Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.
While waiting for my car to be ﬁxed one rainy Saturday, I walked into a local bookstore. The car mechanic had told me my wait would be long and the bill high. I picked up a book and sat down to read, looking for a refuge from the pain.
Before long I looked up to ﬁnd a grandmother, trailed by a nanny with a baby, telling an intelligent looking six-year-old child, “Sit right here and read.” The girl sat down across the table from me and immediately plunged into reading her book. Every few minutes the nanny returned with more books, which the six-year-old, politely turned down. On the third try, the nanny’s face turned angry. “What’s wrong with these books?” the nanny asked, pushing a pile of books toward the child. The child pulled her body into an angry little ball and buried her face all the more defensively in her book.
As the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., approached, I rediscovered a paper he wrote as a student at Morehouse College in 1947, entitled “The Purpose of Education.” The central thesis is: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Although this is not a new thought, it bore repeating then, and over sixty years later it not only bears repeating, but also some further examination. The conviction that for schooling to be an education, teachers and students must attend to character, has been on the table since ancient Greece. However, since King wrote the paper, the idea that education might have something to do with “character” has at best fallen to the margins of our thinking. By the time American students are juniors in high school the default definition of success is good grades, SAT scores and admission to status colleges.
Every year of the last thirty-five, a teacher has come to me sometime during the first week in January and said, “It’s amazing, the kids are doing everything I struggled all fall to get them to do.” Or “I don’t know what happened over the vacation. Like magic, suddenly they are behaving. They don’t interrupt each other during our class discussions. I say ‘Time to line up,’ and they just get in line—none of this jockeying for position. What happened?”