Moral vs. Performance Character (and Failure)

A parent shared this NYT Magazine article with me and it’s a fascinating read: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? Honestly, Samuel Beckett’s quote about failure is, in my opinion, a better commentary on the importance of failure and its relationship to success…and it’s only 12 words.

But Paul Tough’s article provides an interesting account of what leaders at Riverdale Country School and KIPP Infinity (both in New York City) are doing to instill stronger character in the lives of their students. The almost 7000 word article also provides commentary on moral vs. performance character…and the approach that these two very different schools are taking to not only investigate students’ character quotient but also  improve students’ character within their school and home life. You’ve heard of a Grade Point Average? What about a Character Point Average?

As I read Paul Tough’s article, I couldn’t stop thinking of the importance of this date in the life of my father, a man who possesses unquestionable character and who has modeled countless “secrets to success” throughout his life. On this actual day — September 15, 2011 — 40 years ago, my father and his friend founded their accounting firm. In 1971, my father and Joe Smith flipped a coin to determine which name came first and Smith and Howard was born. For a full year, my father did not take any money from the firm as my mother was working and his partner’s wife was a stay-at-home mother of two children and any S&H profits needed to go to support them. As I listened to my father and his colleagues speak about the history of the firm this evening, I was reminded of the power of character. The motto of S&H from the beginning has been that S&H is “a place where people count and service matters.” The values of the firm are clients, (S&H) people, excellence, integrity, perpetuity/leadership, growth, profits, partnership. Moral character matters and it’s always been those values of respect and honesty, those “nice-guy values,” which have propelled his firm forward.

Tough includes a few of the Riverdale Headmaster’s thoughts on values and teaching character:

Randolph told me that he had concerns about a character program that comprised only those kind of nice-guy values. “The danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms — respect, honesty, tolerance — it seems really vague,” he said. “If I stand in front of the kids and just say, ‘It’s really important for you to respect each other,’ I think they glaze over. But if you say, ‘Well, actually you need to exhibit self-control,’ or you explain the value of social intelligence — this will help you collaborate more effectively — then it seems a bit more tangible.”

And speaking of tangible, Tough writes of KIPP Infinity’s approach toward instilling character:

Logistically, the character report card had been a challenge to pull off. Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character.

As I reflect on my father, the strength of his firm as a place where people and service truly matter, and on the state of character within our schools — both private and public — I worry about quantifying character as another item to be scored or another unit (of 24) to be taught and tested.

What can we do in our schools to remove the carrot and stick mentality of so many of the character education programs? What can we do to instill an understanding in our children that people matter?  What can we do to show children that building a life with strong morals and character doesn’t require the use (or threat) of a Character Point Average?

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