Asking the Right Questions

There has been a lot of “media energy” recently about morality and character and how schools can teach them. David Brooks writing in The NY Times cites the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who led interviews with 230 young adults from across America about their moral lives. The results are depressing, concludes Brooks. Researchers found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism, relativism and non-judgmentalism. This doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. Smith and company emphasize that young people have not been given the resources by schools, institutions and families to cultivate their moral intuitions or to check behaviors that may be degrading. Brooks asserts that the study says more about adult America thanyouthful America.

Aristotle, holding a copy of his signature work on ethics, "Nicomachean Ethics."

In thinking about character, I always go to Aristotle and his work on Ethics as well as to Robert Coles, child psychiatrist, professor and moral visionary. Coles writes that over 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture at Harvard and ended with the terse assertion: “Character is higher than intellect.” Even then Emerson was worried about the limits of knowledge and the mission of educational institutions. For example, a student’s intellect can increase, but that student might be smug, ungenerous, even cruel or dishonest. Hence, intellect without character can be dangerous. About morality, Coles says that it “defines not only how we get along with the world and one another and the rules of life; it characterizes our very nature. Morality has to do with human connection. It has to do with the kind of connection that responds to others, and in turn earns the caring response of others. If we are deprived of our morality, we’re deprived of an essential part of ourselves.”

It is interesting that even more media energy has come recently from a NY Times Magazine article entitled Character Test about what Riverdale and the KIPP schools are doing to teach and even measure character. Interesting points emerged, but my take away was that instead of looking for answers, schools should begin with asking the right questions, two of which must surely be: What are the character traits we want to develop in our students? And, What does our school’s mission say about character, values, ethics or spirit?  The real key for a school lies in the intersection of these two questions. My work in schools persuades me that we do indeed need to ensure the building of intellectual and personal resilience along with grit, independence, self-discipline, perseverance and honesty, which are the underpinnings of character.

At GFA, we pride ourselves on developing intellect, habits of mind, strong academics and preparation for college and beyond. We want to prepare our students in every possible way for the realities of life and work, and we deeply desire for them to have the capability and imagination to approach their futures with “a sense of inspiration and noble aspiration.”  In the end, as important as the life of the mind is, it is equally important to focus on building character and preparing our students to be responsible, ethical citizens and human beings.

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