A belief that is generally agreed upon throughout a civilized society is that individual character, built on strong and positive values, does matter. What is also generally understood is that character, whether bad or good just doesn’t happen.
For each of us, our character is always developing. We give credit to character in how we treat one another, to how we act in business as well as how we react in war, and in particular how we conduct ourselves when no one else is watching.
In a piece titled “What Does Character Mean?” written by attorney Christina Helwig, she poses the question to the reader, “Do you think that your current habits, actions and thoughts are congruent with what you want to create in your life?”
This leads me to the process of educating the modern American child.
With multitudes of politicians, academics, judges and of course parents regularly expressing their criticisms with the course public education has taken over the past 50 years, you would think that somewhere within that stack of hay is the magic needle. But I’ll be darned; it seems no one has come upon it yet.
In an article published in The Freeman, titled “The Failure of American Public Education,” the author in his opening paragraph writes, “Many American critics believe that the major problem with public education today is a lack of focus on results. Students aren’t expected to meet high standards, the argument goes, and the process of education takes precedence over analyzing education results in policy-making circles.”
Certainly there is no lack of finger-pointing. Blame is leveled at the teachers, the teachers unions, the length of the school year and even the food being served in the school cafeterias. We can blame the mandates set by No Child Left Behind or the level of preparation of our teachers when receiving their college degrees. But that excuses the responsibility of the student or the home.
But if you will, please allow me to contribute my own 2 cents into the debate. Now I’m neither Jonathan Kozol nor Tony Bennett. But I do have a few years under my belt in working with at-risk kids, which brings me back to the subject of character.
In making the connection of character to how a student adapts in an education environment, professor of psychology with Rutgers University Maurice Elias in a piece for the blog site Edutopia quoted American academic James Q. Wilson when he wrote, “A decent family is one that instills a decent character in its children; a good school is one that takes up and continues in a constructive manner this development of character.” Wilson wrote this in 1985, and in the years since, our society has witnessed the extensive erosion of the American family, perhaps to the extent that not even the good academic could foresee.
In today’s world, kids, even the youngest, are left at times to raise themselves. Their role models may include indifferent single mothers, live-in boyfriends or siblings who are gang members. The modern home often lacks appropriate discipline, proper values and structure. For many children, they learn to emulate disrespectful and violent attitudes toward authority figures such as police or teachers from the adults who are closest to them.
So it can be argued that through no fault of their own, due to the lack of character development in the home, the child is already at a severe disadvantage when starting school. If you are like me, in that you believe that good character promotes respect, manners, self-control, self-discipline, self-motivation and an appreciation of what is right and what is wrong, then it should not be at all difficult to appreciate how such attributes can contribute to how a child approaches his learning experience. In order for a child to be responsible, then they must learn what responsibility is from responsible adults.
But Professor Elias offers an updated assessment for this changed world. He writes, “I would only add that a good school is also one that encourages student’s social, emotional and character development irrespective of what parents might be doing or how they treat their children, and does so out of an ethical and educational imperative, without exception.”
When cynics suggest that our schools are not places to promote select values out of respect to this diverse society, then I would suggest this is political correctness at its worst.
From their first steps inside a school building, the subject of character should be addressed in lessons presented right along side of those of math and science. Character becomes the link between what is learned and what today’s students want to create in their own lives. Character becomes the fuel in the student’s motivational engine.
This is what former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett was trying to get across when he wrote his Book of Virtues. “If we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire,” says Bennett, “we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance.”