Exemplar Interventions to Develop Character

Is it possible to develop our character by emulating moral exemplars? Can narratives of moral exemplars play a unique role in shaping specific character virtues? Can academic institutions employ exemplar interventions to promote moral development among their students? These questions animate our network project, “Exemplar Interventions to Develop Character.” We believe that a significant gap exists between what we know generally about the theoretical and pedagogical value of exemplars and what we know specifically and practically about how they can promote character virtues. Integrating insights from philosophy, psychology, theology, literature, and education, the project aims to provide a strong foundation for exemplar interventions by examining three Big Questions:

  1. Which psychological pedagogical, and spiritual mechanisms influence the impact of exemplars?
  2. Which types of exemplars are most effective for developing specific character virtues?
  3. How can scholarly research on exemplars be translated into effective exemplar interventions?

This network grant aims to provide concrete answers to these Big Questions through a network of multi-site studies that seek insights on how exemplar interventions work for which virtues under what conditions. To test exemplar interventions across different developmental stages, we will analyze key mechanisms in the use of exemplars among middle and high school students (Meindl) and college students (Engelen), while exploring how a university program (Lamb) can provide evidence for the successful design and dissemination of exemplar-based character education. We will examine how varying the content of exemplar narratives (e.g. narratives of overcoming adversity) may help to promote specific character virtues, particularly in the wake of adversity (Jayawickreme). In addition, our network grant will focus on the unique role of narratives as a central component of exemplar interventions. To this end, we examine the psychological, literary, and spiritual functions of exemplars narratives across different genres, including spiritual literature, novels, fables, and fairy tales (Gulliford).

Special thanks to the John Templeton Foundation for the opportunity to conduct this research. This project’s core goal of promoting character virtues through exemplars aligns squarely with Sir John Templeton’s concern for fostering character virtues. Sir John wrote extensively about the value of being seen as a moral exemplar who possesses specific character virtues. Learn more about the Sir John Templeton and the John Templeton Foundation here.