Abigail and Atticus: the importance of positive role models in the 21st century

Ms Jan O’Sullivan, Head of Griffith House

I only care what you think of yourself. If you feel your value lies in being decorative, one day you may believe that’s all you really are … Time erodes all such beauty but what it cannot diminish are the wonderful workings of your mind: your humour, your kindness and your moral courage.  
Abigail March in the 1994 Columbia Pictures film Little Women

If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Atticus Finch in the novel and film, To Kill a Mockingbird

For many years I have promoted the idea to my English students that the reading of novels and the viewing of quality films is an effortless way to widen one’s vocabulary, broaden one’s horizons, and learn valuable lessons about life. My students know that Gillian Armstrong’s version of the film Little Women, and both the novel and the film To Kill a Mockingbird, are my sentimental favourites. However, I do acknowledge that the parenting skills of Abigail and Atticus and the role models they represent may seem somewhat ‘too good to be true’.

Children, and particularly adolescents, are subconsciously looking for appropriate ‘elders’ on which to model themselves. Parents and teachers are the obvious choices. Perhaps a focus on ‘virtue ethics’ can provide an added dimension to help Brisbane Girls Grammar School parents and teachers in the 21st century. Ethics and values have been embedded in our curriculum, and our Student Care sessions explore ethics in some detail.

Virtue ethics focuses on character: what should I be?

Aristotle espoused the value of virtue ethics to help individuals to negotiate their way through the complexities of life. The word virtue is derived from the Latin word virtus, meaning excellence, capacity or ability. In modern English, the word has come to refer to someone’s character or personality, including traits such as generosity, honesty, courage, good humour and friendliness. Virtue ethics encompasses developing admirable character traits and aspiring to be an excellent human being rather than following a set of moral principles or rules, which is the basis of duty ethics. The ethics of duty requires the individual to apply moral principles by asking oneself, ‘What should I do?’ or ‘What is it my duty to do?’, whereas the ethics of virtue focuses on the question, ‘What should I be?’ or ‘What admirable character traits will help me to be an excellent human being?’

Character is destiny

Is this not an appropriate notion to espouse for our students at Brisbane Girls Grammar School in the 21st century? The virtuous person expresses who they are when they act and, in acting, they develop who they are. This idea is the basis of the George Eliot quotation from The Mill on the Floss (1860) that ‘character is destiny’, a phrase which appeared at the bottom of a values poster issued to all schools by the Australian Federal Government during the Howard years. Character is central to virtue ethics and can be seen as being a bit like a skill that is able to be attained through habit and by a conscious commitment to its underlying values. An important point to note is that character is created by our early experiences and the way we have been raised, as well as our own efforts to create our unique identity or our unique self.

Character formation through habit: reinforcing the message behind virtue ethics

Let us think about the role of parents and teachers in reinforcing the message behind the ethics of virtue. Virtue ethics conceives of human beings as interdependent and social in their very being. As children we live a life of dependency upon our parents and, importantly, on others who fill the role of parents. Parents and teachers provide nurturing and the formation of our characters. They provide us with life lessons to teach us how to behave, what ways of life to admire, and what things of value to respect and respond to. It is reassuring for us all to know that parents and teachers can work in partnership in this vital role. If ‘life’ lessons are taught within the context of caring relationships, they are invested with a sense of importance for young people. These teenagers are more likely to adhere to the ideals taught by parents and teachers if they respect the ‘elder’ and know that that adult genuinely cares for them. They tend to respond to a situation in a virtuous way even before they consciously evaluate why it is virtuous. In other words, they subconsciously copy the behaviour, attitude and ideals of the adult who is modelling the behaviour for them.

How can we compete with Abigail and Atticus who are ‘too good to be true’?

Aristotle provides us with some reassurance in the quotation below. At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, the teachers and Heads of House try so hard to do and say the ‘right’ thing in their interactions with students. Parents obviously also try incredibly hard to manage these kinds of interactions in the ‘right’ way with their daughters but have the added pressure of interacting with them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week!

So too it is easy to get angry – anyone can do that – or to give and spend money; but to feel or act towards the right person to the right extent at the right time for the right reason in the right way – that is not easy, and it is not everyone that can do it.  Hence to do these things well is a rare, laudable, and fine achievement.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1109a26-29


Armstrong, G. (Director) & Swicord, R. (Writer). 1994. Little Women (Motion Picture). United States: Columbia Pictures.

Lee, H. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. London: William Heinemann Ltd.

Eliot, G. (1860). The Mill on the Floss. New York: The New American Library.

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