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“WE TEACH”—THE ELUSIVE LANGUAGE OF CHARACTER EDUCATION

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While I was in the middle of thinking about my Six C’s for Learning, a hot conversation was taking place in one of the online college counseling communities about the ways in which schools report—or choose not to report—disciplinary infractions to colleges.

At least one school stated that reporting such incidents to colleges, and making sure that students are aware that such reports will be made, is an aspect of “character education” at the school.

Huh.

I get it, and I know perfectly well what they mean and how this fits in with the ways in which many if not most educators understand character education at its lowest common denominator
—the utility of a strongly stated rule and its consequences: a bit of a threat, say, something to disincentivize (there’s a word Orwell would have loved!) wrongful behavior. Students learn the rules and the penalties, and they make better decisions. Arguably, this is the way the world works, and always has.

Many schools claim, explicitly or as nearly so as can be, that they educate character. I think that all schools do, somehow, educate character, but when I write about it I am often struck by the limitations of language in helping us explain or describe, exactly, how this happens.

For example, do we “instill” or “teach” or “foster” values? Or do we create environments in which values grow by themselves, perhaps in channels we have somehow prepared—intentionally or not—that lead in directions we, or our institutions, favor? Do we use the active voice, as in “we create an environment in which students develop” or “we teach,” or do we choose more passive constructions: “values are instilled” or “students are taught” or “students at our school learn”? Do we adopt the hortatory when laying out desirable actions and values: “You should” or “Thou shalt not” or even the mushier “You probably don’t want to” or “You might like to”?

And there is the question of modeling. Do we, really? Anecdotal evidence says yes, but how much of our “modeling” is intentional or explicit, and how much subtle, unintentional—and perhaps even antithetical to our aims and own core values? If students do as I do and not as I say, will I approve of the result? What lessons from the coach whose R-rated mutterings at a referee are audible to a few of the kids on the bench, even if the coach does not want to confront the official? What do my students learn when I can’t keep my promises about returning graded work? Vance Wilson and Steve Clem reminded independent schools in Paths to a New Curriculum (1991) about the “null curriculum”—things that are “taught” because their opposites or converses are not: Think of a school in which the heckling of an opposing team’s athletes is not explicitly discouraged at the instance, and what “lesson” students (at both schools) “learn” from that. Most of the null curriculum is about values—character education often occurs in negative space, if you will.

Honor Codes, for the most part, make me think long and hard. What is “Honor” with a capital H, exactly—how do we define it? In many schools it seems to be primarily rolled into discussions of academic honesty, which is one kind of honor but seems (to me) a rather reductive, even negative, conception of the idea; honor codes used in these ways become more about what not to do—at worst, they’re just self-inflicted regimes of enforcement: “You signed this!”—than definitions of idealized behavior. I try not to think about so-called “honor killings” in this context. I know that at a few schools the Honor Code really is about ideals and that it truly enhances community; I wish this were always the case, at least from what I hear.

Mostly, I’m just leery of any absolute claim made by any school that it instills or teaches or in some way actively, explicitly, and successfully inculcates “values” or “character” in some concrete, definable way. In all schools, I know and deeply believe, students do develop character and values in ways that are consonant or congruent with certain values that the school promulgates; this is the center of our value proposition, in my opinion, and it tends to work out pretty well. About the best I can do for a statement of cause-and-effect, however, is something along the lines of “Our school provides an environment and intentionally designed experiences in which we hope and intend for students to grow and internalize our core institutional values of integrity, compassion, intellectual engagement, and humility (or what have you).”

But how we talk about the process by which this happens, and how we connect the dots between what we intend and do and what results, is a good deal more subtle, idiosyncratic, and hard to define than assertions about the connection between discipline reporting and character education.

My personal experience in conversations with adults suggests that the best character education happens in schools where there is some comfort—uncomfortable as this always is in the moment—with gray areas and moral messiness; school cultures purportedly built around absolutes seem to create sharp edges that can cut in many more ways and from more directions than people anticipate—and leave lasting scars. Humility and flexibility seem to go a lot farther than do “zero tolerance policies” in teaching—or creating environments and experiences that promote or nourish—positive values.

And before you remind me that some things must be absolutes, I’m talking here about values—about what the student understands to be right and wrong—and not about specific behaviors. Sometimes behaviors cross a line, but in the end serious misbehavior is seldom—never, probably—about values alone.

Independent schools need to understand clearly that their significant difference from other kinds of institutions is their explicit aim to connect with each student in a personal way—in small classes, on teams, in advisor groups, in clubs, in dormitories. Just as each school purports to stand for something through its mission, core values, and in some cases through connection to a spiritual or philosophical tradition, schools want—and parents want—to have each graduate stand for something, too. Each element of a school’s culture and programming must support this in a well understood way, and deep personal relationships seem to be a primary source of this support.

Of course, each student is unique, bringing to school each day a set of personal, home-based values as well as a psyche shaped by experience in ways that no one can fully understand—not to mention the dreams and aspirations they bring. Great schools, I believe, create environments in which the best aspects of each child are explored, revealed, nurtured, reinforced, and sometimes challenged. To do this, schools themselves have to know and be confident in who they are and what they aspire to be for their students in order that the culture and the values embedded in it will be transmitted—passive voice here, I note—naturally to all members of the community, all the time.

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4 Comments
  1. Peter,

    I, too, greatly appreciate this piece and agree with the sentiments it expresses about how those of us interested in schools might best think about the notions of character and values. Even in science, one must be careful concerning absolutes. I tend to favor what has been called a “discretionary justice” and am uncomfortable with what I’ve heard referred to as verbs of the neurotic tense like “should” and “must”. I’m not as sure about your leading paragraphs as I do believe in honest reporting of infractions to colleges and universities on the part of secondary schools which seems to me important and not at all incompatible with a strong belief in the possibility of redemption.

    • Thank you, John, for that.

      I think I was largely bristling at the self-righteous and even a bit mean-spirited tone of that “character education” assertion. I concur with your belief that serious infractions should be made known to colleges–in the best of all possible worlds, by the students themselves–but the phrasing and the context rather struck me that the lesson being taught was akin to the lesson being learned by the fellow in front of the firing squad. It’s a poor analogy, perhaps, but there is a chance that justice will be or at least feel summary for the student involved, and I am not a fan of heavy consequences imposed “pour encourager les autres” if that is part of the educational goal of such action. I hope you see what I mean.

  2. Peter, this is a brilliant and very important piece: I hope it finds a wide audience. Perhaps it is the Unitarian in me (6th generation, descendant of a dozen Unitarian ministers) that leads me to agree so wholeheartedly with the messiness of character education. So often we are asked as educational leaders to declare certitudes about “character education,” and I awkwardly blanch, explaining instead that there is always complexity that we need to reckon with.

    I too have spoken and written about this often, as in talk I gave to students called “against actually,” which draws upon the wisdom of the brilliant Ellen Langer and that of the wonderful and much missed Supreme Court Justice David Souter. http://wp.me/poMQP-xa

    • Thank you for the very kind words, Jonathan, Somehow I missed this response a year ago, and it didn’t then achieve anything like a wide audience; tragic events later that week had people thinking about character in different ways.

      Your piece resonated deeply with me, and I like to believe I have been one of those teachers who never said “actually” except to open a door into someone’s closed belief, as in, “actually, the truth may lie in something more complicated.” I can only hope.

      Funny that this was a December piece, when my spouse always likes to watch “Love, Actually”–and it felt like love was all we needed back in December of 2012. But we needed, and still need, so much more on top of that essential.

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