One of the most frequently emailed stories from National Public Radio last week was an interview with author Paul Tough, whose recent book is titled How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. A child’s success can’t be measured in IQ scores, standardized tests or vocabulary quizzes, says Tough. Success depends, he says, on how young people build character. The traditional markers of success in our educational programs, SAT scores, test scores, grade point averages, are actually inadequate predictors of success. They may be predictors of college and graduate school acceptance, but if the criteria of success is broadened to include financial stability rather than the accumulation of wealth and such indicators as resiliency, psychological health, social responsibility or healthy families, then the development of character becomes at least as important than the ability to ace tests.
Tough says, ”For some people, [the] path to college is so easy that they can get out into life and they’ve never really been challenged,” he told NPR’s David Greene. ”I think they get into their 20s and 30s and they really feel lost — they feel like they never had those character-building experiences as adolescents, as kids, that really make a difference when they get to adulthood.”
What children need, says Tough, it is the opportunity to try and fail, the chance to learn how to pick themselves up again. That is pretty much the opposite of what has come to be know, recently, as “helicopter parenting”, which is giving in to the impulse to protect your child from every possible disappointment and attempting to smooth every road in advance.
What interests me most in Paul Tough’s interview is the forthright claim of the importance of character in the education of children. It can sound, if not naive, then at least out of step, with the tenor of the times. In much of the history of schooling in this country there was an assumption that teaching character was not only a goal, but an attainable goal. Private schools taught character based in the classics. Public schools taught citizenship.
If we could ask Socrates which were the most important goal in the education of children, the development of character or high SATs and an assured path to the most prestigious and lucrative graduate program, we would have to endure all manner of pesky questions, but I am pretty sure where he would come down in the end.
Ethical Humanism/Ethical Culture is and always has been in the character building business. Founder Felix Adler is rightly celebrated for his involvement in the social issues of his day. The list of social reforms that drew his attention and benefitted from his leadership is long: public health, education for the disadvantaged, affordable housing, child labor reform, civil rights and civil liberties. But in his writing and his addresses it is clear that he understood that the public good is advanced in step with the private good. ”The moral order never is,” Adler wrote, “but is ever becoming. It grows with our growth.”
Adler was a teacher of philosophy, but you rarely find in his writing a quote or an abstraction. What you find, consistently, is the posing of a simple question, “How do we become ethical persons who will make a difference in the world around us?”
How, in other words, do we develop the strength of character to live a good life and contribute to the common good? Which, for me, is an essential question for our time. We have plenty of smart people, we are in need of more good people.