Our graduating class went to lunch with me last Friday. I can’t imagine a more delightful group of 14-year-olds to be caught in a restaurant with. You’d think that after all these years together they might have run out of things to talk about, but of course not. The intensity
The Education of Character is Education Itself.
Many years ago I was consultant to a school that had a reputation for “strong academics,” but was experiencing a lot of “behavior problems.” The kids were mean to each other and to their teachers.
In one conversation about a seventh grader named Justin the teachers expressed their frustration that Justin interrupted his classmates, sounded like a know-it-all, blurted out answers, put others down for their questions and insulted teachers. One teacher said: “He takes after his father.” Others agreed.
At one point in the conversation one of the teachers said, “It’s a shame because Justin is such a good student.” At this point I said: “Wait. That statement is oxymoronic. Arrogance is a learning disability. He may get good grades on tests, but he is inhibiting his own learning as well as others. A know-it-all will not learn as much as someone who will listen to others.” I paused. “And we will never get his father to help us help him change if we label him a ‘strong student.’ That’s what his father cares about.”
By placing “academics” and “morality” in separate categories we compromise our ability to educate. Whether a student is searching for the right words to address a classmate or the best way to state a thesis in an essay, the challenge is essentially the same. Collecting oneself before entering the exam room, the sports arena, or the playground requires the same disciplines. The skills for solving math problems and social problems overlap. Educating “the whole person” starts with understanding that our work is to fully educate each kharakter in our care.
Humility, perseverance, openness, courage, patience, creativity, integrity, resourcefulness, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness are not so much virtues as disciplines, and they serve us well in all endeavors from the social to the academic, from the artistic to the athletic. The habit of taking responsibility is necessary for both homework and interpersonal conflict. The habit of always being respectful no matter what produces best results both in and out of the classroom. Respect, like other disciplines, is not a character trait, but a skill that can be learned. Parents and teachers need to work together to teach our children the disciplines that will help them build character. In the end, education of character is education itself.
The Story of The Three Little Girls has generated a great deal of conversation (on and off line) about the role parents play in getting their children to take responsibility. More than one parent has talked to me about the difficulty of trying to be fair and listen to both sides of a conflict.
While it is true that each party in a conflict usually bears some responsibility, our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to take full responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they can give themselves a pass, and not do the hard work of learning new behavior. They can’t control what other people do, but they can gain mastery of self.
I like to use a trip to the principal’s office as a place where students can learn those new behaviors and develop their social skills. When a student is sent to my office for disrespectful behavior the conversation often goes something like this:
“Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Soandso sent me. It’s not fair.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Well, Mr. Soandso…”
“Wait, I don’t want the whole story, I just want to know what you did that caused you to be here.”
“No. First you say ‘I’ and then there is a verb.”
“I threw the ball over the fence.”
“That doesn’t sound bad enough for you to be sent here. Why would Mr. Soandso send you here?”
“Because he told me to put it away in the ball bin.”
“Well, that makes sense. Do you think that makes sense?”
“Don’t go there yet. First I want you to tell me what was wrong with that and then what you are going to do about it.”
“He said it was disrespectful.”
“Well, do you agree?”
…and so on until he gets it.
I don’t allow the conversation to drift to the faults of the other party. I don’t concern myself with what is fair or unfair. I simply insist that the student identify the part he played and then take full responsibility for his behavior. That’s a teachable moment.
One day when my daughter Brooke was one, she decided to take a walk. She opened the screen door to our summerhouse, stepped onto the flagstone walk, and headed down the dirt road that led into the woods. She walked with a purpose. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. In fact, it was as if I weren’t even there. She just stood up from the pots and pans she had been banging on the kitchen floor, made for the screen door, and pushed it open.
As you can imagine, my first reaction was to stop her. I thought, “I can’t let a child that age, who has barely learned how to walk, just walk out the door without even checking with me. Where could she be going? All sorts of things could happen to her. A responsible father does not let his one-year-old daughter take off into the woods on her own. It’s just too dangerous.” In that first second, another thought arose: “Wait—there is no immediate danger. Let’s just keep an eye on her and see what happens. I don’t have to act … yet.” And so I just watched.
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.
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.