The Content of Character

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.

If we care about how our young people will actually FARE in college, and if we care about the future of this nation, the core task is to redefine success for students, parents and schools. Denise Clark Pope and the people at Stanford University’s “Challenge Success” have done the research on this and are trying to change our way of thinking. They recommend setting the bar higher and adding Character, Health, Independence, Connection, Creativity, and Enthusiasm to the goal of Academic Achievement.

One of the reasons we have drifted away from character as the critical component of education is that we have drifted away from its original meaning. Originally and for centuries, character was a person’s core, our divine spark, our calling. The Greek kharakter means the mark that the gods put on your soul at birth. It is the you that is becoming. Education was leading that character out into the world to function effectively and gracefully within it. Education of character is education itself.

Today, functioning gracefully and effectively in the world includes resiliency, creativity and self-control. It includes the ability to sort through data, construct knowledge and learn how to express that knowledge in a way that is useful to others. Success in the world today requires knowing how to differ with someone and make that difference a creative learning experience. To be educated a person needs collaboration skills. All these are best seen as disciplines of leading character out; and there are many more disciplines required for the full expression of a person’s character.

In “The Purpose of Education” King writes, “The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?” Today, this statement would be categorized under “character education” as in “It is bad to be prejudiced against another human being.” And today character education is a separate thing, relegated in most schools to the sidelines. At best, it might be a required course in a high school curriculum. In most grade schools it is sidelined under something called “the social-emotional.” But I maintain that Eugene Talmadge was not a bad character, and he did not have bad character education. He had a bad education.

The education of character has become synonymous with moral education, and some years ago at Harvard (perhaps still today) Robert Coles’ course on morality was nick-named “Guilt 101.” Learning to do the right thing is fundamentally what education is all about, but doing the right thing includes correct spelling, grammar and math facts, too. It includes more than not being prejudiced; it includes the skills of rigorous research. It includes telling the truth, of course, but it also includes learning the disciplines of determining what is true and what is false and what words to use to communicate that determination. It includes epistemology. It includes good social problem solving, to be sure, but it also includes solving a mathematics problem or figuring out how to communicate so that you are not misunderstood. It includes helping others out, but it also includes all the skills of functioning effectively in a group. For our children to be educated, character must be seen as the essence of our job.

The full functioning of each unique character: that is the ball parents as well as schools must keep our eye on. Genius was the Roman word for that inner spirit; something each of us has, rather than something that only a few of us are. Genius, “the spirit of a person place or institution,” is the voice of our character, and we must listen to it. For best results, we who are responsible for the education of children will organize all that we do around helping that voice become more and more eloquent.


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