At the United States Military Academy at West Point, our object is not only to teach cadets to be tactically skilled officers, but also to develop character—the constellation of psychological attributes that contributes to positive moral, intellectual, and civic functioning.
The Academy’s attempts to develop cadet character are supported by the Army values—loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage; the cadet honor code—I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do; Army doctrine highlighting the importance of character; and the exemplars in what we call the “long gray line” of officers that came before cadets.
They are also supported by an ethos that demands that every person and every department take responsibility for promoting a culture of character growth. One way this responsibility is expressed is in the innumerable efforts taken to develop character-focused curricula, both during the academic year and in summer military training. This focus has enabled our team, the Character Integration Advisory Group, to pilot programming to augment West Point’s ongoing character education efforts. Our ultimate goal is to honor the tradition of character in the Army, and to use the most rigorously vetted science to improve the character of America’s future officers.
Through doing this work, we are learning what it looks like to integrate character lessons into non-character skills training and education. More broadly, we want to understand how to take character research and create something effective and contextually relevant. The lessons we’ve learned can be helpful to those designing applied and professional character development programs, as well as those working at the level of higher education.
Character training in the Army
You might assume that character just develops naturally in the Army because the experience is so hard, and individuals are expected to be honorable. If we are putting cadets, officers, and soldiers through crucible after crucible and they are completing the tasks, shouldn’t their character already be growing?
Although there is some evidence that enduring difficult experiences can help us grow, we can’t be sure that this applies to military training experiences. As a result, we are moving away from the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” approach that has become engrained in the military. In its place, we are attempting to develop a more intentional, systematic, and science-driven blueprint for character formation.
West Point as an institution is taking an integrated approach to character formation that draws on theory and research from philosophy and psychology, particularly positive youth development. Character is not just an “add-on” to the “real training.” It is in fact woven into the training.
This way, character ideally doesn’t compete with other training events for time. In fact, our approach seeks to test if character could make the training more effective at building competence and the other skills we are trying to develop. That is, if we teach about empathy, respect for others, humility, self-control, and gratitude, we are more likely to produce good professionals, citizens, and students, but also to nurture traditional military values. For example, having respect for others, empathy for my professors, gratitude for the hard work of my fellow cadets, and humility about my abilities, I will likely be less tempted to cheat, which is in direct compliance with the cadet honor code and supports honest behavior in the future as an officer.
In addition, we try to pull the “levers” that contribute to volitional, lifelong character development, consisting of 3 Ms:
- mindset (promoting a growth mindset and self-efficacy, the belief that we can achieve our goals, around character),
- motives (motivation and desire to be a person of character),
- means (knowledge of and ability to use tools and practices for character formation).
Compare this to a system that might only teach that it is wrong to lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate these behaviors. Instead, we are using character as a way to shape the behaviors that are desirable of a good officer and a good person.
Strategies for character development
To weave character into the curriculum, we deliver the content in ways that are relevant to specific moral dilemmas faced in the armed forces. Through the summer and academic training at West Point, we focus on providing opportunities to develop character centered on professional competence and duties. For new cadets, the character curriculum illuminates common pitfalls that can arise in military service that are reflective of poor performance as well as poor character.
In the summer, we use many strategies for character development, including the seven that Michael Lamb and his colleagues have identified. These strategies are informed by various fields of study, but they are primarily drawn from philosophy and psychology.
Here is how some of these seven strategies come into play:
Habituation through practice. Five days per week for six weeks, new cadets are led by their squad leader (an upperclass cadet), using a training manual, in conversations about how being prepared in their character will help them navigate the various, unique military training experiences (such as rifle marksmanship and land navigation).
Promoting situational awareness. Cadets discuss specific character difficulties with specific events (such as fear when rappelling, temptations for dishonesty, lacking empathy when supporting teammates). They also brainstorm how the team can promote team cohesion and personal performance through positive character in these specific circumstances.
For example, although we desire to develop compassionate and supportive officers, there are instances where cadets are not supposed to assist their teammates to complete a task. In these cases, assisting them can hurt their teammates’ future ability to improve or even become proficient (despite the fact that being helpful feels like the right thing to do in the moment). This happens a lot with skills such as marksmanship or land navigation, and is a great way to talk about the conflict of virtues: You can help your teammate build their humility and confidence, or be compassionate in the moment.
Dialogue that increases virtue literacy. Here, we have explicit conversations about specific character attributes (e.g., resilience, compassion, moral courage) and how they relate to training. Squad leaders are also given stories of exemplary soldiers that can be shared in conversation, promoting a sense of elevation and inspiring cadets to embody character to increase their professional competence.
