Cultivating Emotional Intelligence and Courage: What do schools mean by “produce productive and good citizens”?

By Michael Hylen

Throughout history, education has had two great goals: to help people become smart and to help them become good (Lickona, 1991). However, in today’s society, these two goals have become somewhat skewed. The first goal has remained the same—to provide a climate for student learning and academic achievement. The second has been altered. Public education tends to focus more on simply reducing student problem behavior instead of developing positive character traits and growing emotionally intelligent students. Still, many schools today include such terms as productive citizens or good citizens in strategically thought-out mission and vision statements regarding their graduates.

What difference does it make? I have heard it asked, “through the process of teaching right and wrong behaviors, are we not teaching positive character traits?” In some cases, yes. But not always. When schools focus on behavior, the notions of right and wrong are the concern (e.g., do not fight, do not be late, and do not use curse words). This is certainly something schools should be encouraged to do. However, when schools concentrate on building positive character traits, the focus shifts to acts of virtue (e.g., courage, kindness, integrity, empathy, etc.). Instruction in both ethics and virtues is needed. The problem is that schools tend to focus on behaviors to the exclusion of teaching and practicing virtuous character traits. The impact of which is felt in the classroom and society alike.

Without an intentional focus on replacing negative behaviors with appropriate virtues, schools will fall short in their efforts to “produce good citizens”. While character education efforts provide a solid groundwork for doing so, additional strategies must be explored for producing good citizens. Such interventions can result in the positive growth of student social and emotional skills.

What makes a Productive or Good Citizen?

Before schools put any specific initiatives in place, they must address one question; “what makes a person a productive or good citizen?” One could suggest that a good citizen is a person who acts responsibly in their community, pays their taxes, is a law-abiding citizen and even pitches in during a time of crisis. This type of citizen is the one who demonstrates good character through giving to local charities. Certainly, schools would want this of its graduates.

Still, should not schools set higher expectations of their graduates?  Shouldn’t they seek to produce citizens that are more active in their communities? Ones who not only participate in community efforts but also take leadership roles in them. Citizens who understand how to plan for the success of collective tasks. Citizens who understand how government agencies work and strive to improve their community. Citizens who not only give to local charities but help organize their efforts in meeting their clients’ needs.

Why stop there? Should not schools take it even one-step further? Should they not strive to produce citizens that are capable of critically assessing the political, economic, social, and cultural structures of not only their local communities, but also the greater community at-large? Such citizens play an active role in seeking to eliminate the root causes that lead to people’s need for the support of local charities. Such citizens understand social injustice and seek to effect change. Such citizens act courageously. Citizens at this level have the ability to understand community issues beyond what is apparent on the surface level and take action, regardless of the cost. 

Emotionally Intelligent Citizenship

To this extent, schools must address core assumptions about what it means to develop students into good and productive citizens.  Is it enough to incorporate a quality character education program into the curriculum aimed at developing students who are honest, responsible, and respectful?, Should schools include service-learning projects into their character education initiative in an effort to graduate productive citizens who take leadership roles within community structures for the sake of improving conditions for its members? Might it be that even more comprehensive efforts are needed, and that core assumptions should include the idea that good and productive citizens act courageously, seeking to solve societal problems through questioning and challenging established structures that lead to inherent injustices?

If so, the question at hand is, “can courage be taught?” It depends. If one thinks of courage in terms of the ability to do something that frightens oneself (Oxford Languages Dictionary), then probably not. It implies either one has courage or does not. However, if we look at in terms of the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty (, I would suggest the answer is yes. Using this as our framework, we are able to move beyond seeing courage as an ability. It becomes a sense of duty. To that extent, acting courageously is a reaction to an emotional state of being.

If the argument is for schools to produce citizens at the highest level described above, then they must be willing to cultivate student emotional intelligence as well as academics. This requires an understanding of what emotional intelligence is. For the sake of time and space, we will simplify our perspective on emotional intelligence. According to philosopher Alain de Botton, “Emotional Intelligence is the quality that enables us to confront with patience, insight and imagination the many problems that we face in our affective relationship with ourselves and with other people” ( Think of it this way, emotional intelligence is the way we behave in response to our emotions as well as how we respond to the needs of others.

So then, the bigger question is, “Can we truly help students grow emotionally intelligent?” Aristotle believed the answer was yes. To Aristotle, education had a threefold purpose: first, to develop student potential for reasoning; second, to help students learn a skill and grow their knowledge base; and third, to help students mature and grow virtuous habits. In other words, student growth character and virtues were equally as important as student growth in academic knowledge.

So where do emotions enter the picture? Aristotle believed that there were five distinct features to consider when addressing student dispositions and character (Arthur et al., 2017). According to Arthur et al. (2017), Aristotle believed that education should focus on: 

1) Human flourishing (behaviors that help others flourish); 

2) Cultivating virtues through ones’ lived experiences that become habits in life over time; 

3) Moral dilemmas (working through issues requiring decisions to be made between right versus right instead of just wrong versus right);

4) Education (teaching positive character traits from an early age); and,

5) Emotions.

Aristotle believed that education was for the purpose of helping students learn not just knowledge and behaviors, but about emotions. He understood how emotions drove our actions, interactions, and behaviors. Aristotle believed that teaching students about their emotions from a young age helped them better manage and regulate them later in life. Additionally, he believed that the tie between motivation and emotions was a strong one. How we respond in a time of emotional distress is directly related to our emotional intelligence quotient. People who are emotionally strong, trust their feelings and act appropriately to them. This is important when one considers that acting courageously is an emotional response during a time of distress. 

Emotional Intelligence and Courage

Think of it in these terms: a citizen observes an injustice (time of distress), the citizen is offended, bothered, or infuriated (emotion) by the injustice, the citizen takes action to right the wrong (courageous response). In this scenario, the courageous response serves as a direct indicator of the person’s emotional intelligence level, represented by a positive social response to an emotion. It is a demonstration of the level of success of the efforts of teachers, and other adults, in providing students the tools, understanding, and resolve needed to respond positively in an ever-challenging world.   

The goal of developing a strong emotional intelligence is not to change who a person is. The purpose is to help one better understand oneself and others and to respond appropriately in a variety of circumstances, to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones, and to have a greater awareness of others and society as a whole. It is a matter of replacing a system of thinking in terms of do’s and don’ts with a greater understanding of our role as citizens of a community. With that in mind, we circle back, might it be that schools should develop comprehensive efforts towards growing emotionally intelligent students; and, that core assumptions about what makes a good and productive citizen should include acting courageously, seeking to solve societal problems through questioning, and challenging established structures that lead to inherent injustices.



Michael Hylen currently serves as a professor and Coordinator of the Education Department at Southern Wesleyan University. I also served at Louisiana State University and Asbury University. Additionally, Michael is active in his community, serving in leadership roles when possible. He has published research on social emotional learning, servant leadership and at-risk students, as well as a book on Cultivating Emotional Intelligence. Previously, Michael enjoyed a 25-year career in k-12 education. His most extensive work was as an alternative high school principal for students who struggled academically, emotionally and behaviorally. Michael earned his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri – St. Louis.