The Content Of Our Character 

An extract taken from the February 1947 edition of the Morehouse College student newspaper, the Maroon Tiger, entitled ‘The Purpose of Education’:

As I engage in the so-called “bull sessions” around and about the school, I too often find…..a misconception of the purpose of education……It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of his life……The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals……We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education…. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If character truly is all – and everything visible and tangible, be it our personal habits and behaviours or organisational results & outcomes – is a sub-set of our character, we must therefore turn to the underlying determinants of character and our organisational culture first and foremost.

What is Character?

Character is the disposition of a person, ultimately expressed in their habitual and observable behaviours. Yet, more importantly, our behaviours and ultimately our character is pre-determined by a set of universal virtues, our deep rooted beliefs and attitudinal based values. There’s a famous saying that illustrates this point perfectly, which is why every classroom at King’s Leadership Academy has it displayed prominently –

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny” 

Virtues

Technologies rise, empires grow old and then fade away, societies transform and crumble and grow again, but the virtues we hold dear now are the very same that we held dear as primordial man, or in the civilisations of a classical or prehistoric age; these virtues transcend time, religion and culture, and never fade away. Being kind, tolerant responsible members of society is as important now as it was thousands of years ago. The love and discipline of our parents, the temptations and affirmations of our closest peers, the examples set by the role models we encounter across our lives – these things are the inputters to our character.

Our character then, begins with a set of universal virtues, human behaviours which transcend cultures, religions, national and political boundaries. A virtue, as we think of it, is something that cannot be physically broken; as the fundamental root they represent character traits that will always stand the test of time. These are the behaviours which also meet the principle of ‘reversibility’ or by which we mean that these are behaviours you would want somebody else to do to you. Respect, tolerance, kindness and gratitude are only some of the behaviours we find venerated across the world, no matter what the idiosyncrasies of any specific culture.

Values

But to start thinking about character as something we can apply in the real world, we must then think of it as contextual. Virtues must become real-world properties, not merely ideas and whereas virtues are universal, values are situational. An individual’s values are in large part derived from the social environment in which he or she lives. We all seek more of what we value based on what we perceive to be important and the ‘right thing’ to do.

Values come from the beliefs of your culture and your organisation – they are a contextual manifestation of universal virtues. No value set can be universal as, in the real world, no person, culture or organisation is going to align perfectly with what we think of as ‘universal’ virtues. Values are how we, in a real world context, navigate those universal virtues – they’re the way we interpret and express those universal virtues for a real world situation. The trick is to develop a belief system that connects universal virtues with contextual values. In his book Principle Centred Leadership, Covey uses the analogy of your virtues as the physical ‘terrain’ of a landscape; now think of your values as the ‘map’ that aligns to that specific landscape.

Beliefs

There is no doubt that the will to believe is the first and most critical step in any character education process. We at the Great Schools Trust hold the unwavering belief that every child – regardless of background, post-code or starting point – can succeed academically and personally, become driven, law-abiding citizens, and go on to win a place at one of the country’s leading universities, and then have the choice of pursuing a career of their dreams and becoming a leader in their chosen field.

Going back to the physical terrain and map analogy, your beliefs act as the internal ‘compass’ which points you in the right direction at every decision juncture. Our values therefore become our guiding principles, our ‘character lens’ which acts as a barometer for right and wrong, good and bad. Moreover, they can be broken into a range of categories as done so by the Jubilee Centre including moral, performance, intellectual and civic, all of which lie on a continuum from strongly to weakly held and influence our behavior accordingly.

By identifying the observable behaviours (or habits) we wish to see in students, we then worked backwards to identify the ‘antecedent’ to each of these ‘visible’ behaviours. It was through this process that we identified and constructed our seven-pronged ASPIRE code, a unique values set which became our organisational rasion d etre and harmonious with our belief system. The next step was building a framework by which we could lead students from value to behaviour to life-long habit: following the pathway we had originally created in reverse. This is detailed in a previous blog here.

The Road to Kharakter 

When I reflect on Doctor Martin Luther King’s statement written over 70 years ago, ‘Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education’, I think of the people we are drawn to by forces that go beyond intellect and success, drawn to them because of the intangible, often unspoken, merits of their character. The late Stephen Covey suggested that almost every significant breakthrough is the result of a courageous break from traditional ways of thinking. Values based education, then, is our own paradigm shift, or as Covey puts it, “To do well, you must be good. And to do good, you must first be good”. What if we then took the time to nurture students for the long term, confronting both what we do and why we do it? Doing the right thing, being values based and principled centred requires a long term commitment on the part of schools. And just like the best parts of life, there are no short-cuts to good character.

The word character itself, takes its root from the Greek word kharakter – a chisel, or marking instrument, designed to be used on metal or stone. Character is something that endures, that stands the test of time. It can only be grown from the root up and the only way to consistently apply values based education in our schools is to intentionally build students character over the course of time – to engrave a mark on their life and those of others so deep that its leaves an enduring imprint when we are all gone. 

The people who are transforming education today are doing it by building consensus around a common set of unwavering beliefs & guiding principles. If we want a fairer, more just, more productive society, we now need to focus more on what Doctor Martin Luther King called the ‘content of our character’ and unleash the power of a values based education. 

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