The Content of our Character
Those close to me know that my favorite essay of the 20th Century is "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the many compelling passages from his powerful piece is this one: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” While I am pretty sure that Dr. King did not have the shortfalls of education in 2014 in mind when he penned these lines along the margins of newspapers while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1963, I am just as certain that the “network of mutuality” and the “garment of destiny” to which he refers could just as easily describe the current debate centering on the place of values in the curriculum of our schools.
Whether we are directly involved in education or not, the degree to which virtue and character are addressed (or, not addressed) in our communities affects each of us in very compelling ways. Today, in more ways than one, we have taken a less-decisive pathway toward core values and have rewritten Dr. King’s last line to read, “Whatever affects one directly doesn’t necessarily have to affect others as long as they don’t think it should affect them.” To my ear, this new version doesn’t pack the same rhetorical (or, moral) punch that the original did. Somehow the version of values promoted in our schools and in our society over the last five decades doesn’t pack much of a punch either.
This lack of vigor, in my opinion, is likely rooted in an inability on the part of leaders across the spectrum—in education as well as in government—to come to any sort of agreement on a few pretty essential questions. The first is: How do we define the particular values we want to teach? The second is: How do we equip teachers and other adults to handle the task of facilitating a discussion of these values when there isn’t any agreement on what they are? (A corollary question is this: How fair is it to our students and these same adults when the latter are often not the proper models for the very values that they are supposed to teach?) Finally, and here we are presupposing that we’ve gotten over the first few hurdles, how do we infuse these values into both curricular and noncurricular activities? This last question opens a veritable Pandora’s box for schools and has, to my mind, discouraged many from implementing even the most basic programs to promote values in and out of the classroom: should values-based instruction be a separate “class” that students attend just as they do English, Math, and Science? Or should values and virtues permeate the curriculum so completely that they are at the center of every class and every activity?
Once we can answer these questions, daunting as they may be, research is pretty clear that the focused participation of both teachers and students will predict positive and lasting impacts. All of this research and all of these studies point to the efficacy of our own Core Beliefs as well as the Core Values program we are instituting this year. Perhaps the most stirring difference in our program, though, will be the foundational role that Christ’s profound life and ministry play in its conception and execution among our faculty and students. At the heart of our mission, our Core Beliefs, and our Core Values is the sacrificial and transformational message that Christ brought to the world and that lives on in this His School today.
The first of these core beliefs is that our program is rooted in our Christian mission, and at the heart of this mission is trust—that is, there is an implicit trust that exists in the bond that unites us, and there is an explicit trust that exists in the aspiration that we can work together for the sake and advancement of our children. Our work together in the service of God’s children and families necessitates that we believe in and value a climate and a culture rooted in trust.
Evidence of our second core belief comes from one of the ten founding objectives of the School: “To help children develop a positive sense of self-confidence, self-worth, and security so that they will be able to stand up for what they believe and take risks throughout their lives.” Risk is at the heart of education. If we are willing to let our children (and ourselves) stretch and push then, along the way, we will come to appreciate that, by accepting the challenges of going too far—to paraphrase T.S. Eliot—we discover how very far we can go. Our work together in the service of God’s children and families necessitates that we believe in and value a climate and a culture that embraces and encourages taking developmentally appropriate risks.
Finally, our third core belief: earnestly striving for our personal best each and every time we encounter a task or a challenge or a struggle will produce more lasting results than trying to be the “best of the best” every time out. We believe that this commitment to “be our best” is supported by our theme line of Confidence in every Child and is exemplified poignantly in the philosophy statement on the Athletics page of our school website: “Our singular focus in athletics reflects the same growth mindset that we espouse in our classrooms and is elicited by these two simple questions: (1) Did I give my absolute best for my team today? (2) Am I getting better every time I lace up my shoes, my cleats, or my spikes? As a Panther, maximum effort and constant improvement make winning and losing irrelevant.” Our work together in the service of God’s children and families necessitates that we believe in and value a climate and a culture that promotes each child’s personal best.
These core beliefs promote a school climate that we hope is preparing the child for the path rather than preparing the path for the child. Too often in our culture, we seek to prevent hardship, adversity, or even mild discomfort from cluttering the paths our children tread toward adulthood. To be sure, the motivation behind preparing the path for the child is the sincere desire for parents to provide better lives for their children than the ones we had. However, if we are honest with ourselves by eliminating from our children’s lives any chance for failure, we simultaneously eliminate the chance to learn, grow, or assert the all-important autonomy we hope they achieve prior to having children of their own. By fostering a climate that is rooted in trust, that embraces risk, and that seeks personal best, we believe the partnership we have with parents will prepare their children very well for the many paths they will encounter in their lives.
To be sure, a plan like ours represents a huge undertaking for our school as we attempt to connect not only with our students but with our parents and our larger community as well. But isn’t this interconnectedness just what Dr. King was talking about in 1963 as he described the “network of mutuality” and the “garment of destiny” that touches us all? Similarly, as he stood on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his most famous and most stirring speech. His “dream” of a nation that would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . that all men are created equal” was most certainly a dream rooted in what he hoped were shared values among blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles. In fact, one of the most oft-quoted lines of this same speech finds King dreaming that his own children will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King’s dream for his own children and grandchildren, indeed every parent’s dream for his or her son or daughter, need not be lost in the difficulties, the bureaucracies, or the uncertainties of the 21st Century.
It is my hope and the hope of those involved in reinventing the values curricula in schools like Presbyterian School all across the nation that this void of character will be filled so that we all might be able to dream again.
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