothing disciplines you as firmly as being up to see the sunrise more days out of the week than not. Adversity is instrumental in instructing courage and perseverance, but what we do when nothing is on the line and no one is watching is equally as important in shaping character. Choices matter, and character is nothing more than choices.

Who would claim otherwise? We definitely recognize instances of good and bad character. That said, how much do we really care about the roots and creation of this character? Assessing character briefly became a matter of utmost national importance (or non-importance, perhaps) in this election season, but woefully little attention is paid to the act of building character. In a society that generally prefers quantification, action items, assessment and evaluation, creating character is seen as a moving target and vague abstraction better left alone. Treating character in this way, however, is exceptionally dangerous to a self-governing society.

As Lawrence Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education, argues, liberty demands high character. If we are to self-govern, we must govern ourselves. In other words, if we are to effectively operate a system in which authority and power are vested in elected representatives, then elected and electors alike must strive to reflect the highest caliber of character. As our Founding Fathers understood, freedom itself is preserved by the good character of all. Washington bid farewell to young America with the injunction that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

Yet the building of character seems to be a non-priority to the institution that should be doing the most for it: the modern university. Historically, the stated missions of universities have sought, in so many words, to produce principled leaders of sound moral fiber. Florida State University compiled a list of current, explicitly character-driven university mission statements, and the list’s brevity is concerning. Character is no small task, and there is more room for failure than success.

Perhaps some part of failure comes in the form of collectivism. Don’t get me wrong; it is well and good that universities and their organizations seek to promote community and inclusion. A few of these groups are very deliberate in building character and molding leaders, and are explicitly committed to individual growth. Athletic communities are built upon the idea that better people make better athletes, religious organizations seek to deepen personal connections to faith, and volunteering and community service groups rely upon individuals with upstanding character to do the work they do.


Unfortunately, campus rhetoric is often oriented completely differently. Many groups arrange themselves according to a label game in which they understand who a student is by looking at their ethnicity, race, socioeconomic background, religion, sexuality, etc., ad nauseam. We play along, habitually placing ourselves in the taxonomy with sentences that start, “As a [insert income status] [insert sexuality] [insert gender identity] [insert ethnicity] from [insert geographical location], I feel…” I don’t deny that some of these things can significantly influence our worldview or that our backgrounds can have a huge impact on our lives. But deep within those labels are our choices.

Membership in a particular group in the identity taxonomy is not at all an accurate measure of who an individual is. Few people would deny this, but few are willing to delve deeper than the labels to examine choices within them. After all, collective identity markers are categorical variables, easy to examine with statistics and address with policies. Of course the modern university, with the unenviable task of trying to please a student body that is never pleased, would also orient their rhetoric and actions along concrete and tangible variables to try to keep as many students as happy as they can.

This might leave us in a logically untenable position, holding that the university is in the wrong for failing to develop character, yet conceding that it cannot in fact do so. So what the institution ultimately cannot do, we must do ourselves. Collegiate groups that aim to build character can lead a student to the waters of truth, but we choose whether to scoop it up in our hands and drink.

Character is not created by external circumstance. Circumstances can reveal and inform character, but only individual choices create it. We demand a great deal from our universities, but we should also demand a great deal from ourselves beyond academic achievement, resume-building, networking: beyond success. For if we obtain all these things without developing strong character, then we have obtained nothing.

A coach or drill sergeant can motivate, threaten, and inspire you, sometimes all in the same sentence, but only you can move that sled or finish those push-ups. You may be instructed in the pursuit of truth, and educated in the fundamentals of leadership, but your actions remain in your hands alone.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator living in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.