To know the good. To love the good. To do the good, even when no one is looking. This is an ideal that we want for all our children, as parents, and as a school. A poignant and anonymous quote, often wrongly attributed to the great Mohandas Gandhi, an eternal role model for human beings, states, “One’s habits become one’s character, and one’s character becomes one’s destiny.” Thus, the fusing of sound academia and the education of character, creates an environment where knowledge is a companion to wisdom. Why does this fusion of academia and character, for the betterment of the soul, need to be part of a 21st Century education? Simply put, character matters. As an example, Bioethics is a leading study in most universities of the West. Why? Humanity is now on the brink of a revolution in genome and genetic science. The question of, “Can we?”, has been answered by the knowledge we have, and continues to gain. The more relevant enquiry of, “Should we?”, is at the epicentre of the science-and-ethics crossroads. Where does this governing of human ambition and moral acting come from?
Culture, tradition, religion, and natural law (a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct) are good places to start. However, in Western society, we all are at the confluence of these tenets and can very often mismanage their messages and true intents. It is quite easy to absolutely dismiss their influence and agree on some universal platform, like academics, and pursue that pillar of human development to its best, logical, and qualitative end. In turn, the result would be a student who could easily excel in any secondary, or post-secondary institution, but tragically lacks a moral compass, operating on his or her own relativism, as it suits any given situation. Concepts like empathy, kindness, integrity, respect, independence, and initiative become positions of convenience rolled out only when they serve knowledge, without wisdom. Those persons would appear to be disingenuous or merely phony. If our goal is to form students who can operate in an international context, then character is the difference. People make authentic connections (economic, social, political, and cultural) with others who come with more than just the base credentials of an education. These are the persons who are awarded prominent positions. How then, do we begin?
Delivering a rigorous and engaging academic program, based on an approved and inspected curriculum, is comparatively easier than establishing a character education program. Not many parents would take issue with content and competencies proven to advance their child’s learning. However, genuine character education asks a bigger price, and it’s personal: change. There is a nuance which differentiates the German International School Toronto’s program from others. Character education will not work if it does not rest upon some foundation of the school community’s principles. Ours is grounded on the values of the academic and social culture of Germany. “Charakter”, as we define it, is embodied in an individual who is ethically minded and responsible, independent in acting and thinking, who cares about others and exemplifies high standards of conduct, all with an unshakeable commitment to quality. These German characteristics are meant to raise the bar when fashioning the complete student. The students’ whose academic abilities are enhanced by their personal virtues. This is not a trivial pursuit. Educational philosopher John Dewey suggested that real education will cause some discomfort. Character education is real education. Its chronological formula begins with awareness, traverses through learning and application, rests on reflection, re-visiting and testifying, and creates emotional memories. As “Charakter” unfolded, it fascinatingly took on non-linear aspects as learning became memory. Students are quite adept at recognizing two things: genuine effort and commitment. They understand if something is merely cursory. Our “Charakter” Program follows the process laid out in this article. It is alive and omnipresent. It costs students something to improve upon their “Charakter”.
(i) Awareness: Physical evidence such as posters and communications signal that components of character education are placed in areas of high visibility and importance. It is a signal that something other than academia is given a prominent place of importance by the school and its community.
(ii) Learning: Character traits are established and become part of the teaching of all subjects, if possible. The desired traits become part of the students’ vocabulary, as they begin to recognize them in their studies and peers. Students are taught, and teach each other what specific character traits mean and how they can be applied and incorporated into their own behavior and conduct. This is done in a monthly assembly where the effect of presenting to the whole school signifies importance and that fact that the program is applicable to everyone.
(iii) Application: Learning a concept becomes real when it is understood, but it becomes a memory when it is applied and presented as a competency, which each student will experience and interpret for him/ herself. Initially a character trait might appear to be abstract or something which is undefined. Each student must come to know what that character trait means, but also make a personal connection with it. The students will interpret what that trait through his/her own authentic experience with it in an assembly, as a class, as a peer group, and by him/herself.
(iv) Reflection, Re-visiting, and testifying: After the challenge of the trait has been experienced by the individual student, the student should be given an opportunity to reflect upon the process of understanding and how they came to regard that trait as part of life. Students should re-visit the concept by viewing some evidence that they participated with its introduction such as a photo, certificate, or poster. Students should also be allowed to voice their experience in a written or oral manner with a school-wide audience.
(v) Emotional Memories: They are key indicators that long-term learning and assimilation of a character trait have succeeded. Simply moving on to the next trait will not be sufficient for the program to work. It is not an academic subject that can be delivered via new units. Rather, character education requires revision and incremental development, adding new traits, but reinforcing them with the experiences of the previous ones. All aspects of the previous traits must still be part of the social conversation of the school and maintain their presence.
Sadly, even a robust character education program can succumb to a degree of apathy and can be ruined. However, because our Charakter Program is designed to include all of the stakeholders of the school, it is generally shielded against such collapses. In many ways, it is a living social contract. It has actual challenges and results, and is constructed and endorsed by the students, parents, teachers, administration, and the Board
Character education will not work if:
A. an anchor to some aspect of the school’s dominant culture, tradition, or faith is not present.
B. cursory signs of the program, like posters or a theme that come from the administration, are the extent of the initiative and do not go beyond the Awareness Phase or as Germans would say, “von nichts kommt nichts.”
C. the program appears to be yet another gimmick by the school to improve its image.
D. the program is not universally accepted by all the stakeholders in the school.
E. individual students whose parents discount the efforts of the school and undermine the personal dimension of the program. “You don’t have to do that challenge.”
F. the program fails to provide meaningful experiences and memories for those involved.
G. influential parents, teachers, and students deliberately seek to damage the program’s goals.
H. the virtues presented make no demands and require little or no effort of the students and the rest of the community. They are too gentile and abstract.
Our modern world places great emphasis on immediate gratification and short-term realizable goals. There is little emphasis placed on the long game. Virtues like perseverance and independence are ignored in favour of such soft-touch issues as caring and self-esteem. Once more, the difference between character education and “Charakter”. Students need to know that other people in their lives are thinking about their future, and in turn, they should too. As the world is becoming more globalized, the dissemination of education has created a highly competitive market for employment. University degrees have become the general admission ticket of the day. Only experience and character exist as true differentiators. The 21st Century will seek those individuals whose knowledge is wielded by the wisdom found in a program like “Charakter”.
Manfred von Vulte
Vice Principal – German International School Toronto
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