For example, in mountaineering, new cadets perform several tasks, including rock climbing and rappelling. In the squad conversations, new cadets discuss how physical courage, humility, and discipline are required to overcome personal fear and ask for help, whereas empathy and compassion are needed to support teammates who are experiencing distress to complete the event. After the event, the new cadets debrief with questions such as, “How did we do well to support each other as a team when we struggled? Where did we struggle in supporting each other (e.g., laughing, etc.)? Did we celebrate the victories of our teammates?”
Reflection. In addition to preparing for the character challenges of training events, new cadets are led in personal reflection on their day, how they can make meaning of where they displayed a character strength, and where they (and their team) might improve in displaying character. These reflection and discussion periods also serve as opportunities for moral reminders (another strategy).
For example, when they prepare for their fitness test as a squad, the squad leader asks the new cadets, “When does jealousy get in the way of team cohesion?” and facilitates a team discussion about how they can support one another in their personal and team performance. This pinpoints how envying a teammate’s ability might get in the way of optimal individual and team performance. The squad leader might also ask, “How can we cheer on our teammates regardless of how we individually are performing?”
Friendships of mutual accountability. After each training event, squad leaders lead new cadets in a review of tactical feedback, as well as feedback on team cohesion and support: Where did we do well? Where did you individually do well? Who is worth highlighting as an MVP for how they helped the team or improved today (gratitude exercises work well here!)? Where do you feel you could improve (humility)? Cadets are encouraged to watch and support each other throughout training events, and expected to debrief with each other to keep one another accountable to team and individual goals throughout training.
Each of these instances are examples of the third M of character formation we mentioned above: They are means through which character can be formed. At the same time, some also could affect the second M: motives to be a person of character (e.g., such as friendships of mutual accountability and the use of moral exemplars). In addition, a commitment to habituation through practice can potentially be a way to improve cadets’ growth mindset and sense of self-efficacy regarding character development, especially if it is paired with goal setting and tracking.
For rising second-year cadets, much of this experience is the same, but there is an increased emphasis on friendships of mutual accountability. They are required to provide peer evaluations at the end of the summer on exactly what strengths other cadets demonstrated and where there are areas of improvement, as well as how well-trusted each cadet is within the context of the summer training.
These opportunities not only provide grounds to connect and integrate professionalism with character, but also provide peer mentorship for first-years from upperclassmen, and encourage the upperclassmen to take on a leadership and potential exemplar role, with the opportunity to fold in personal stories to motivate the newer cadets.
Building character with purpose
During the school year, we also use these strategies, along with other research-based approaches to character formation. For example, our pilot first-year Character Growth Seminar is built on evidence and theory supporting character formation, particularly for young adults. During the second block of the course on intrapersonal development, cadets begin by considering and exploring their purpose in life. As they clarify this, they think through the virtues that will help them carry out their purpose. After reflecting upon which virtues they currently possess and those they need to develop further in themselves, they select a virtue or two to focus on for the remainder of the block (approximately six weeks).
To facilitate habituation through practice, cadets set weekly goals for developing their selected virtue, and they select friends of mutual accountability to work on their goals with. Each week in class, they meet with their friends and discuss their goal progress. These discussions facilitate dialogue that increases virtue literacy, serve as moral reminders, and help to foster situational awareness. The friends provide feedback, which they use to reflect on their goal pursuit as well as personal and self-transcendent purpose. Brief mindfulness meditation practices are also incorporated into several classes to promote emotion regulation and provide cadets with a tool they can use throughout their lives to develop their character.
As we are building character, we also try to assess and evaluate progress. For rising second-year cadets, there is a peer evaluation system where each squad member is rated by their squadmates on how much they are trusted, as well as where they did or did not display character over the summer, with feedback. The cadets see it as a way to give compassionate, sometimes difficult, feedback and help their teammates develop, but also a huge opportunity for building confidence and humility. Cadets and leadership have said it is the most impactful piece of feedback they receive during their time at West Point.
What we’ve learned in this process is that making character development initiatives contextually relevant is critical to their effectiveness. By connecting research-based character development approaches to professional requirements, rather than teaching about character absent of contextual application or relevance, we encourage cadets to internalize character, motivated by a desire to be a good officer and a good person.
We have yet to collect robust-enough evidence to support this claim, but we believe that character education strategies made relevant to situations and individuals increase the likelihood that character sticks and becomes a lifelong effort. Being situated in a larger institution that values both character and professional excellence, an approach like ours promotes multiple ends through integrated means. That is, we can say that we are attempting to link Army duties to character, which makes us more confident that we are indeed commissioning leaders—officers—of character.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to the efforts of the Character Integration Advisory Group and the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic for their direct support of this work, as well as the Department of Military Instruction. Thank you also to Dr. Peter Meindl for his comments and feedback on this piece, as well as his leadership in developing the 3 Ms referenced in this article.
Disclaimer: This is a reflection of the attitudes and opinions of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or stance of the United States Military Academy, United States Army, or United States Department of Defense.