Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 3 May 2000 08:29:22 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Character Does Count

All week I've been thinking about a touching message I had received from Ann Brauer Andriacco of St. Dominic School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She told me a very warm story, so warm it made me sweat with joy. It was about how her seventh grade students made a passage using their school work to doing good works. They had studied an art/religion/history unit on icons and artistic portrayals of Jesus, read an essay about being voices instead of echoes, discussed just what qualities the artists were struggling to capture, and decided to make those qualities come alive by going out into the community to perform good works. They brainstormed problems facing them from racism to violence in schools. They formed groups based on their chosen topics and researched the problem, suggested solutions, invited in speakers.

Seventh graders!!.

But they didn't stop there. Each person became involved in a solution. One group worked preparing breakfast and entertainment for the kids at a Women's Shelter. Another researched racism and got an article into the local newspaper. Other groups wrote a grant to receive some items they needed. Another collected baby items for Birthright.

Seventh graders!

"They learned," Ann concluded her message, "that what each of us does can have an effect on the world-- even if it is just a little piece of that world."

From school work to good works. Competence and character.

I guess I was thinking about that warm message, prompted by a discussion on an education list about whether academics have a responsibilty to "teach compassion" in their classes, when I stepped out into this morning's warm darkness. The security light jumped on as it always does. As I paused to stretch a tight hamstring, I noticed how quickly the moths appeared and how just as quickly the cockroaches scurried to disappear.

As I walked, it seemed that an interesting set of words kept blowing in and out of my mind to the rhythm of my steps as if part of an animated Powerpoint presentation: moths and cockroaches, competence and character, moths and cockroaches, competence and character, moths and cockroaches, competence and character.

We say that to succeed in this new e-millenium people have to be educated. But, just what does "educated" mean, and what does it mean "to succeed?" I think the way most people would answer those questions would be limited to focusing on "competence": to "getting a good paying job." That answer has created an educational paradox: educational prosperity in the midst of social recession. That paradox is created by a narrow vocational "get and make" approach to, understanding of, and definition of an education: get that test score; make that grade; get into that school; make that GPA; get that major, make that interview; get that job; make that salary. So, when anyone in academia talks about developing subject competence, we academics gather like moths when a light is turned on. But, when anyone in academia talks about developing character, we usually scatter like cockroaches when the lights are turned on.

We each are an complex web spun with inseparable and intimately emmeshed physical, mental or intellectual, emotional or spiritual, and social strands. But, our educational systems are so one dimensional. We teach to the mind. We are so subject-centered. We are so focused on what we call "thinking" skills. We generally are not emotion-centered and almost totally ignore the heart skills. We are so focused on subject and so out-of-focus on character. We talk loudly about work and don't even whisper about doing good works.

And yet, none of us emerged from the womb with character anymore than we did with subject competence. We have to learn them both: knowledge **and** how to guide the use of that knowledge. So, why don't we teach them both, make them both count, throw them both at the students for them to catch? If we are to help a student climb the ladder of success, shouldn't we, like Ann Bauer Andriacco, also help the student to insure that the ladder is leaning on the right wall? Isn't the goal of an education to help each person see their own wholeness and that of others, to understand the need to create a guide for the use of the mind, to cultivate a sense of meaning and purpose that powerfully impacts those daily decisions, to learn how to act with integrity in the constant and incessant flow of moments of choice? I think so. It has to be. You can't really separate what you learn from what you do with what you learn from the meaning and purpose and fulfillment with what you do with your learning. To generate the power of knowledge and competence without generating the guiding power of character and conscience, of overriding direction, meaning, and purpose is very bad education.

Understand I'm not being faddish or bandwagonish. During the last decade I have become a strong advocate and practioner of wholeness or character education long before any bandwagon started rolling and long before any academic designer started cutting cloth for a chic style. It is central to my educational philosophy and at the core of what we do in the classroom with the subject material.

Let's set things straight and talk of definitions so there is as little misunderstanding as possible. When I talk of **character**, I am not talking about what a lot of people call **values**. I don't want to create more sterile, intellectualized, compartmentalized, textbookish, and separated "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" courses, programs and curricula about such things as self-restraint, good manners, obedience to the law, reverence for marriage, fidelity, chastity, abstinence, sexual activity, ethics, parental respect, respect for authority, patriotism, religiosity, sobriety, truthfulness, financial independence, work ethic, etc. By **character** I don't mean a set positions or ideologies on prayer in school, evolution, burning of the flag, abortion, capital punishment, poverty, role of government, individual rights, gun control, and so on. By **character**, I do not mean religious theology, issues of salvation, attendance at houses of worship, holiday observances, and the like. In short, I do not mean a set of beliefs and activities we adults have decided are vital to promoting a lawful, orderly and civil society, as well as living the good life, which students should unquestioningly learn and unthinkingly obey.

