Andy Warhol famously said that “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” 

And in the age of Youtube, Vine, Periscope and other all-access broadcast channels, it seems he may be correct. This quote turned concept has embedded itself in the modern American psyche to the point where many of us, and our children, strive to cultivate our personalities, and our successes, more so than our characters. This was not always the case.

Waldorf seventh graders study the Renaissance and spend time specifically on the Renaissance Man — a character and a concept embodying Renaissance Humanism, which believed that men should embrace knowledge and spent their lives developing physical, social and artistic capabilities. Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous embodiment of a Renaissance Man as he was accomplished in art, science, music, invention, and writing.

The results in this shift in paradigm, from developing one’s character and capabilities into developing one’s personality and likeability, is not typically addressed in modern education, but perhaps it should be considering how misunderstood the concept of character is to today’s young people.

Waldorf educators focus on developing the whole child — head, heart, and hands. This language infers educating children in character and emotional intelligence.

According to the non-profit character promoting organization, CITRS, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, found that 70% of the high school students surveyed admitted that they cheat in school, but 97% said that it is important for a person to have good character. When asked if they themselves were people of good character, 91% said that they were, even though 70% of those asked had admitted to cheating.

Is it any wonder our kids are confused, when our politicians, Wall street bankers, and celebrities run their character amok and yet live prosperous, successful lives? Our children cheat to “get ahead” and not disappoint. They need to get into good colleges, maintain their reputations, so character loses out to a success and personality ethic.

And yet, those colleges who take them, are not particularly impressed. Declining student resilience has professors concerned that students are not going to do well in a fast paced world with ever-changing rules and requirements for success. Students need 21st-century skills that go beyond resume building and test taking — skills like curious self-motivation, determination and a healthy understanding of failure.

Perhaps out of fear of crossing into religious moral territory, schools have long deferred character development back to the homefront. But, the reality is that children spend much of their days, weeks and lives in school and it is in school that their characters ARE developed and tested whether or not the curriculum reflects or guides this development.

As The Atlantic highlighted, in this guest author piece, The Benefits of Character Education, we need to start realizing that,

“Character education is not old-fashioned, and it’s not about bringing religion into the classroom. Character is the “X factor” that experts in parenting and education have deemed integral to success.”

Education expert, Dr. Michele Borba, is a proponent of character education and has written a book addressing modern trends called UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. While she believes teaching children character has value for the sake of our future society, she also thinks that perhaps pitching it as a tool for success might be one way to get it back into our school systems.

“We are such a trophy-, SAT-obsessed society, but if parents would recognize the value [for success] beyond the humanness, civility and ethics, they might get it.” And, she adds, “It needs to be woven in curriculum, not tacked on.”

And does building character help children succeed in school? In anecdotal studies, yes. The Great Schools article The Value of Character Education reports two specific success stories in the character education column. A middle school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, taught an altered curriculum to highlight and model six facets of character. The principal attributed a declining trend in school violence to this change. The number of recorded incidents that year went from 91 to 26. A similar story came out of Austin, Texas, where character education curriculum was said to cause a 40% percent drop in discipline referrals at an elementary school there. highlights even more success stories and studies, claiming their compiled research proves that, “Schools that infuse character education into their curricula and cultures find improved academic achievement, behavior, school culture, peer interaction, and parental involvement.”

Waldorf educators focus, starting in Early Childhood, on developing the whole child — head, heart, and hands. This language infers educating children in character and emotional intelligence. For example, at an early age, teachers specifically study and cultivate an understanding of how to help children take their will, strong and determined, and apply it in the world of others in a way that is cooperative and respectful.

MischaFrom there, in primary school, teachers focus on community development between peers and in relation to the Main Lesson teacher, who stays with the same group of children for several years in order to specifically aid in the development of character and community.  This is possible, in large part, because the teachers remain with the students year over year.  It is easier to assess and guide character development in young children when one can witness that development over time. Young students, as they grow, are continuously taught character through story and myth. In Fourth Grade study of Nordic Culture, for example, students hear, see and learn that the likeable, personality pro and trickster, Loki, pays dearly for his faltering character.

As students get older, they can discuss character development more specifically, and more personally, as they take on parts in plays and discuss the meaning of literature and history and its effects on both past and modern day culture, such as with the study of the Renaissance man mentioned earlier.

Waldorf educators teach children character for a myriad of reasons. Not only does teaching character help our children find balance in an imbalanced world, it also improves the state of our global community. And, yes, it will also help our children succeed because, although the value of character has been superficially diminished, the fact is it remains a key factor in 21st century innovation and success.


Steven Covey, uses the metaphor of an iceberg, to explain the essential nature of character in today’s world. He says the personality ethics are the tip we can see, while our characters loom large and essential below the surface. He explains, “Character ethic depends on deep changes within each of us, while a personality ethic falls back on methods or techniques. The personality ethic does not challenge us; neither does it bring about deep changes within… the foundation must be changed. We need the character ethic. We need this inside out approach to find success.”

To explore Waldorf Education and to find a Waldorf school near you, visit AWSNA.