Cedar Valley Elementary School students climb a 25-foot outdoor rock wall - and cheer on their classmates - as part of the Rock Solid Character program. On the wall - as in life - they must push through fear and obstacles.

The Killeen Daily Herald was in attendance to watch the elementary-age students take on this new challenge, and The Herald also spoke with the event's organizers to learn more about the underlying principles and expected outcomes.

The Rock Solid Character climbing program is an offering of inSPIRE Rock, a climbing and team building center located just outside Houston, TX. The company says that through the program students are exposed to important lessons about character, and then given the opportunity to apply those lessons through real-life experiences on the climbing wall.

In this way, Rock Solid Character uses experiential education to engage students, rather than just having them sit passively through a school assembly on the topic. The experience of taking on a challenge and pushing through fear is different from just talking about it.

In particular, Jacob Wood of inSPIRE Rock wanted students to understand the importance of moments in which one can choose to persevere through a challenge or just decide to give up. “We want them to see that life is fun, but that you have to make decisions and it’s not fun if you get in trouble and get grounded,” said Wood.

"The adventure-based character education program centered on an acronym GRIP with the letters representing good attitude, respect and responsibility, integrity, and perseverance," reported The Herald. The acronym is important to take the sometimes amorphous topic of character and give it some firm anchors for young students.

Brandi Carroll, Cedar Valley school counselor, says that the experience itself also serves as an anchor. She says that the movements students make on the wall are ones they will never forget. The clarity of this memory will also help to remind them of the importance of character and the need to act with it on a daily basis.

The challenge for Rock Solid Character, other similar organizations, and schools that deeply want to build character in kids is not just making it experiential, but forming deep convictions about right and wrong.

"Character is formed in relation to convictions and is manifested in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation," writes Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character.

Yet in many schools, the dominant note is not conviction in the face of temptation, but self-actualization, says UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin, who did field research in urban public schools for the School Cultures and Student Formation Project that investigated how schools like Cedar Valley form character in students. Guhin explains, "There was a kind of 'moral invisible hand,' a sense in which the schools’ public duty to the nation was best served by helping each student as an individual be successful in whichever way they chose."

Schools face a real challenge in weaving character formation into all that they do, accessing resources like Rock Solid Character, and providing students with what Hunter calls "commanding truths" or "truths made sacred." That, indeed, is the hard work of character formation.

The Tragedy of Moral Education in America by James Davison Hunter provides a succinct statement of the challenges that schools face in forming durable character. You can receive the PDF for free when you sign up for our weekly CultureFeed email.

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