By my strict definition, thoses are all **values**, beliefs and action systems. When I say **character**, I am talking about something deeper, alive, and enlivening. I am talking about living, every day principles, the right principles needed to do things the right way at the right time for the right reasons. I am talking about animated inner qualities that know no bounds of time or place or culture: courage, concerns for others, curiosity, integrity, a commitment to personal excellence. I am talking about the breathing guides for those moments of decision. I am talking about: be honest, be compassionate, be trustworthy, be sympathetic, make and keep commitments, build meaningful relationships, be understanding, treat each and every person with respect. I am talking about an vitalizing approach to life, of empowering truth. I am talking about self-awareness, conscience, conviction, courage, free will, and creative imagination. I am talking about the capacity to question, to choose, to act in accordance with your conscience. I am talking about a foundation the laying of which is critical to reaching for your potential, for guiding your choice of a value belief and action system.

Character is what we are; competence is what we do. It's not a matter of a walling off **either/or**. It's a matter of an intertwining **and** of Gordian Knot proportions. For the key to the quality of life is based on the extent to which doing is based on principles. And, that does not come from solely a mastery of a subject. We love to compartmentalize and separate, but character and competence aren't separate and separated departments. They are like the distinct but woven together threads of a spider's web: touch on strand and all others vibrate. We have to understand, acknowledge, and teach the interconnecting and bridging **and** of the two, for both are critical. But, it's character, not information or skill, that determines what we do.

I recently told a dear friend, Bruce Saulnier, from what is inside--your character--comes what is outside. What is in your heart becomes your thoughts, deeds. What is inside is the map of the body and mind. That is, how we see ourselves I recently told a dear friend, Bruce Saulnier, from what is inside--your character--comes what is outside. What is in your heart becomes your thoughts, deeds. What is inside is the map of the body and mind. That is, how we see ourselves leads us to see students; how we see students leads us to what we do, and what we do leads us to the results.

In our profession, there is always a lot of talk about motivation, inspiration, making a difference. Competence without character doesn't motivate, and certainly doesn't inspire. It's character, not information or skill or competence that fuels the fire within and ignites the fire in others. In education, the power of inspiration lays in a teacher's character, not his or her information. Character is like the measles; it's contagious. Information is not. Get out of the way of an informed teacher fired by character. You don't have to for only an informed one. An informed teacher, a trained teacher has only potential; only an informed teacher with character can and will act, fight, endure and persevere; only a informed teacher with character can and will touch; only a teacher with character is capable of performing "yukectomies." It's no different in any other walk of life.

No. Skill and information alone don't produce effectiveness, inspiration, and leadership. They desperately need character. In the end, educating the heart is a critical part in educating the person no less than is educating the mind. Wholeness education means to see a student whole in subject competence and in a power conscience. I think the ultimate purpose of an education is not limited to producing a productive worker or a person who has a set of beliefs determined by and imposed by others. Our charge as educators should not be limited to preparing a merely well-informed person. Our students, when they leave campus, must understand clearly the substantative linkage between their character and the complexities of the world about them. Each day has unexpected challenges we and the students don't and won't find in the textbook; each day brings new opportunities; each day demands new choices; each day offers excuses for not doing something. Each day is a moment of choice, a moment of decision, all of which are disguised moments of truth. So, don't we care how they will respond; what choices they will make, how they will use their competence, how they will feel about those choices? I think so. The students, we, must understand the important of having character and using it, that character starts with yourself, extends to family and friends, is magnified in community and the workplace, connects to country, and reaches out to the full reach of the family of humankind.

I'll say it again and go way out on the limb: to help develop competence without developing a strong guide for the use of that competence is not very good education. It is not even good vocational training. It is to prepare for a drone-like robotic world of making a living in a world without purposeful living. Learning and teaching must start with and continually be woven intimately with character if they are to end with wisdom and community as they should.

Don't discount character. Character does count!

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier