Communities of Character – a response

I was troubled by David Brooks’ column this weekend about communities of character and the schools that he uses as examples of institutions that intentionally focus on building students’ characters. I also had a conversation on Tuesday with someone who used the term “character-driven” to refer to schools like KIPP, Success Academy and the Denver School for Science and Technology (which I reference here only because it was highlighted in Brooks’ article). Given some recent schools visits I have been making, including to a Success Academy school in New York, I am worried that these college prep charter schools are now being held up as examples of schools that nurture and promote character. It is one thing to talk about character traits, to have assemblies at which students are held publicly accountable for their behaviors (a DSST practice that Brooks flags in his op-ed), or to rate/score students on how well they exemplify specific character traits. It is another thing to create authentic “thick” communities (to use Brooks’ term) in which students are deeply known as human beings and gradually helped to understand the value (and costs) of different ways of being in the world. The first set of examples speaks to a focus on a set of desired outcomes. The second set of examples speaks to a focus on the process of learning to be a person.

Let me use a few real life examples based on conversations I have had with educators and students. Imagine you have a 10th grade student who is given a low rating on a character trait like “responsibility” because he consistently neglects to hand in his homework on time. He and his parents are told by his teacher that he is not demonstrating responsibility. What is not taken into account in that “score” is that this student has three younger siblings who he cares for every day after school because his single mother works until midnight. He is both too overwhelmed and too tired to do the three hours of homework that the school has deemed appropriate for a 10th grader. Is he demonstrating “responsibility”? The school says no. I say yes.

How about the student who believes that she and her fellow students are being consistently treated unfairly because of the school’s dress code, which forbids long, afro hair. She feels this is an inequitable and disrespectful school policy and the students’ efforts to speak to the school administrators have led to no changes. This student leads a protest at the school by intentionally violating the dress code and wearing her hair loose. She is punished and eventually suspended for not demonstrating “respect” and “integrity” as defined by the school. Is her sympathy for her and her classmates’ feelings of violation, and her taking action on the basis of her beliefs disrespectful and lacking in integrity? The school apparently says yes. I say no.

An elementary school student gets up in the middle of class work time to go hug a friend who she knows is sad because of something that happened at home. The teacher calls her out and reprimands her for being disrespectful and not behaving well. Are her actions “good” or “bad”? It depends on whether you value more her compliance with an external behavior code or her empathy for a friend.

Many college prep charters, and increasingly other schools with extremely restrictive codes of behavior, are quick to punish students who fail to toe the line, claiming that they are developing character. However, this is a shallow understanding of the concept that is based more on student compliance than a true understanding of what character looks like in life. Defenders of these charter school practices would probably say that the illustrations I have given are examples of these systems being implemented badly. However, even if implemented well I would still argue that the approach itself is wrong. Truly demonstrating character is situationally-driven and not easy to measure or rate precisely because it depends on the interplay between countless values that are often in tension with one another.

The second school Brooks highlights in the op-ed looks and feels much more like a true version of expeditionary learning (also based on Kurt Hahn’s vision). Brooks chose to quote Hahn as saying “It is the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible denial, and above all, compassion.” He did not point out that Hahn’s philosophy and educational model was also based in his belief that,

“It is the sin of the soul to force young people into opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences [which] can greatly contribute towards building strength of character. Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim tells us that it is necessary for a youth to experience events which ‘reveal the inner worth of the man; the edge of his temper; the fibre of his stuff; the quality of his resistance; the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to himself but others.’”

Schools that are truly committed to character make time for the process of character building. The expeditionary and adventure curriculum is not a feel good group activity. It builds off the Outward Bound mission, vision and process of putting members of the school community into authentic relationship as they confront ambiguous and difficult situations in the real world. In these schools conflicts between students, but also between students and adults, are resolved through extended dialogue rather than through simplistic accountability procedures like demerits or punishment. Self–reflection is critical. There is room for dissent and debate. In short these things require an investment of actual time and effort in small yet consistent ways. These things are not easy, they do not always look “urgent” and they often take away from “time on task” where “task” is seen as primarily academic endeavors. But I would argue that these are the schools we should be extolling as bastions of character development because they understand that building character is a process not an outcome. It is a subtle but critical difference.

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