True Grit: Character before Career

The weekend means reflection, moving furniture, getting out in the sun, catching up on T.V., and reading. It’s taken a full 2 weeks but I’m finally getting to this article in the New York Times Magazine, “The Character Test.”

Character matters.

 I know this because I have a t-shirt with this on it. And if a t-shirt says it, it must be true.

The t-shirt comes from a school in NY that my dad works with whose motto is “Character Before Career” which always sounded to me like a pretty good slogan.

Until I went to Tanzania last summer and heard Alan Stephenson (of The Joshua Foundation) explain his holistic approach to education: “We can teach a student how to be a great Finance Minister. We can essentially give someone the skills to do terrible damage.”

“Character before career” is more than a slogan, it’s a philosophy.

Because smart people do bad stuff. Corrupt hedge fund managers with business degrees and elite training cheat, bribe, and swindle. In the end, education gives us skills related to WHAT WE DO but not the answers about WHO WE ARE.

Which brings me to the article. The author (Paul Tough) speaks with Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, about the most important ingredient to “becoming a successful human.”

It is character.

Some call this “grit;” the learning that comes about only from mistakes and failures and really tough times.  

Forgetting your library book in 2nd grade, having to sit on the wall for talking during Mrs. Howell’s class, failing a math test because you confused addition with subtraction, not knowing the answer to a question in grad school because you only skimmed the book.

Or even more importantly, the personal stuff that happens. Getting hurt. Losing someone you love. Watching someone die. Experiencing pain. Being lied to.

Randolph notes the downside of prosperity that prevents character from truly developing: “When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

So I’m not an educator or anything but I think I remember James 1:2 touching upon this very idea: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

I get that it’s totally passé these days to refer to the Bible but I’m kickin’ it old school and getting annoyed that people think they’re “inventing something new” in teaching children about self-control.  As my sister would say using her infamous Twitter hashtags:  #Puhleeze!

So, like any educator would, Randolph searched for answers. He read books like Seligman’s Learned Optimism and studied the “24 character strengths common to all cultures”.  

How very ecumenical of him.

He  talked with David Levin (of the KIPP network) about the slogans his schools decided to put on the walls that said things like, “be nice” and “work hard” and started asking existential questions about what makes a good kid, a good life, and a good path to follow.  The easy stuff…

In response to these pressing questions about character, KIPP’s New York City schools actually created a “character report card” which essentially evaluates if you’re a good person or not. Which kind of matters. Cause who likes to work with a jerk? And who wants to deal with an impatient colleague who can’t control her temper, no matter how smart they are?

The principle appealed on some level, but Randolph felt uncomfortable with the idea, “I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” he explains, “as soon as you set up something like a report card, you’re going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it.”

In other words, Randolph feared he’d have a bunch of “legalists” on his hands. People studying to ace the character test but not truly developing character.

People who “did” the right stuff but for the wrong motivations. Selfish reasons. Which is at the core of what’s wrong with legalism to begin with. Jesus said that.

Do you see where this is going? It’s awfully hard to create a new moral code without anything to really back it up.  But that didn’t stop anyone from trying.  Naturally. This is America after all. We can do anything!

In 2008, the Character Education Partnership published a report that separated character education into 2 categories: programs that develop “moral character” (fairness, generosity, integrity) and others that develop “performance character” (effort, diligence, perseverance).

The article goes on and on.

There is certainly a place for morals and ethics in education. Obviously. But what we’re coming up against here is the challenge of marrying a pluralist / secularist educational system with values that are inherently “religious”, tied to divine commandments, and quite personal. Guys in Williamsburg glasses are essentially creating a new religious / moral code to fill the void and in the process framing major life values for a new generation.

Paul Tough writes, “Levin and Randolph opted to drop love in favor of curiosity.”

Drop love? Seriously?

We kind of already have a moral code that’s been well developed, expounded upon in the Mishna for centuries that is authored by someone with respectability and credibility on a global scale.

That would be God. Sans Williamsburg glasses.

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